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Cabrini College faculty go on food stamp challenge

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Towards the end of this past winter break, 15 Cabrini faculty members took part in the “SNAP” (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge as well as served the homeless community in Philadelphia. This challenge came as the second step in a three-part series of the Mission Advisory Council, which the faculty volunteered to be in in order to better teach the social justice aspect of Cabrini.

“We have three meetings when you sign up to become a member of the [Mission Advisory Council],”  Dr. Dawn Francis, communication professor at Cabrini, said. “The faculty who sign up… have to commit to participating in three immersive experiences. And so this was the second of the three. The first was meant to kind of frame ‘what is social justice?’ ‘Give us a common vocabulary around that,’ and ‘How to understand a little bit more about how we’re talking about it with our students.’ This second immersion trip was about living social justice, and what we did as a faculty is we went to the St. Thomas Aquinas Center in South Philly and we split up women in one room on bunk beds and the male faculty and staff in the other. “

The faculty spent three days at the facility, with two different phases to the trip. One aspect of the trip was the SNAP food diet challenge. On this diet, the faculty split into two groups and had to food shop in “families,” with each person only receiving about $4 a day in food stamps.

“We were divided into two families of eight people and had to walk about a mile to a grocery store and plan our meals for two days,” Dr. Michelle Filling-Brown, English professor at the school, said. She went on to tell how she was very aware of her time limitation on the SNAP Challenge. Her group did fine with the meals they planned but knew they were only doing it for two days, where people on food stamps have to go for much longer periods of time.

Dr. Darryl Mace, chair of history and political science, spoke of his experience and the realization that he was doing this with other adults, and that if this was in real life he would be making the two-mile trek to and from the supermarket with children instead.

“A lot of people who are receiving food stamps are actually working,” Mace said. “You know, you have a job, you have family responsibilities and then you also have to try and figure out how to live on $4 a day. It’s just unbelievable.”

He found it really hard to imagine himself in the situation of the people who live this way everyday, even while doing the challenge.  Mace also spoke about choosing food based on cost, even if it was only by a few cents. He admitted he was used to just grabbing food while usually shopping and not even thinking about if another brand or type might be more economical.

“We were assigned the food stamp amount per a family of seven or eight. So I think for my family that worked out to be $65 between the eight of us to eat for a couple of days,” Francis said. “I felt like I was the problem child in the family because I have significant dietary restrictions. I don’t eat wheat or gluten. I don’t eat dairy, milk or eggs. That made it a struggle for my family to find food at a reasonable price.”

There was a lot of negotiating because some of the items people thought were inexpensive, good ideas like eggs and oatmeal, would conflict with Francis’ dietary needs. A lot of the produce she usually needs tends to be more expensive.

They all agreed that they wanted to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They found a pack of five bagels for $1, but because of the gluten in those bagels, they were also forced to buy the special brand of bread within Francis’ diet.  Her bread came to around $5 just for 8-12 slices of bread. Francis admitted that she’s used to paying that, but realized that when you have to think about the lack of money you have to stretch on food stamps, it makes it really difficult to eat both within her budget and dietary restrictions. The extra cost of the bread forced them to subtract one of their vegetables, a red pepper.

“There’s this link between hunger and obesity that people can’t figure out. That pepper cost $2.29 and yet we can get these bags, 5 bagels in a bag, for a dollar. You have to put the healthy food back to get the processed and packaged food,” Francis said. “I think through the experience it helped us understand how difficult it is to live on a little over $4 a day, and those benefits are being cut even more now.”

“One out of two children in America will receive SNAP benefits at some point in their childhood,” Filling-Brown explained. “That means that one out of two kids in our country are experiencing hunger and not proper nutrition at some point in their childhood.”

Filling-Brown went on to say, “The moment that really hit home for me was when we celebrated Dr. Francis’ birthday and I realized that we didn’t have enough money to purchase the ingredients to bake a cake.  The simple joy of celebrating a birthday with a cake was not something that we could do with a $4 allowance.” Francis commented on this saying she imagined a parent trying to bake a cake for their child’s birthday and how difficult that must be on this budget.

Beyond the SNAP food diet that the faculty was restricted to, they also went out into the community to experience poverty and homelessness where it exists. “Everybody went to Project HOME, which is an agency in Philadelphia that really coordinates a lot of outreach for people who are experiencing homelessness; from medical to housing to even short-term shelter,” Mace said.

The groups split again with the option of either going to a shelter and helping to prepare breakfast for the people there or went to Hub of Hope in Suburban Station.

“I volunteered at the Hub of Hope, which is a ‘pop-up’ shelter that is located in Suburban Station in the winter months when those who are experiencing homelessness go underground to stay warm,” Filling-Brown said. “We were there during the week in January when we experienced the first arctic cold snap, so it really hit home that some of these men and women were legitimately putting their lives at risk by staying outside.”  “The Hub of Hope is a Project HOME initiative.”

The day they were there was the coldest day of the year so far. Often when it is that cold, homeless come in off the street, sometimes directed there by the police for shelter, a hot beverage, snacks and advice on where they could go next to remain safe from the cold for the night. The Hub of Hope is exactly what the name implies, a resting place where homeless can find comfort in the hours between when they have to leave the shelters in the morning and can go back at night.

Francis, who also went to Hub of Hope, went on to recall a particular encounter that really stood out to her, where she and Filling-Brown spoke with a homeless man while volunteering at a shelter one of their days. She was surprised by how organized he was in his planning in the coming days, because most of the people at the Hub seemed lost as to what they were going to do next. He explained that he would only need the safety of a shelter for four days until he could get himself to the VA hospital in Coatesville (Veteran Affairs Medical Center).

Once they became comfortable talking, the man divulged his reasons for becoming homeless and ultimately coming to the shelter. He was a veteran who came back from service to find his wife wanting to separate and therefore, he lost both his family and his home in a tragic turn of events. Like many Americans today, he just needed time to get back on his feet. Francis grew more aware that everyone she met at the shelter that day had a different story and reason for being there.

Francis said she and the rest of the faculty got “face to face with homelessness,” and realized how different homelessness and hunger can be from peoples’ preconceived notions.

“In doing this the faculty really came to understand a lot of the hardship that individuals who are living at lower incomes are experiencing. It was a really terrific experience,” Francis said. “It brought us together as a faculty family.” “It gave us a whole new appreciation for poverty, for hunger and for homelessness.”

Participating faculty: Dr. Amy Gratch, Dr. Dawn Francis, Dr. David Dunbar, Dr. Michelle Filling-Brown, Dr. Beverly Bryde, Tom Southard, Dr. Darryl Mace, Vonya Womack, Dr. Jerry Zurek, Dr. Amy Persichetti, Dr. Eric Malm, Dr. Jeff Gingrich, Dr. Mary Harris, Dr. Rasheeda Ahmad, Dr. Stephanie Povlosky

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