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Volunteers take on food challenge

By Julie Wurth/The News-Gazette URBANA '” They can give up meat, they can give up snacks, but Lord help them if you take away their coffee.

Volunteers taking part in a challenge to eat on a food stamp budget for a week are finding the hardest part may be giving up their morning caffeine.

Brenda Koester didn't even try.

"I'm doing a cheater's version,' Koester, coordinator of the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center, said Monday morning, the second day of her challenge. She is simply not counting her daily cup of Strawberry Fields coffee. Her rationale: "It's actually really important for my thinking ability, which I'm paid to do.'

Technically, she is violating the rules of the "SNAP Hunger Challenge,' which asks participants to live on about $30 a week, or $4.50 a day, the average food stamp allocation for an individual. The Eastern Illinois Foodbank is participating as part of national Hunger Action Month.

The idea is to give people a better understanding of how hard it is to eat a healthy, adequate diet on food stamps, and mobilize support to increase access to healthy foods, said food bank spokeswoman Cheryl Precious.

At least 25 local households have taken up the challenge, including Precious and her husband, and some are blogging about their efforts.

"I'm really close to cheating already,' Precious said Monday, feeling the effects of her caffeine-free morning. "We decided we were going to focus on making sure our food was nutritious and would sacrifice coffee. I am really struggling with that.'

She even turned down a free cup offered at a morning meeting. The rules say you're not supposed to accept gifts from others, but "a lot of people break that rule,' she said.

Kimberlie Kranich, who took the challenge earlier this month, said people who have to subsist on food stamps in real life rely on family, friends and neighbors to get by. She learned that the only way she could stick to the challenge was to share with others.

Friends gave her tomatoes and squash from their gardens, or brought her a treat. She had to learn how to accept help when offered. She even considered going to a soup kitchen if she got desperate.

"In real life, that's what people do. It was humbling,' said Kranich, outreach coordinator for Illinois Public Media.

The food stamp allowance didn't fill her up, and she "obsessed' about her next meal. Eating out wasn't really an option, because it was too expensive. Clipping coupons, driving around for the best bargains and planning meals made it easier, and taught her how much money she could save if she did that all the time. She also learned that she could eat organic foods, but only if she prepared them herself because of the cost.

The hardest thing was ignoring all the commercial and social pressures to eat out or buy junk food. As she put it on her blog, the sight of the golden arches "can set off powerful cravings for fat, salt and sugar in me.' The day after she ended her challenge she indulged in a cheeseburger and fries at a favorite restaurant.

Koester and Professor Barbara Fiese have asked undergraduates in their "Food and Family' research class to take the challenge in some fashion, even if they just do it for a day or tally up how much they spend each day on food. Most come from fairly comfortable economic backgrounds and often have meal plans where they live so they haven't spent much time thinking about the cost of food, Koester said.

The students have to blog or put together a slide show or video about their experience for the Family Resiliency Center's website

On a personal level, Koester is tackling the challenge alone, as "no one else in my family is on board with this.'

One thing that's already struck her is how much energy she's spent worrying about what she can buy for $30, and when she's going to have time to prepare food herself.

"If I was on food stamps I'd be doing this every week,' she said.

There have been unexpected challenges, like her hungry teenager who got up in the middle of the night and used up half the eggs and cheese she'd allocated for later in the week.

Koester also benefits from middle-class comforts '” a car that can take her from store to store to find the best bargains; kitchen equipment that makes it easy to prepare healthful, inexpensive food; a freezer where she can store extra produce. All those things might be too expensive for a family living on food stamps, she said.

Jason Brechin of Savoy, author of, put his challenge off until Monday when he realized he had lots of leftovers in the fridge '” and friends were coming over Sunday to cook dinner for his family.

He's hoping his cooking knowledge will make the challenge easier. He already knows shortcuts for spicing up cheaper cuts of meat, or "boring and bland' foods like beans. His plan: use lots of Indian seasonings.

"It's all about finding ways to add flavor,' he said.

And he's found a way to make iced coffee for 10 cents a cup '” a tip he shared with Precious on Monday.

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