Photograph by Kaitlin Shawgo

Middle Way House's Charlotte Zietlow was among the community leaders who spent a week eating on the budget of a food-stamp recipient -- $21 a week.

On a rainy November afternoon, around 25 individuals amble into Geno's Cafeteria, a local soup kitchen from Backstreet Missions that serves free meals five days a week. Bundled up to fight the howling wind and sideways rain people of all ages enter. The only age group absent is children, but perhaps the bad weather is keeping them at home.

Today's menu includes beef and noodles, chicken and rice, asparagus, a pastry assortment with cookies, donuts and muffins, and a salad bar. Three servers stand on the food side, helping those in need receive a well-balanced and comforting meal on this cold day.

The atmosphere is friendly. Almost nobody is sitting at a table alone. They either came to eat in pairs or groups, or came to meet up with the usual crowd.

For many in Bloomington, Geno's Cafeteria is sanctity, somewhere they can receive the food they need to get by during the day. Not only are the homeless seeking help, but also those on food stamps.

The average food stamp allotment for one person is $21 a week. That means they get $3 a day and $1 per meal. Not quite the budget needed for a well-balanced diet. So, to bring awareness of this issue, town leaders participated in the Bloomington Food Stamp Challenge last week.

Participants included Mayor Mark Kruzan, Herald-Times Editor Bob Zaltsberg, Monroe Circuit Judge-elect Valeri Haughton, Charlotte Zeitlow from Middle Way House, Community Foundation President and CEO Shari Woodbury, and IU Junior Julie Ponce, and the Bryan House. About a dozen citizens took part in the challenge overall.

Each individual lived a whole week, from Nov. 15 to Nov. 22, on $21. They were not allowed to use any food that was already on their shelves and in their pantries at home, nor were they allowed to accept food from others or food that might be available at functions they attended throughout the week. The participants kept a daily blog on the Herald-Times Online to educate others on their experiences throughout the week.


Ray Jordan, a Bloomington resident since 1965, is a regular at Geno's Cafeteria. He says that Bloomington is better than other towns when it comes to the treatment and available help for the homeless and hungry.

"It's a combination of things," Jordan says. "It's a student town so it's mostly liberal and there are a lot of places to find help."

Jordan lived on food stamps during part of 1989. He said it was a challenge because the state gives you the minimum, but rarely enough. He stopped applying for them because he finds it easier to get a good meal at many of the non-profit agencies in town.

When asked about the Food Stamp Challenge that took place this past week, he said, "Make them do it for a year, then we'll see what they think."

Mayor Mark Kruzan took the challenge and said it was more about the "psychological impact of survival on $3 of food per day."

Most of the participants mentioned the reality of the length of their challenge. They knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. After this seven-day period, they could go back to eating as much as they normally do.

All participants, however, found importance and awareness from taking part in the challenge.

In her blog, Woodbury voiced five things that make a difference when trying to help others. One, what you give matters, even if it's just an hour of volunteer time a month or a small donation. Two, citizens can use innovative and effective approaches to help those in need in their own towns. They can do something on a local level and that can make an impact. Three, more needs to be asked of state leaders and to get them to actually act against poverty. Four, everyone can do their part in fighting poverty. And five, always stay respectful. Respect, she says, is a basic human need.

In an early post, Woodbury wrote, "There's an atmosphere of goodwill. Maybe some of it is gratitude for the food. But I speculate that there is also something going on with the desire to give back. We all want to be able to be self-sufficient (I think 99 percent of us do), and we may accept some help (easier for some than others), but if we do, we want to be able to help others in turn. Reciprocity is a human instinct as well as a social norm. Constantly accepting help could make one feel out-of-balance."

Experiencing a lifestyle where help is needed can make someone like Woodbury want to help others in return. She made the previous response after eating lunch at Shalom Community Center one day. She noticed that some receiving help wanted to help in return. Just think what would happen if for every person that was helped, no matter what the situation, returned the favor on someone else. The chain reaction effects would be phenomenal.

Haughton conducted research for her final blog. She found that many numbers the public see about poverty might be unrealistic, and the statistics might be understatements. The most striking fact Haughton found is that millions of Americans will spend at least one year in poverty at some point in their life.


As much as the Food Stamp Challenge makes these town leaders aware of the difficulties faced while living off of food stamps, it cannot amount to the actually using food stamps from month-to-month or year-to-year, just as Jordan from Geno's Cafeteria pointed out.

"Make them do it for a year, then we'll see what they think."
- Ray Jordan, former food stamp recipient

But Kruzan also wrote, "This week isn't going to just be about food (or the lack thereof). It's going to be about the psychological impact of survival on $3 of food per day."

The main psychological impact this challenge had on the participants was that they learned that food stamps make it nearly impossible to get by with a well-balanced, nutritious diet. The challenge made the participants give prices in grocery stores a careful look.

"Rarely do you get price, quality and speed altogether," Woodbury wrote.

The others noticed this right away. By day three, Haughton blogged, "BUT...I want an apple!!!" after listing the food she ate for that day, which included two peanut butter sandwiches and two different kinds of soups.


This challenge was inspired by a similar challenge that members of Congress held in 2007. They called it the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge and used it as a way for national leaders to see the inadequacy of the food stamp benefit. The majority of participants in that challenge felt the inadequacy after that one week.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen wrote, "It quickly focuses your mind and your stomach on just how little food $21 a week buys."

It seems like the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge and other previous challenges to raise awareness of food stamp allotments have been heard. As of Oct. 1, 2008, the Food Stamp Program was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The change of name refers to the changes being made within the program to help clients meet better nutritional needs, while increasing the benefit amounts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site, the monthly average benefit for the fiscal year 2007 was about $96 per person and $215 per household. $96 per person makes the weekly allotment $24. This is only a $3 rise from previous benefits, but every extra dollar helps.

For now, community members can continue to educate themselves on the issues of poverty and hopefully help those in need. As Woodbury wrote, stay respectful and just a little bit of help can make a difference.

"Food stamp survival is cruelly uncertain," Mayor Kruzan wrote. "At the end of this week, we participants will no longer worry about amortizing our groceries or restraining our restaurant visits. Our fellow citizens - those living the real deal - won't share our good fortune."

Audree Notoras can be reached at

For more information

The Bloomington Food Stamp Challenge
Congressional Food Stamp Challenge
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program