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Annette John-Hall: A challenge to get by on $35 a week for food

I'm racking my brain trying to come up with creative ways to eat three square meals on $35 a week.

I'm racking my brain trying to come up with creative ways to eat three square meals on $35 a week.

Will $5 a day fill me up? Provide the occasional fruit or vegetable? Can I even stretch $35 over seven days before my money gets funny and my stomach starts to growl?

Well, starting Monday, I'll find out by taking the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge.

With the mean-spirited, totally unnecessary asset test looming May 1 - you know, the Corbett administration mandate that punishes people with more than $5,500 in savings (for those 60 and over it's $9,000) by making them ineligible for food stamps - the challenge hopes to raise awareness about, well, the challenge of hunger.

Hunger isn't some self-inflicted condition that requires an entitlement program. Hunger, especially in the Philadelphia region, is real. And the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides a much-needed safety net.

An underused program

About 475,000 Philadelphians and 600,000 people regionally receive food stamps. Nationally, 46 million Americans use SNAP benefits, up an astounding 70 percent since 2007, before the recession hit.

I'm sure those folks aren't disparaging President Obama as "the food-stamp president," as wannabe president Newt Gingrich likes to rant.

Despite the need, the food stamp program is still underused.

Yet, somehow the message gets skewed as: Here come those shiftless, lazy - and black, as Rick Santorum's deliberate deception warned us - SNAP recipients draining taxpayer dollars. The fact is, whites account for the majority of recipients nationally, and nearly half of all beneficiaries are children.

It's unfathomable why having food on the table is treated as a policy issue, not a basic right.

Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which is cosponsoring the challenge with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, says the negative perception of food-stamp users comes from folks having "selective blindness."

"You hear about it every day on the news. You read about it in the newspaper. You see friends and neighbors struggling all around you, but some people don't want to believe that people are actually living in poverty," Morgan says.

Why? "People [deny] it because of fear," Morgan says. "They don't want to admit that they can be in that position themselves."

One paycheck away

The recession may be officially over, but Lord knows we're all just one paycheck or layoff away from applying for food assistance ourselves.

The benefits are by no means bountiful. In Pennsylvania, the average SNAP recipient gets $35 a week; $116.90 for a family a four.

That's $16.70 per day per family.

People typically run out of food stamps by the third week of the month, Morgan says. They usually supplement with free food from local food pantries to make ends meet, but the pantries' cupboards are nearly bare as they struggle to meet demand.

I'm already trying to figure out ways to make my $35 allotment stretch for a week.

According to challenge guidelines, we're not allowed to accept free food. So what do I cook? A pot of spaghetti? Bean soup? Have you seen the price of fresh vegetables lately?

Simple pleasures are out. I've already cancelled a dinner out with girlfriends. I can't buy that $4 venti latte without busting my budget for the day. I'm guessing I won't be enjoying three meals a day. Maybe two.

I'll be curious how other challenge-takers, including U.S. Rep Bob Brady (D., Pa.), whose First District is one of the most poverty-stricken in the nation, and Marty Moss-Coane, host of Radio Times on WHYY-FM, make out.

I'll be blogging and tweeting my experience throughout the challenge, which runs from Monday through Sunday, April 29.

To simply walk in the shoes for a week of those who live with food insecurity every day is sure to be a real eye-opener.