Families tackle Food Stamp Challenge, eating on $4.50 a day

For years, the Schreck family has tried to help feed hungry people.

They’ve hauled canned goods to food drives and volunteered at food kitchens. Dad has taken the oldest child with him to deliver meals to the homeless.

But Mike and Melanie Schreck worried that their children weren’t seeing what hunger and being disadvantaged really looks like.

So, for the last four days the Lenexa family has joined others across Kansas in the Food Stamp Challenge: Live one week on $4.50 a day per person, or $31.50 per week. That’s an average food stamp allotment; in real life, the neediest families get more and those who qualify but have more resources get less.

The Schrecks started on Sunday and go until Saturday.

“We wanted them to understand what some families are facing,” said Melanie Schreck, who home-schools the family’s four kids, ages 9 to 16, and heard about the challenge from the archdiocese.

Catholic Charities agencies in Kansas encouraged families to take the challenge at a time when a record number of people are receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The challenge coincides with the Lenten season, which began Wednesday.

“We probably all know somebody whose family is or has lived in this situation,” said Jan Lewis, who is president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and who is taking the challenge with her husband. “It’s a good time for all of us to reflect on that. We need to be conscious of the fact that any one of us is one bad event away from having to be at the door of Catholic Charities needing help.”

Families who have never needed help before are turning to pantries or the government.

In November, more than 46.2 million people received SNAP benefits. That’s up from about 30.9 million three years before — an increase of about 50 percent.

Doesn’t matter, advocates say, whether people live in cities, suburbs or out in the country.

“Even in rural areas that produce the food, we have people on food stamps out there,” said Karen Hauser, CEO of Catholic Charities in Northern Kansas out of Salina, another challenge participant. “It’s affecting people all over. I think it’s important to make people aware just how many people benefit from the program. How supplemental nutrition is improving lives, particularly children’s.”

For Lewis, participating in the challenge is a way to further the conversation about the program and how crucial it is for some families.

“This is a way to put a face on people who are sometimes dehumanized in the (political) debate,” Lewis said.

To jump-start interest in the Food Stamp Challenge, Catholic Charities posted a video of Lewis shopping for the week. She stayed close to a menu and grocery list to squeeze 42 meals for her and her husband out of less than $64.

When Suzanne Andrews heard Lewis’ message, she thought it would be perfect for her Johnson County family. Growing up in a home where from time to time money was tight, Andrews wanted to show her children that not all families have it as good as they do now.

“I feel they are insulated from harsher realities of life,” she said.

Plus, Andrews admits, she likes a challenge.

So she and husband, Clint, picked inexpensive recipes they could prepare throughout the week using the $189 allotment for a family of six. She wrote out the list, and he went shopping. To take advantage of the lowest prices, he went to three stores.

They skipped cereal and went with generic rolled oats and flour for morning oatmeal and muffins. The dinner rolls had to stretch for two meals, with no seconds. Instead of buying bread for sandwiches, she made it. And no eating out.

Though she was able to buy fresh fruit last weekend, she may not be able to do her midweek shopping for more.

“I only have another 10 bucks,” Andrews said Tuesday afternoon.

Peggy Waggoner, 53, finds herself eating less while taking the challenge. And not eating as often.

“I’m not snacking because I know everything I put in my mouth I have to account for,” said Waggoner, a speech language pathologist and clinical instructor at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Lewis admits the challenge is tougher than she thought it would be. She and her husband focused on the evening meals and have come up short for lunches. One day they resorted to an apple and pretzels.

“I’m already looking forward to Saturday and being done,” Lewis said. “But the families we serve never get to be done.”

On some of the things, you have to make a decision, Melanie Schreck said. Is protein more important than fresh fruit? What about snacks for the kids?

“I would have gotten more fresh fruit, but you’re limited on that. Fruit is expensive.”

Melanie knows this week will help come June. Her husband will be out of work then, his job at a credit union dissolved.

“We’re trying to prepare for that,” Melanie said. “You learn to really stop and think about everything. I’m realizing that we can take this time to plan a little bit better and be a little more frugal with our money.”

What about their children? Are they seeing the big picture of poverty and understanding what other families face?

Michael, 16, thinks so.

“It really opens up your eyes,” he said. “Especially if you’re not used to living like that. It forces you to take a step back and look at what you have and what you don’t have. You don’t have to deal with the same problems others do.”