Thursday, December 9, 2010

Natalia Rudiak: Half Way Through the SNAP Challenge

Here we are, half-way through the SNAP challenge, and I can tell you that it is living up to its name. But, I do have to admit that I cheated a little bit yesterday. On Tuesday I had a lunch meeting that I was committed to, and though I ordered the cheapest item on the menu—a cup of soup that came with bread, and a glass of ice water—it put me just over $7 on the whole day. Just to put that in perspective, here is everything else I ate that day:

Breakfast: half of a banana;
Afternoon snack: two rolls;
Dinner: cereal.

I should mention that I am no stranger to “food challenges.” As an international development studies major in college I traveled on shoe-string budgets across South Asia, West Africa, Mexico and Eastern Europe, where I ate unidentifiable objects, strange fruits, and smelly vegetables. I forced myself to eat foods I did not like, and that I knew were likely not good for me, for months at a time.

But, for me, right now, there is something acutely different about this experience. It is strange to be living as an adult on this diet, struggling to get by with the tools in my own kitchen. Living on $6 a day isn’t an adventure—especially for those who have to do it every day, for weeks or months at a time.

Avert your eyes, my vegetarian and vegan friends: I went to the grocery store the night before, and I purchased some groceries that fit within my SNAP-Challenge-mandated-budget for the week. I was able to buy some eggs, rice, beans, frozen vegetables, some ramen noodles, a package of cheap processed chicken that was on sale, and some oil and seasoning. I was going to rely on some creative chicken dishes to pull me through the week, but this processed stuff has the taste and texture of a shiny, water-clogged, chicken-flavored sponge. I’m still debating whether I can force myself to chew on these leftover, processed bits from the chicken factory. Even though cereal for dinner leaves me hungry at the end of the day, at least it does not taste like moist foam.

So, what kinds of folks have to make these types of food choices and live on $6 a day? Eligible individuals include someone who lost their job or became disabled, or someone who is an independent contractors or struggling small business owner who is perpetually losing money or taking a loss. If you are under-employed—you are working but you aren’t earning enough to cover basic housing and food expenses—you also qualify for SNAP assistance, but not necessarily for the full amount of $6 a day.

But the kicker is that you cannot be receiving any other form of government mandated assistance, which means no Social Security, so Supplemental Security Income (SSI), no unemployment, no child support payments, no adoption stipends, or no other cash assistance.

[Ed. note - If you receive any of the benefits listed above, it does not necessarily disqualify you altogether from SNAP; however, your allotment under the program would be reduced.]

So if this economy has got you down, and you find yourself in any category above, SNAP is it. All you have to buy groceries—literally—is $6 a day. That’s all you get. That’s all you can legally get.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was quite surprised to learn about the paltry amount of the daily allotment for this program, and they wrote a great article about the challenge on Tuesday, you can see it here. I think they are going to write a follow up in the next few days as well, so here’s to the Trib for devoting some column-space to this important issue!

Today and Friday, in order to reflect the cuts that Congress has made, my budget is getting cut by fifty cents so the allotment is technically $6.17 a day. For this program to be cut, even if the funds are being diverted to another worthy cause, is an injustice. We must commit to restoring this vital public service, rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul and shuffling deck chairs around in our federal, state, and local budgets. We need a non-partisan commitment to make sure that, in this day and age, no one goes hungry in the United States of America. I am pleased to lend my hand to this fight.

Hungrily yours,
Natalia Rudiak

Monday, December 6, 2010

Natalia Rudiak: Taking on the SNAP Challenge

Today is my first day on the SNAP challenge with Just Harvest, and I have already had to make some tough food choices. For breakfast, I had a cup of tea and to make sure I could eat a decent dinner, I skipped lunch—a great way to start off a day of budget hearings! I’m not sure what I’m going to do for dinner yet, but I have some strict rules to follow:

  • I have an allowance of $6.67 a day for the first three days, then I have $6.17 for the last two days;

  • No one can buy me any food;

  • I can’t eat food that I already have in my house.

I’m going to post a couple of times this week just to check in and let everyone know how I am doing, but I think its going to be a hungry week. Can you imagine a child having to sit through a math or science class with hunger pains? What kind of a student can we reasonably expect that child to be? How will we break the cycle of poverty if we are unable to give our children the opportunities they need to focus on learning and not their hungry mom, dad, brothers or sisters?

Right now in City Council we’re putting together the 2011 City budget, in which we will dedicate substantial City funds to hunger groups in Pittsburgh. Last year we gave almost a half a million dollars to hunger organizations across Pittsburgh, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Urban League Hunger Services Network, Just Harvest, and more.

These community service organizations are essential allies in the fight against hunger in Pittsburgh, but with reduced SNAP funding their efforts are going to be stretched thinner and thinner. For example, at the Brookline Christian Food Pantry in Brookline, usage of the pantry has increased by more than 15% over last year, and seen similar increases in the years before that.

The proposed cuts to the SNAP program illustrate that actions motivated by political ideology on a national level trickle down to the local level. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. The underfunding of hunger programs in Washington DC puts strain on our own city and school budgets and reduces the efficacy of our own educational reform and economic development programs. Elected Officials at all levels of government are charged with protecting the health, welfare, and safety of you and your neighbors—this includes making sure that none of our neighbors go hungry.

So here’s to a week of awareness, of protest, and hopefully of action against hunger in Pittsburgh. Check back later this week!

Natalia Rudiak
City Councilwoman
Pittsburgh, District 4

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak takes the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge

Pittsburgh City Council’s Natalia Rudiak will be putting conspicuously less of her money where her mouth is starting December 6.

For five days (Dec. 6 – 10), Ms. Rudiak will be taking part in the SNAP Challenge, a poverty simulation exercise coordinated by Just Harvest, a Southside-based anti-hunger organization and created by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington D.C.

The challenge is named for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), upon which a record 42 million Americans depend to put meals on the table. In Allegheny County alone, over 150,000 households and individuals receive SNAP benefits.

For the first three days of the challenge, Rudiak will be allotted the total benefit amount per day for a SNAP recipient who reports no income – this amounts to $6.67 per day total. On Thursday and Friday, this benefit amount will be reduced by 50 cents to reflect a cut to SNAP benefits passed by Congress on Dec. 2 in order to fund the ‘Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,’ aimed at improving child nutrition programs in schools. Starting in 2013, SNAP benefits will be reduced by $2.2. billion under the act. Benefits for a family of four would drop by $59 per month, according to FRAC.

The 'Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act' had been roundly criticized by child nutrition advocates across the country who contend that by subsidizing school meal programs with SNAP benefit funds, it effectively increases the risk of hunger for children and low-income families. Advocacy efforts have now turned to lobbying Congress to restore the SNAP cuts by some means before the close of the ‘lame duck’ session.

Rudiak has pledged to document her experience eating under the SNAP constraint via Facebook and Twitter updates (, as well as here on Just Harvest’s blog, so watch this space for updates!

“We’re thrilled that Councilwoman Rudiak is taking on the SNAP challenge, as we feel her high profile will bring due public attention to the hardships that so many of our neighbors face in trying to maintain a healthful diet on a fixed allotment,” said Tara Marks, Just Harvest Co-Director.

Just Harvest invites others in our region to take part in the SNAP Challenge! If you are interested, send an e-mail to for guidelines and details.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Speaking Out for the Pittsburgh Hunger Fund

The Pittsburgh Hunger Fund is a coalition made up of Just Harvest, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Community Services Inc., and hunger services at The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. The fund is apportioned yearly from Community Development Block Grants to the city's districts, and it’s been an important line of defense against hunger in our region. This past Monday Just Harvest joined our partner organizations in speaking out to City Council at a public budget hearing.

Just Harvest staff and board members attended the Nov. 29 budget hearing to offer testimony to Councilmembers Natalia Rudiak, Darlene Harris, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus and R. Daniel Lavelle on the importance of the city’s continued funding. Board secretary Mary-Elizabeth McCarthy first addressed council on the effects of hunger on children and the elderly, highlighting the struggles that seniors face even when accessing food pantries. Invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mary-Elizabeth said that “government is the last resort for people who are hungry.”

Co-Director Tara Marks offered successes from the SNAP outreach, Summer Food outreach, and tax services that have been made possible with the Hunger Fund’s support.

“In these hard economic times more of your constituents are in need of help feeding their families,” said Tara, noting that so far this year, 1590 SNAP applications from individuals in the city have been processed). Additionally, said Tara, city residents received $2.3 million in total refunds from 1170 tax returns completed by Just Harvest, free of charge, as part of our work with the Money in Your Pocket Coalition (now supported by the United Way of Allegheny County) during tax year 2009. Reclaiming returns and Earned Income Tax Credit provided crucial relief for many of our neighbors stricken with financial stress.

“I’ve been in these people’s shoes. I’ve had to make the hard decision of whether to pay a bill or buy food,” said Child Nutrition Advocate Shauna Ponton.

“The recession we are facing has thrown thousands more families through a loop,” she continued. “It is important for these organizations to get the funding they are requesting so they will know that they can continue the great work that they are doing and provide services to the citizens of Pittsburgh.”

Council’s response was promising – though they acknowledged the current economy as an obstacle, Councilmen Kraus and Shields committed their support of at very least holding the line on the Hunger Fund contribution, if not increasing it for 2011. “As Americans, it speaks to our egalitarianism that we want to reach out and help one another,” said Councilman Shields, thanking the organizations for their persistence. “This is our ‘common wealth’, and I’d like to see a secure ‘floor’ – not just a ‘safety net’ – that allows all of us to stand on our own.”

Councilwoman Rudiak noted that it’s evident that people need the types of services offered by the Hunger Fund. She encouraged the groups to continue to share their stories of everyday people in need as a defense against the more negative connotations cast over food stamps and similar programs in recent times.

Just Harvest thanks City Council for its commitment to helping the Pittsburgh Hunger Fund help Pittsburghers in need!