on September 07, 2013 at 5:24 PM, updated September 07, 2013 at 5:29 PM
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – For a week, state Reps Brandon Dillon and Winnie Brinks will attempt to walk in the shoes of those who struggle to put food on the table each day.
“We’re trying to highlight the challenges that people on food assistance face,” Dillon said. “I have always been a believer that food is a basic necessity, and that people need to have money to get nutritious options for their family, but this week should drive that home for me.”
This week, Dillon and Brinks will subsist on $31.50 worth of food and beverages, with an average of $4.50 per day, the average amount of assistance received by an individual enrolled in SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Brinks will be joined by her three daughters and husband, bringing her family’s budget to $157.50.
“I think this is a really good opportunity to experience what it is like to try and make ends meet on a limited budget,” Brinks said. “We’re optimistic, at this point, but it’s always easier at the beginning of the week, so we’ll have to see how we’re all doing in a few days.”
In an effort to purchase healthy, affordable food, Dillon and Brinks stopped at the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.
“We’re being very careful about comparing prices to what we can get at Meijer or other supermarkets,” Brinks said, checking items off of her list with her three daughters, who accompanied her. “We’re trying to plan everything out, since I don’t want to have three unhappy children at the end of the week.”
Both Dillon and Brinks made use of Double-Up Food Bucks, a program at Fulton Street Farmer’s Market which allows customers to get double the amount of Michigan-grown fruit and vegetables. The Market has accepted Bridge Cards since 2009, and is one of the top leaders in the state for Bridge Card-redemption.
“One of our missions here is to make the market accessible to the entire community, so we can make fresh food access a priority,” said Melissa Harrington, Market Manager at Fulton Street Farmer’s Market. “On a September day like this, you can see the true bounty of what West Michigan agriculture has to offer, and how lucky we are to live in this area of the country.”
Minutes into the shopping trip, Brinks and her daughters had fresh plums, cabbage, and apples, with plans to purchase corn, celery, lettuce, and peaches before heading to Meijer for other items. Dillon and his wife, Tammy, quickly found locally grown eggplant and tomatoes.
“The Double-Up program is great; it is the reason Rep. Brinks and I chose to come here,” Dillon said. “It’s important that I don’t just eat Ramen (noodles), which I’m sure I’ll have a healthy dose of, as well. I’m glad this option is out there for people that struggle to purchase food.”
“You may be able to find a better deal elsewhere, but everything here is local, so there are a lot of other benefits,” Brinks said. “We also just love the experience of being here.”
This week will be Dillon and Brinks’ first time taking the SNAP Food Stamp Challenge, and both are committed to gaining a deeper understanding of how families and individuals on food assistance live.
“I think it is important to do this kind of thing if we are going to vote and make decisions about how much to give people for food assistance,” Dillon said. “It is important to know how it feels, even if only in a small way.”
Dillon said 85 percent of students in Grand Rapids Public School System qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, which he said often indicates families on food assistance.
“I think that people in positions like mine need to try to identify with the struggles that some people have to really understand the challenge of what life is like for them,” Dillon said.
“I think this is a really good opportunity for us,” Brinks said. “It is good for us to get a sense of what it is like for a lot of people in Grand Rapids who struggle to make ends meet.”
Dillon and Brinks will periodically update their Facebook pages throughout the week to document their progress, and will also keep reflections on each meal, and how the diet affects their daily activities. You can track their progress here.
“I think we should all have a deep appreciation for what we have, and I think sometimes, we can be spoiled,” Dillon said.
“We should all keep from wasting things, since there are many people living around us in Grand Rapids that struggle every day to put food on the table. I think that will be the thing I take away from this experience.”
Jonathan Van Zytveld is a news intern for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter.