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Susan Campbell: Food Stamp Project Teaches About Hunger

Susan Campbell

February 24, 2009

What a difference a year makes.

Last February, we were in the longest election season ever, but even the distraction of speeches and confetti couldn't hide the developing fissures. Family debt was rising, job benefits were disappearing, and we were kicking around the word "stagflation."

If we had known the pain to come, would we have ducked?

This year is definitely different. End Hunger CT says people in roughly 122,000 Connecticut households can't count on the next meal. Those people are, in government parlance, "food insecure," a euphemism for "they're hungry" or "they're at risk of being hungry." Hartford is especially challenged. The capital city ranks sixth in the nation for child poverty. Plenty of people some of them the most vulnerable are hungry, or they are close to it.

How does that translate? Hungry employees aren't as effective as they could be, hungry students can't pay attention in class, and hungry citizens of all ages are more likely to get sick than their better-fed fellows. And if they're unable to afford food, the chances that they're able to afford adequate health care are slim.

Hunger is a chancre on our culture, but it's also a public health issue. These days, the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly the food stamp program is the nation's largest anti-hunger program. It serves 28 million a month, 212,000 of those in Connecticut. It could provide far more, and should, if people would only apply for it. In Connecticut, only two-thirds of the people who qualify for help actually apply for it. They don't apply because they're ashamed, because the forms are confusing, because the benefits they'd receive are small.

What we need is a shake-up, a reminder that any problem can be solved, and that a solution takes more than government money or campaign speeches. It takes the rest of us.

Two years ago, Rabbi Donna Berman, of Charter Oak Cultural Center, dreamed up the Food Stamp Project, where participants who otherwise might not understand the burden of hunger agree to live on just $3 worth of food a day, or the amount a typical food stamp recipient receives. People could participate for a week or a month. The point was that they get a taste (no pun intended) of what it's like to live hungry.

I've done it every year and frankly? I hate it. I know there's an end game and I still hate it. You can't take free food. You can't go to restaurants, can't rummage through the pantry and supplement what is, no matter how you slice it, a less-than-adequate diet.

This year, the project has been renamed SNAP Into Action Against Hunger to mirror the renaming in October of the federal program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In Hartford, the program starts March 3 with a potluck dinner at the cultural center. Participants are encouraged to give the money they aren't spending on food to MANNA (a Hands On Hartford program), the region's food bank Foodshare Inc., and Food Not Bombs, which every Sunday distributes fresh, healthy meals at Bushnell Park.

In the meantime, Berman is asking clergy in the state to preach about hunger at their services this weekend, and make it a Hunger Sabbath. The more we know, the better equipped we are to deal with this unique challenge in a tough time for all.

"This year," Berman said, "people are going to come together to raise consciousness about hunger, and to have company. I think we've all felt isolated. We come together, and the possibilities are endless."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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