UH Students Take the Food Stamp Challenge

Eating on $25 for a Week, Learning Lessons for a Lifetime

No fresh produce. No coffee. No bottled water.

For a night out with friends, they will have a seat at the table, but no plate.

Students in an honors class in nutrition policy at the University of Houston are preparing to take the Food Stamp Challenge, an exercise usually undertaken by religious groups and community activists to draw attention to the pressures faced by the poorest Americans in feeding their families.

“We say, ‘I’m starving,’ or ‘I’m so hungry,’ ” said Kristen Haney, a sophomore biochemistry major. Really, she said, many of the students don’t know what that means.

But she and the other nine students in the class – the rest are juniors and seniors, a mix of nutrition, kinesiology and biology majors – suspect they might feel differently the week of Feb. 16-22, when they begin the challenge.FoodStamp

Politicians and activists have taken the challenge, but Daphne Hernandez, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, suggests that it will be far more than a publicity stunt for the students in her class. Hernandez will participate, too.

The University is providing $25 gift cards to a local grocery store; $25 is about the average weekly amount available for a single adult eligible for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which served 47 million low-income people in 2013.

Money for the program, including the cost of the gift cards, came from a University-funded curriculum development grant to Hernandez, intended to support research in undergraduate courses.

Most of the students will go on to careers in health or public policy, and the experience can shape their decisions, Hernandez said. “Think about what you would recommend to Congress,” she told them. “If you’re working in a community center, think about what you would recommend to clients. This is different from a simulation. This is real.”

The exercise won’t end when Hernandez and the students resume their regular diets on Feb. 23. Students will record everything they eat for the week, determining the number of calories, fat, vitamins and minerals, generating a class nutrition data set for analysis. Students will be able to present their findings at the University’s Undergraduate Research Day.

Generally, people must have household incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $25,400 per year for a family of three, to qualify for SNAP benefits. Funding for the program dropped in November as federal stimulus spending ended, cutting the average family’s benefits by about $36 per month.

The Farm Bill just approved by Congress includes an $8.6 billion cut to SNAP benefits over 10 years. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, 850,000 SNAP households will see benefits lowered, although Texas isn’t expected to be affected.

Some students in the class feel a personal connection to the academic exercise. Denny Dao, a senior nutrition major, said his mother was on food stamps when she first arrived in the United States, and he has heard her stories about crying over the difficulty of trying to feed her family with too little food.

But even without any personal experience, the students said they expect to end the week wiser, if a bit skinnier.

Many will eventually work in the health field, said Enny Audu, a senior nutrition major.

“This will help us relate to our patients,” she said.