Oh, SNAP! Food stamp challenge teaches important lessons about nutrition

What nutrition major Barbara Gomperts bought with the $4.18 she could use for daily meals (left) compared to what she usually would eat. Photo provided.

Barbara Gomperts wondered how she was going to make one can of beans last three days.

She had $4.18 to spend on food each day for the next three days—a total of $12.54.

For Gomperts, a nutrition major, this was a project for the Nutrition 626 Food Systems class, offered at George Mason University this summer. But for others, it’s a way of life.

Students in the class are required to take the SNAP Challenge—named after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Participants in the challenge try eating healthily on the amount of money SNAP benefits provide. In this case it was the national average of $4.18 per day for a single person, said Kerri LaCharite, the class instructor and a professor in George Mason’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.

The challenge has been around for years, with celebrities often participating for a week or more. LaCharite said she assigns the challenge each semester she teaches the course; it’s a requirement unless a student has a medical or other valid reason for not participating.

“Even with just three days, it’s usually an emotional and impactful experience for students,” LaCharite said. “They gain some personal insight of the stress of shopping to avoid going over and facing the embarrassment of asking the teller to take off an item.”

When the budget is tight, shoppers have to head to the grocery store with a plan.

Gomperts chose brown rice, frozen berries, cheddar cheese, whole-fat Greek yogurt and a can of beans to sustain her for three days.

She didn’t have enough money to buy meat for protein, so the beans were key.

Even so, “I miscalculated,” Gomperts said. “I had one can of beans divided by three instead of six.”

So instead of having a lunch and a dinner of rice, beans and cheese each day, she had just rice for dinner.

“Honestly, I survived without being hungry. What I didn’t do is survive without stomach upset,” she said.

She thinks the brown rice gave her a sudden fiber overload and disrupted her digestion.

The challenge is meant for students to answer one key question: Can you eat healthy on food assistance?

“My answer is no, you can’t; at least not a single person on an average of $125 a month,” Gomperts said.

The challenge left her short on 19 nutrients and 300 to 400 calories below what she needed to maintain her body weight, Gomperts wrote in her positional essay for the class.

Doing the challenge led to questions about obesity. SNAP recipients are often obese, but research shows they take in fewer calories than the general public. “Science doesn’t understand obesity; there are multiple factors,” Gomperts said.

Overall, the assignment teaches students an important lesson about food, said LaCharite.

“They understand cravings at a deeper level,” she said. “Many students find that they are constantly thinking about food, their next meal and the stress of rationing,”