Hunger is something that at least 27,000 children and 58,000 adults in Vermont experience every day.  But just what does that statistic really mean?  What does it feel like to be hungry all the time, and how does it affect your ability to think, stay active, and be healthy?

Recently, I decided to try to better understand hunger and food insecurity by taking the “3SquaresVT” Challenge, managed by Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide non-profit education and advocacy organization whose mission is to end hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters.  Along with a number of our doctors, nurses, and staff at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the UVM Medical Center, I agreed that during the month of March, which is National Nutrition Month, we would live on the equivalent of food stamps (which is called the “3SquaresVT” program in our state) for seven consecutive days (or 21 meals).  What does this mean?  It means I, like anyone else on food stamps, would be living on a weekly budget of $38.00 per week or $1.80 per meal. 

The Challenge requires that you eat only the food you purchase that week—and not food already in the refrigerator or given to you by others.  In preparing for this challenge, I learned first-hand, even before I started, just how expensive healthy foods can be when you shop at the grocery store, and how less expensive the unhealthy foods are.  One can certainly feel much more full on cheaper foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, which is a contributor to why many low-income children are overweight or obese.

My diet for the week looked like this:

  • Lots of rice and other carbohydrates
  • Some cheap ground beef and chicken
  • Limited fruits and vegetables (largely due to price)
  • A few not-so-nutritious snacks and beverages

All brands purchased were generic ones and I was limited on volumes and portions for essentially every meal.  So could a week living on the equivalent of food stamps actually make you feel hungry?

Actually, after 24 hours, I was hungry and began to think about when my next small meal would be.  I have never been so hungry or food conscious in my life as I was during the week of the challenge.  Instead of looking at people’s faces in the halls or the cafeteria (which I would pass by since I could not afford to buy food there), I looked at the food people were carrying or eating, thinking what that food might taste like if I could afford it.  By two days in, I had lost two pounds, and found myself constantly thinking how many hours until I could afford to eat my next meal.  It only took a few days until I began to worry whether I would have enough food to make it through the week and I realized that I too was becoming food insecure.

By the end of the week, I had unintentionally lost five pounds, was more tired than I can remember, and found myself not concentrating and more moody than I normally am.  I was literally counting the meals down in my mind until the challenge was over and then realized that for families on food stamps, there is no countdown and it is likely they feel like I did during this week all the time.

Although the challenge ended for me after seven days, I don’t think I can ever forget the feelings it generated in me—and as a result, I will now advocate even more for our patients and families who experience food insecurity and hunger, and whose “challenge” is not just living on food stamps for seven days—but everyday.  While I cannot begin to experience or understand what families on food stamps experience on an ongoing basis, I do know how important it is to advocate on their behalf at the federal, state, and local level to insure that we do all we can to eradicate hunger and food-insecurity.

The challenge for all of us going forward, whether or not you take the 3SquaresVT Challenge, is to do what we can to improve access to healthy foods for low-income Vermonters so that every child and family is given the opportunity to not just survive, but thrive in terms of their health and wellbeing.  If you don’t believe me, take the 3SquaresVT Challenge and begin to see for yourself what hunger and food insecurity are all about. (If you do, please leave a comment below about your experience.)

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the University of Vermont Medical Center and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and on WPTZ Channel 5. Visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.uvmhealth.org/firstwithkids.    

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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