David Edleson, rabbi at South Burlington’s Temple Sinai, planned to start the 3SquaresVT Challenge on Sunday, Nov. 17. Then he slipped up and bought a salad at Panera Bread.
“That blew the budget for two days,” he said, acknowledging it was a telling moment.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 3SquaresVT Challenge. The challenge takes place before Thanksgiving, as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It asks participants to live off an average 3SquaresVT – known nationally as the SNAP program – food budget for a meal, a day or a week. That budget is approximately $36 per week for a single person, or $5.14 per day/$1.71 per meal.
Currently, there is a federal proposal that seeks to reduce SNAP benefits. It is the third rule change proposal in a year and would result in a $4.5 billion benefit reduction over the course of five years, according to the 3SquaresVT website. It would do so by changing how states consider a household’s utility costs when determining its benefit amounts. If enacted, more than 26,000 Vermont households would lose about $82 per month in assistance, said Phil Morin, a food security specialist at Hunger Free Vermont.
“This year it’s really important that people who are doing the challenge take the next step and speak out for the program,” he said. “In past years the call to action hasn’t been as critical.”
Edleson didn’t have an exact count but believed somewhere between 15 – 20 Temple Sinai congregation members participated in the challenge. The group was inspired to take the challenge after Hunger Free Vermont spoke at their temple.
The congregation regularly works with Hunger Free Vermont, and the South Burlington Food Shelf. Members also pitch in on Christmas, delivering for Meals on Wheels.
“The awareness of hunger is significant in our social action here,” Edleson said, adding the challenge complemented that work.
According to Morin, the challenge helps people think differently and consider the importance of food assistance programs.
The challenge isn’t to emulate food insecure persons, he said. Instead, it is more of a way to recognize the importance of programs like 3SquareVT, Morin said. He added it also reduces the stigma of accessing assistance.
Many Vermonters rely on multiple programs and resources to meet their families’ needs, according to the 3SquaresVT website.
For Edleson, the challenge was a way of recognizing privilege.
“One of the takeaways for me … is, I made a decision I had choice over, and there’s a time limit,” he said. “It’s a very different thing to not choose it and to have no end in sight.”
The challenge is a glimpse at food insecurity rather than a means to understand it, he said.
His meals consisted of soup and crackers, toast and snacking cheese. For one meal, he bought a burger from a dollar menu, but was unable to purchase a drink or fries. It was eye opening. And while Edleson enjoys cooking, he found a single ingredient, like butter, could comprise a significant portion of his challenge budget.
“It also made me realize what a privilege it is to have backup food in your pantry,” he said, adding it’s also a privilege to have time to cook.
Morin said he hopes challenge participants recognize the importance of programs like 3SquaresVT.
“[It’s] really focusing on how this is a program we should be strengthening,” he said. “Not weakening.”
According to Drake Turner, 3SquaresVT food security advocacy manager, the SNAP rule change would disproportionately impact elderly and disabled Vermonters. And while the proposal would affect all 50 states, Turner said Vermont would be hit the hardest.
“That’s why we want to make sure there’s a real strong voice of opposition from Vermonters,” she said, adding the benefit reduction would remove $26 million per year from the state food economy.
“It’s really about all of us,” she said.
Vermonters can contribute their thoughts on the proposal during the national public comment period, which ends Dec. 2. Comments will be included in the decision-making process.
“The more comments that get sent in, the longer it takes these rules to move forward, and the harder,” Turner said.
She added that this is a new proposal and a new public comment period. Those who might have commented on a similar proposal in the past should know that this process is separate, and considers only comments made during its own public comment period.
“It will be really devastating to thousands of Vermonters and our economy,” Turner said. “For a lot of folks, losing $82 a month in benefits means they are not going to be able to afford food.”