DECATUR — Tiffiany Leischner didn't expect the effects she felt from restricting how much she ate for a day on the SNAP Challenge.
Leischner, a student in Mary Garrison's human services class on poverty at Millikin University, said she felt bad all day, had trouble concentrating and developed a headache.
“I was going to try to do it for 48 hours, but I failed miserably yesterday,” Leischner said. “At 11:15, I was starving, and my head hurt, and I was cranky and I couldn't concentrate. I was not as strong as probably some of my classmates, so I went and got actual food.”
The SNAP Challenge issued by Garrison to her students asked them to try to live on the amount of food they could buy with the $4.47, the average per day allotted by the state of Illinois per person.
If they could get someone to give them food, that was acceptable, but they could not eat food they had on hand or exceed the $4.47 per day when buying food. Garrison joined her students in the challenge.
The idea, she said, was to let them actually experience what it's like to depend on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”) for daily nutrition and have limited resources if that isn't enough food.
“It was to show us how difficult functioning in everyday life can be when you're hungry all the time,” student Mitchell Hedges said. “There were exceptions for people if you could get food from people if they would pay for it, so we had to learn to accept charity as well.”
Students Janissa Gjerksen and Alexa Smith went to Good Samaritan Inn for lunch Sunday. Both felt self-conscious and conspicuous, as if they shouldn't be there, they said.
“There was a gentleman who sat right next to us, and we already felt really bad because he was hurrying up and eating like, 'This is really good,' and Alexa and I barely touched our dessert and barely touched our food, and he noticed that Alexa wasn't eating the cake. It pulled on our heartstrings a little bit.”
People are expected to eat quickly and not linger, Smith said, because other people are waiting for their turn, and it was clear that many of the people knew each other and were regulars at Good Samaritan.
Garrison is on the Good Samaritan Inn board, and when she went there for a meal, several people recognized her, she said. That made her self-conscious about eating a meal meant for those with no other resources. She also noticed that there were no options for people who have diabetes or food allergies.
“I felt really lonely, even though I was around a lot of people,” Garrison said. “I was like, I don't want you to feel bad for me, I'm good, I've got it, but it was a weird feeling that I had.”
Catherine Torpeh, whose family came to the United States from the Ivory Coast, remembers living on SNAP as a child and how difficult it was. When she did the challenge, she said, she also faced another problem people in poverty often face: She has no car and couldn't get to a grocery store. She took her allotment of money to a nearby gas station and bought a few items, which were more expensive than they would have been at a grocery store, and that was all she had to eat for the entire day.
Most of the students plan to enter the social services field as a career, and Garrison said taking part in the SNAP Challenge will help them understand, on a level they might not have otherwise, that poverty affects every aspect of a person's life.
During the challenge, Michaela Wolfman said, she also had a family emergency to cope with, and that made her realize how much harder it was to manage all aspects of a life when a person is hungry. Part of the hunger, she said, came from the kind of food that was available for that amount of cash. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren't an option because they were too expensive and hard to obtain.
“You realize that regardless of whether you ate or whether you didn't, you still felt horrible,” Wolfman said. “Realistically, you can't function at your full potential when you feel like you're in a bubble. You can't do anything about it, so you just go about your day the way you would.”