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Taking the CalFresh Challenge

news2As part of Hunger Action Month, three Second Harvest Food Bank employees try living on a CalFresh budget 

The average American spends $151 on food each week, according to a Gallup poll performed last year. But for the more than four million California families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as “food stamps” and as CalFresh in California, weekly grocery budgets are, on average, less than $40.

In an effort to both see what it’s like to live on CalFresh and to raise awareness about hunger locally, three Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) employees will begin the weeklong “CalFresh Challenge” on Sunday, Sept. 15, eating within the budget of an individual receiving government subsidies.

These three workers will be the first in Santa Cruz County to ever undertake the voluntary challenge, according to SHFB.

The total that outreach workers Luisa Hudspeth, Sandra Varela and Yaceth Virgen will be allowed to spend on food amounts to $4.50 dollars per day, or $31.50 per week, which is typical of the average person on CalFresh.

More than 47 million low-income Americans participate in SNAP to help purchase food. The average monthly SNAP benefit per person was $133.41 in fiscal year 2012, or less than $1.50 per person per meal. Participants in CalFresh may spend assistance on only food provided by markets or food stores, not including vitamins and medicines, soaps, paper products, and household supplies.

Virgen, who has been an outreach worker with SHFB since April, will take the challenge with her family—her partner and her 1-year-old daughter—and will receive $94.50 for the week of the challenge. She says she is excited about spreading awareness about hunger in Santa Cruz County, but realistic about the challenges that lie ahead.

“We will be taking this challenge as a household,” says Virgen. “It’s going to be very challenging because you have to incorporate my daughter’s meals as well. It’s most definitely going to be hard.”

She is optimistic about the outcome of the challenge, however. She plans on trying to use ingredients everyone in her family can eat to stay healthy.

“At the end, it’s going to be very rewarding, for my job, for outreach,” Virgen says. “I know I can make a difference.”

The challenge is one of many Hunger Action Month efforts SHFB organized this month. On Thursday, Sept. 5, anti-hunger advocates around the county stood in solidarity with the hungry in Santa Cruz and nationwide by wearing orange. This was with the hope of letting people know about the one in four children in Santa Cruz that are hungry, malnourished or don’t know where their next meal will come from, and the 16.7 million children and 50 million people, nationwide, that are hungry or malnourished daily, according to SHFB.

Hunger Action Month in September helps the community rally around hunger just in time for SHFB’s holiday food drive, says Steve Bennett, SHFB development director.

“During the holiday months, starting late October through the end of the year, we raise 80 percent of our dollars in basically 20 percent of the year,” he says.

Bennett says that this trend is beneficial considering that the two main trades in Santa Cruz County are tourism and agriculture, both of which fall flat during the winter months. There is a greater need for help during those months, and September is a good time to kick off awareness and donations.

He adds that this will be more important than ever this year in light of the fact that SNAP participants will see a drop in their benefits starting Nov. 1. This is due to the fact that it is unlikely the government will be renewing assistance to the program provided by the 2009 Recovery Act. Over the course of a year, the average family of four will have $396 less to spend on food.

Bennett says SHFB’s goal for the upcoming holiday food drive is 3.5 million meals provided to the hungry in Santa Cruz, at four meals per dollar. He is hopeful that this goal will be met, given that it is in line with SHFB projections and past experience.

Joel Campos, SHFB’s senior manager of education and outreach, who has been affiliated with the food bank for the past 11 years, says he is aware of how difficult it can be to live on the CalFresh program, having seen and known many participants over the years.

“Hopefully [our CalFresh Challenge participants] make it through the end of the week,” Campos says. “We will see by the end of the week if they make it and if they didn’t make it, why they didn’t.”

He says that if the participants are in need of a meal and cannot get a sufficient one from the money they are given, within the parameters of the challenge they are allowed to visit a soup kitchen as a last resort.

The three participants will keep a daily blog on thefoodbank.org and also post to SHFB’s Facebook and other social media to keep the community informed about what it feels like to be living within the limitations of a CalFresh budget. Campos says community engagement in the challenge will be key to spreading awareness.

“There is hunger here,” Campos says. “[The community] will be sharing in the experiences of the people participating in the challenge, the day-to-day feelings … We just want to raise awareness and the consciousness of the community.”

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