Naples' food stamp challenge takers find diet is sustaining, but boring and spartan

Local food stamp challenge takers find diet is sustaining, but boring and Spartan

Katie Schweikhardt, Harry Chapin Food Bank coordinator for Collier County, reacts as she goes over her budget at the checkout line while shopping for groceries Sept. 16 in an attempt to live off $34.89 for one week — the typical amount for a week's worth of food stamps for a single person.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Katie Schweikhardt, Harry Chapin Food Bank coordinator for Collier County, reacts as she goes over her budget at the checkout line while shopping for groceries Sept. 16 in an attempt to live off $34.89 for one week — the typical amount for a week's worth of food stamps for a single person.

— One of them, Katie Schweikhardt, who is coordinator for the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Collier County, received a thank-you on her blog from retired U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, of Kansas, lauding her efforts to help feed the hungry.

The former Republican presidential nominee in 1996 shared the World Food Prize in 2008 with former Sen. George McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota and Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, for their anti-hunger initiatives.

"The last 48 hours, maybe 72 hours, I was just in a complete fog," Schweikhardt said of how she felt physically. "I wasn't necessarily hungry, I was just craving food I couldn't afford. I didn't have a lot of protein other than peanut butter."

Steve Popper, president of Meals of Hope in Collier, also took part in the food stamp challenge, and said there was no question he could live on $34.89 of food for a week. Still, he realized just how much convenience foods are a part of the life of busy families like his own.

"It definitely took more thought in that you have to plan, and that takes time you normally don't have," Popper said.

Farewell, Starbucks

From Sept. 16 through Sept. 23, they each restricted themselves to spending $34.89 in food for the week, the equivalent of what the average single person received in food stamps in 2011. They did not eat the same meals as their families, could not accept free food at office settings or events, and could only use condiments from their kitchens.

Food stamp challenges have been taken by celebrities, politicians and social service advocates to raise awareness of hunger and to voice objections to proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program.

This summer, the House Agriculture Committee passed its 2012 farm bill that would cut SNAP by $16.5 billion over the next 10 years. If passed, up to 3 million mostly low- income working families and seniors would lose their food stamps, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The House bill would eliminate a "categorical eligibility" that is a state option, where recipients might have gross incomes just above federal limits but disposable incomes just below federal poverty limits.

Florida is one of the states that has adopted the categorical eligibility option. Overall, 3.5 million people in Florida are on food stamps; the state Department of Children and Families had no estimate of how many could lose their benefits under the House plan.

There also is a Senate farm bill would make much smaller cuts to SNAP than the House bill.

Quick food, bad choices

Popper and Schweikhardt approached their food stamp challenges in dramatically different ways.

Schweikhardt, who does the grocery shopping for her family, stuck with her routine of looking at the Publix flier and doing her weekly shopping on Sunday.

She prepared a list of whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce, bagels, black beans and rice, Publix cereal, peanut butter, celery, broccoli, eggplant, grapes and eggs and a 12-pack of Publix cola. She admits to drinking several Diet Cokes a day normally and so she went the discount route.

She thinks some of her fogginess might have been because of reduced caffeine, something Popper also complained about because he skipped coffee to buy more food.

Popper, who normally doesn't grocery shop, went often to the grocery store and bought canned or prepared food at the Dollar Store. He went to the discount store to be realistic, because many people who live in East Naples don't live near a grocery store, he said.

"They have to rely on the easiest place to get food," he said, acknowledging in retrospect some of his Dollar Store purchases were not wise. Midway through the week, he bought a box of green tea to have caffeine.

Popper also said he lacked energy and lost 5 pounds. With a dozen eggs, for instance, he ate egg salad, fried eggs and even an omelet one night, with thawed frozen vegetables. He also ate peanut butter and some turkey sandwiches at lunch.

Deb Millsap, director of Nutrition and Health Education for the Collier County Health Department, lauded both for completing the challenge. Both recognized the need for food variety but fell short in having dairy foods, she observed. Their protein choices were economical and quality protein sources, Millsap added.

Poverty demands planning

From their blogs, which can be found at www.naplesnews.com, Millsap said they were correct to bring up concerns about hunger among seniors, a population that doesn't have safety net options for food that are available for children.

She said they both did well with "buy one, get one free" purchases for being economical. At the same time, a lack of variety made for a rather boring existence meal-wise, Millsap said.

Popper said his meals improved as the week went on, adding he developed more empathy for people on food stamps.

"One of the things that will stay with me is bringing lunch with me to the office a couple of days a week," he said, acknowledging that pulling up to a fast-food drive through is convenience that comes with a price.

"It was very enlightening," he said.

Schweikhardt agreed, and she wants people to realize there is hunger in Collier.

"You can be any political party and can be hungry," she said. "You might be able to survive on food stamps, but it is not easy."

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