Who Wants to Play ‘Food Stamp Challenge’?

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Come on down! This week, all comers are welcomed to be “contestants” in a challenge simulating what it’s like to live on food stamps, or SNAP benefits as they’re now called. Elected officials and everyday citizens in one U.S. city are trying to get by with a food budget of just $5 daily, which is the average individual benefit.

From April 23 to 29, the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge is taking place in the City of Brotherly Love. The challenge’s guidelines stipulate that participants should spend no more than $35 per person on food for the entire week. Those electing to play along are also encouraged to “Avoid accepting free food from friends, family or work,” and to “keep track of your receipts, and take notes on your thoughts and experiences.”

The point of the challenge is to give a first-hand glimpse of what it’s like to survive solely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. The challenge is being used to highlight hunger and poverty issues at a time when $14 billion is being removed from the national SNAP budget.

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At the same time that SNAP benefits are being cut, more and more Americans are likely to be receiving SNAP assistance. Throughout the Great Recession and the post-recession era, the number of households living on some form of government aid has soared. As of early 2012, nearly half of all Americans lived in a household receiving government benefits.

In Philadelphia, according to the Inquirer, there are 474,448 people receiving SNAP benefits, a 45% increase since 2007. Across the river in New Jersey, 759,136 people receive SNAP benefits, up a whopping 83% since the onset of the recession.

The Food Stamp Challenge is being used as a not-so-subtle jab at efforts to starve the SNAP program of resources, and it is taking place right now in Philadelphia for a reason: Starting May 1, a new asset test is being introduced to limit who is eligible for SNAP benefits. If a household with people under the age of 60 has more than $5,500 in assets, no one living there can receive SNAP assistance. In households with people 60 and older, the cut-off for assets is $9,000. Mind you, the values of homes, retirement benefits, and a single car aren’t factored in to the asset total. But if the household has a second car worth more than $4,650, that counts. Proponents of the asset test call it a reform that’s necessary to root out fraud and abuse of the SNAP program.

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On Monday, participants in the challenge met at a West Philadelphia supermarket to go shopping for the week and were strategizing how to stretch their $35 budget the furthest. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.), one of the lawmakers taking part, called the $35 figure “ludicrous,” and said he didn’t know what he was going to buy beforehand:

“I’ll see what I can get for that money. You can buy a lot of rice, but it’s not the healthiest thing to eat. It’s pretty difficult.”

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The Associated Press reported that one retiree on hand at the scene who actually lives every day of her life off of Social Security and about $120 per month of SNAP benefits, watched as the lawmakers and challenge volunteers grabbed their shopping carts. “Good luck,” she told the shoppers. “It’s not easy.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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