Many professors want their students to be hungry for knowledge, but Kim Gower takes the expression to a whole new level.
As a part of Gower’s Leadership 205 Justice and Civil Society course, students were tasked with a simple but daunting challenge: Live for one week on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides money to low-income Americans to purchase food.
In a political atmosphere where slashing government spending, including food assistance, is a topic du jour, Gower wanted her students to get a taste of SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, that 46 million Americans depend on to survive.
“I like to joke I’ve never had an original idea as an instructor, I just hear something I like, I tweak it and I go with it,” Gower said. “This is one of those things. As a teacher, it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”
Three weeks ago, Gower’s students had to budget $29.40 a week for food – $4.20 per day – to mirror living on the government-assisted food program in which beneficiaries are given a card that the government reloads with money each month. To compare, it costs $27.50 to eat three meals at the Heilman Dining Center.
In order to meet the price requirements of the SNAP challenge, students purchased the cheapest foods possible – hot dogs, peanut butter and mac and cheese – but the lack of nutritional value carried consequences.
“We eat so much food we never realize how important it actually is,” said sophomore Dalyan Cemaletin, who participated in the challenge this semester. “You have a lack of energy, you can't go to the gym, you can only afford low-quality food with high sodium and fat. So the pounds pack on but you still don't have any energy.”
Many of the students who took the SNAP challenge said their hunger changed how they live their lives.
“A lack of nutrition can affect your day-to-day life in ways you wouldn't expect,” said sophomore Trace Baker, who took the SNAP challenge in Gower’s class last semester. Baker’s hunger led to his grades slipping, being unable to focus in class and prone to bursts of anger and irritability.
Some students said they felt that their constant hunger changed their entire thought process.
“When you're on the challenge, all you think about is food, and you get in fights with your friends and you're in a terrible mood,” said sophomore Oliver Parker, who also took the class last semester. “You don’t think about the future, only where your next meal is coming from.”
Students agreed that the challenge pushed them to look beyond themselves and toward their surrounding neighborhoods.
"It wasn't only about food and being hungry. It was about being accepting of people's challenges around you that you're not necessarily aware of,” Cemaletin said. “We live in this campus bubble of Richmond. Yes [the SNAP challenge] made me hungry, but it made me aware of the issues around us."
In Virginia, more than 918,000 people receive SNAP benefits, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Virginia’s third congressional district, which includes portions of Richmond and Henrico County, more than 16 percent of residents receive SNAP benefits.
“[The challenge] taught me the power of empathy and what true empathy is,” Parker said. “You can't fully understand someone until you truly experience what they’re doing. We say we're hungry, but we're not really hungry.”
Gower agreed that empathy was the project’s main theme.
“I don’t think that empathy is walking in somebody else’s shoes.” Gower said. “It’s understanding that you can’t walk in somebody else’s shoes. You never could, because you are not them.”