Criticism of the Hunger Challenge
On day 2 of Hunger Action Week, Publicola’s Erica Barnett wrote an opinion piece that called the Hunger Challenge an insensitive and distasteful exercise in “poverty tourism.” She writes:
“There’s something off-putting about watching privileged people play at being poor, and it isn’t just that their complaints amount to whining about five days without $12-a-pound coffee and $9 sandwiches from the Dahlia Lounge. It’s that ‘living on food stamps’ isn’t the same as actually being poor. People in poverty lack many advantages besides the money to buy better food; and ‘winning’ the Hunger Challenge gives participants permission to pat themselves on the back while ignoring the many privileges that differentiate them from the actual impoverished people.
Those privileges include, but are by no means limited to: Access to transportation…proximity to one or more decent grocery stores (if you don’t have a car or a frequent bus route, you’ll probably make do with whatever’s available at the nearest convenience store); access to plentiful information about cheap, nutritious food; and the time (and well-equipped kitchen) needed to cook it.”
This is the third year United Way of King County has invited the community to participate in the Hunger Challenge, and I don’t recall anyone basking in the glory of “winning” the challenge. And they certainly don’t ignore the privileges they have. If anything–the Hunger Challenge brings those things into focus.
John Eddy, who writes the food blog Cook Local, is taking the Hunger Challenge with his wife, Patricia, and he wrote a post in response to critics of the Hunger Challenge. Here’s what he says about “playing at being poor.”
“Well, yeah. We are. And when I played Dungeons and Dragons, I played at being a Thief, and when I play Battleship, I play at being Fleet Admiral Horatio Hoffenblauer, of Her Royal Majesty’s Naval Forces. I’ve spent probably half of the last five years unemployed, but, for the grace of my wonderful wife, I remained financially solvent. I didn’t have to go on food stamps, although in retrospect I may have been able to. Yes, we have the safety-net of being able to fall off the wagon and spend money, and this Saturday we fall back into our normal habits. But to suggest that the people doing this aren’t going to learn anything is asinine and unproductive. I learned things from last year’s event. I’m learning things from this year’s event. I’m learning that yes, it can be difficult to live on $12/day for food, and, at the same time, I’m learning how to plan for the possibility of ending up there ourselves. We’re learning that being self-productive is the most important thing. That even if we are working two jobs each, there are things we can do in our garden that will take little work on our part to produce food for us to eat.”
He also takes on the issue of Hunger Challenge participants complaining about having to go without high-end food items.
“‘You guys are whining about missing your latte. That’s shameful and not very realistic. 5 days isn’t going to teach you what it is like.’
I’m going to agree with you on the one hand and disagree with you on the other. Yes, it comes across as crass and silly and stupid.
At the same time, that is exactly what I wager 75% of you would say if you ended up on food assistance. ‘How am I going to not get my $4 latte?’ ‘I am not going to not appease my sweet tooth!’ ‘How am I never going to be able to give my child a treat? I need this money for real food!’ I argue that the people who say this, and then stick with it for the whole week, are the ones who are going to learn the most. Many who are calling them on this, those who know what it is like to be on food stamps, have been (or were) on them long enough to be able to work out how to make things happen. And five days is enough time to understand some of the issues.”
Another Hunger Challenge participant, Tom Moran, tweeted this in response to the Publicola article:
@SeattleDonorBiz @ericacbarnett The key Q? is, what changes because of you and #HungerChallenge? Impact beyond 1 week? Traveller or tourist?
For some, the Hunger Challenge is an eye-opening experience. For others, it’s a crass stunt. What do you think?