This week, faculty from the new Critical Diversity Studies major and Sociologists Together Empowering People (or STEP, USF’s sociology student organization) are literally starving for change. We are voluntarily participating in a Food Stamp Challenge—living on $4.57 a day, California’s new daily food stamp benefit—to better understand and bring attention to the struggles faced by one out of every seven Americans dependent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as the “CalFresh” Program in our state).
On Nov. 1, SNAP enacted the largest wholesale cut in its program since its inception in 1964, due to Congressional deadlock on how to manage expiration of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and on negotiation of a new farm bill. This means that a family of four in California must now cut roughly 21 individual meals each month, as calculated by the San Jose Mercury News.
In spite of opponent-fueled myths of food stamp recipients as fraudsters exploiting the system to avoid work, and to purchase cigarettes and alcohol, most of the 47 million Americans who depend on SNAP live in poor female-headed households with children, seniors, veterans, and/or people with disabilities. These are the very populations the new Critical Diversity Studies major and STEP seek to make more visible, firstly, because these populations need and deserve a voice, and secondly, because we aim to help others understand that increased social diversity is not just something to be uncritically celebrated. A diverse society also requires discerning attention to power and oppression, especially so that our most vulnerable populations are not forgotten and neglected.
So, what has it been like to live on $4.57 a day? For starters, we have had to completely scratch ordering those tall house coffees in the morning, as one cup would comprise nearly half of our daily food budget. It has been hard not to notice the rumblings in our stomachs between meals. The insistent desire interrupts our daily activities. And it makes more clear how, for those with food insecurity, their day is hunger. While meals, especially in San Francisco, have been constructed as social, pleasurable, and even lavish events, the Food Stamp Challenge has highlighted how, for 4 million Californians, meals are matters of survival. Meals must be found; and the periods between them must be agonizingly endured.
In some way or another, we have always known about these disparate realities. We have also known that as much as it is individual desire, hunger is the urgent companion of poverty, a social condition that is unacceptable, especially in a wealthy nation. What we have been experiencing on the Challenge this week has also helped us more lucidly understand how hunger does not leave one with much in them to fight. This makes it imperative for those of us who can say and do something to do so.
So, what can you do? Critical Diversity Studies, along with STEP, invite the rest of the USF community to join the Challenge for 5-7 days (see Challenge Guidelines at the USF Critical Diversity Studies website). We know this can be difficult, but even if someone had to stop mid-way, the embodied learning, which includes an understanding of having to stop, can offer deep insights into experiences of many the most overlooked in our communities. After this week, CDS faculty will be donating what we would have otherwise spent on food to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda relief efforts organized by the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program.
Also, since SNAP cuts (and the impending holiday season) have created even higher demands on food banks, you can also help the more than quarter million folks on SNAP in the Bay Area by joining CDS and STEP by signing our online petition for USF’s Bon Appetit to donate any excess foods (and/or allow students to Flexi-fundraise for donations) to food banks, like the one at St. Agnes, the Jesuit parish located in the Haight.
Finally, please join us in demanding responsibility and compassion from our elected leaders. Currently, no one in Congress is fighting to restore pre-November 1 SNAP benefits: the farm bill passed by the House proposes $39 billion from SNAP over the next decade; the bill passed by the Senate calls for a $4 billion cut. Let us think strategically and creatively about how to ask Congress to protect the basic nutritional rights of the millions of Americans—one out of four of whom are children, and a growing number of whom are college graduates—who need them if we are to truly harness the power of all Americans to build and sustain a healthy and just U.S. society.