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Food Stamps Are Not "Fun": Is the "Food Stamp Challenge" Just Live Action Role-playing for the Privileged Classes?

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After I wrote about Cory Booker’s decision last month to take the SNAP Challenge – to take “a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans” – I couldn’t get the idea of it out of my head.

The challenge is simple in concept but demanding in its execution: see what it’s like to live for one week on a food budget equivalent to your state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) benefits.

Participants can use their existing spices and condiments, but no other foodstuffs, nor they can accept food “from friends, family, or at work.” Because I live in New York, I’d have a slightly more generous allowance than New Jersey’s Booker got – a total of $36.86 for a week of eating.

And because my two daughters are awesome, they said they wanted to do it too as I soon as I mentioned it to them. So for the past week, we’ve been eating on a little over five bucks a person per day.

The emotion of empathy is critical if we are to have a Good Society. If we cannot understand one another's struggles--at least a little bit--and try to reach across the chasm of human experience, how rich and full a life will we have really lived? And what will our world be made into?

Yet, we must also ask what are the limits of understanding?

I understand the various tools  in the social justice kit for helping the privileged understand those less so, or for unsettling the standard assumptions often held by those folks who are defined as "normal" or the "in-group" about the Other.

The privilege walks, the "homeless on the quad" exercises, and the be "black/brown/female/fat/disabled" for a day experiences, are common rituals in multicultural, post racial, diverse, post civil rights America. At our colleges, as well as many corporate retreats, these rites are conducted in order to make "us" feel more empathetic and sensitive about "them."

Power can be insidious and tricky: it is slippery and seductive.

These types of exercises often reinforce the very privileges which they are designed to subvert, expose, and call out. The person pretending to be blind for a day will be able to see tomorrow. The woman in the fat suit gets her svelte figure back in a few hours. The homeless coed camping on the quad gets to go back to his or her dorm and their calorie filled food plan along with its "second dinners" and fourth meals of the day.

Save for experiments such as  Black Like Me, and Sister Jane Elliot's decades of anti-racism work, these "awareness" raising exercises are (at their worst) a bad live action role-playing game--what is in essence  "larpping" for the privileged.

When done right they can make a person think outside of their comfort zone: but, the very essence of privilege still applies as this is a temporary condition both chosen by, and forced on oneself, in a moment of politically correct self-flagellation.

Salon offered up a preeminent example of this dynamic in its piece  "Our family’s week on a food stamp budget." While Mary Elizabeth Williams's heart is in the right place, there is just so much wrong here:

My daughters and I spread the shopping and stocking up for the challenge over several days. We bought oranges and potatoes, vegetables and milk and a chicken and some flour. We bought things that are delicious, and you don’t need to be a genius to prepare. And when the first day – Sunday – arrived, it came with a flourish and a big stack of pancakes. Over the past few days, I’ve made soups and sautéed sausages. I’ve baked bread and made yogurt and jam. I’ve sent the kids into the kitchen to make chili.

These things aren’t hard to do. They take a little thought and work, but why shouldn’t nourishing yourself take a little thought and work? And what concerns me is that I suspect my daughters and I are eating a more healthy, balanced and pleasurable diet on a food stamp budget that a lot of families with a whole lot more to spend. It hasn’t all been fun and easy...

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