Smile Politely

Raising awareness about hunger in Eastern Illinois

There’s a challenge here and a story, a story that ties together millions of Americans and around 33 percent of people in Illinois, including 22 percent of children in this state. It’s the story of hunger and how the Eastern Illinois Foodbank tries to alleviate it by providing food to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other programs.

September is Hunger Action Month and as part its campaign to raise awareness about the problem of hunger in Illinois, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is inviting people to participate in the SNAP Hunger Challenge, a seven-day period from September 15th through 21st where participants live on $4.50 a day for food — the average amount per person using SNAP — and record their experience either personally in a journal or publicly through social media.

The end goal is to raise awareness about the challenges facing those who do use the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, including finding affordable nutritious foods for themselves or their families. An important part of raising that awareness is engendering empathy for those who do live on $4.50 a day for food.

“Basically, what we’re trying to accomplish is for individuals to experience what it’s like to live on food stamps,” Julie Melton, Vice President of Development & Community Partnerships at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, said.

When Julie speaks, she consistently reaffirms that the SNAP Hunger Challenge isn’t just about raising awareness. Changing the perspectives of those who participate and those who read about their experiences is important too.

“The face of hunger is changing,” she said. “Many [on SNAP] have lost a job or have an illness. They need assistance to get their lives back on track. Having that understanding [of what it’s like to live on SNAP] leads to empathy.”

It’s easy to believe too that with the University and other growing sectors of the economy in the affluent cities of Champaign-Urbana that hunger would not be an issue in the area. But those that think that would be mistaken, Julie said.

According to the website for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and corroborated by 2012 statistics from the “Report On Illinois Poverty” from the Social Impact Research Center, the most recent data shows the poverty rate for Champaign County is estimated at 23.4%. That’s higher than Cook County’s 17.8%.

1 in 5 children in Eastern Illinois struggle with hunger, and 1 in 3 clients served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is a child. The Eastern Illinois Foodbank covers 14 counties for a total of 520,000 people. Of those 520,000, 116,000 — or 1 in 5 people — visits a food pantry, soup kitchen, or other food assistance program every year.

For the SNAP Hunger Challenge, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank wants for you to put yourself in their shoes and gain “an appreciation for the struggles they face and how hard it is to make ends meet.”

Take the story of Connie Williams, which is covered extensively on the website of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. A former nurse, Connie had to stop working over a decade ago because she became legally blind. She receives just $18 a month for SNAP benefits and scrapes by with the help of food pantries in the area.

Or Rodney, who at the time of the article on the Eastern Illinois Foodbank’s website, was living at the TIMES Center in Champaign, a transitional living facility and soup kitchen that receives food from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. An educated man with a Certified Nurses’ Assistant degree, Rodney had received promotions for his work before losing his apartment and finding himself on the streets.

Or Terri Daniels, a Desert Storm veteran who despite working a full-time job, did not have enough money after paying bills to feed her two kids.

But the barrier is not just to obtaining any kind of food, according to Julie Melton—it’s about the challenge of buying food that’s healthy and most often too expensive to be purchased using SNAP assistance.

So that’s where participants in the SNAP Hunger Challenge come in.

As written on the Eastern Illinois Foodbank website, “It’s an exercise in empathy — a call to live in someone else’s shoes for one week. By raising awareness of the barriers to accessing high quality, nutritious food on a food stamp budget, we hope to mobilize the public to end hunger in Illinois.”

It works like this:

Spend just $4.50 per person on everything you eat for the day — breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, seasoning, and drinks. Try to include fresh produce and a healthy protein each day. Avoid free food anywhere.

And just as important — keep a daily journal to record your experiences. Share your experiences with the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and family, friends, and others. If you’re into social media, blog, tweet, Facebook status update, and generally share about your experiences to a public audience. If tweeting, use #SNAPChallenge in your tweets.

More than 2 million people in Illinois live on $4.50 a day — can you?

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