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Por Andy X. Vargas

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) supports 770,000 Massachusetts residents, or about 1 out of every 9 people across the Commonwealth. The average individual daily SNAP allowance in Massachusetts is $4.56. In other words, the average individual on SNAP has to find 3 meals a day with the amount of money it costs for a Caffè Mocha at Starbucks.

Last week, I joined advocates and food nutrition champions across the country in participating in the SNAP Challenge. It didn’t take long for me to learn that feeding yourself on $4.56 a day comes with sacrifices.

Buying in bulk generally reduces price, so I decided to spend my weekly allowance of $22.80 ($4.56 x 5 work days) at my local Market Basket on Monday morning. I calculated that I would need to plan for 15 meals to get through Friday night. This meant roughly $1.52/meal. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the “Giant White” loaf of bread for .99 cents. I never paused and thought about the lack of nutrition or perhaps choosing to go for whole wheat. Instead, my thoughts were focused on my financial constraint and I grabbed what I believed was a bargain. The first lesson was clear: making wise choices about healthy food isn’t a priority, when you have financial burden breathing down your neck.

I moved on to fill up the rest of my basket. I loved peanut butter and jelly as a kid and I knew I could make good use of the bread with it. Market Basket had a good deal on organic peanut butter. Cereal always seems to be a good choice and I don’t mind having a bowl as a snack when I burn the midnight oil. I then looked for frozen meals that would bring me as close as possible to the $1.52 per meal margin. Lean Cuisine was on sale and I got 3 meals for $6, which I thought was at least close to that margin. Milk, chicken, chopped kale and coffee made up the rest of my basket. I struggled to determine whether or not I could afford Cafe Bustelo (a must Latino coffee brand). When I got to the register, I was disappointed to find out that I went over my budget by $5.00 Admittedly, I was late for work and didn’t put anything back. It’s safe to say nobody is splurging on $22.80 a week for food.

Throughout the rest of the week, I was considerably more hungry and sluggish. After the third PB&J, I was tired of it and so was my stomach. I forgot my coffee at home one day and had the gut reaction to make one in the office or buy one on my way in, but I remembered that I couldn’t because it’s outside my budget. On multiple long days, representatives and staff shared food and graciously offered me some. I explained the SNAP challenge to them. On one occasion I waffled and grabbed a free slice of pizza. They tried to make me feel better by reminding me that it was free and that I would be creative about finding free food if I were on SNAP. It was a kind and convenient thought, but the reality is that most folks on SNAP don’t have access to breakfast briefings on Beacon Hill or ice cream socials with seniors. It reminded me of the additional barriers beyond finances that come with the social fabric of our system.

SNAP is one of the most, if not the most, studied government program. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has found SNAP to be“effective and efficient.” While some may claim broad abuse, 99% of the dollars are used appropriately. As Congress considers revisions to SNAP in the pending Farm Bill, it’s important to recognize these facts and the lives affected. How can we expect our population to be well-fed and prepared on less than $1.52 per meal?

I’m glad I took on the SNAP challenge, but I’m grateful I don’t normally have to worry about food security. This gave me a chance to reflect upon the mental and social aspects of hunger;the decisions that people are forced to make between volume of food versus quality of food. If we want the greatest workforce, we should ensure nobody goes hungry. If we want the smartest students, we should ensure they’re fed and ready to learn. If we want a strong agricultural economy, we should expand access to healthy and organic food options. We are a nation of opportunity, but that opportunity often becomes irrelevant if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.  It’s on us lawmakers–in Congress and in state houses across the country–to ensure that no child, individual or family goes hungry.

Andy X. Vargas was elected to serve as State Representative for the 3rd Essex District (MA House) in 2017. Andy’s family immigrated from the Dominican Republic and have been proud Haverhill residents for decades now.

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