During the week of Thanksgiving, we will share the reflections of students in Dr. Lisa Ottum’s rhetoric class.  This fall, they focused on what it means to eat well, including a number of interesting field experiences that challenged many students to consider issues of food justice.

Four dollars and zero cents. Four dollars and ZERO cents to buy dinner for three people. No more, maybe less. For a lot of people, even when we shop on a budget, we have the luxury of being able to afford going over our set goal by a few cents– a penny here or there. But for families surviving off of the government assistance program SNAP, that zero cents means there is zero room for error. Every penny counts.

Some people go day to day wondering how they will be able to afford their next meal or feed their family. In order to give me just a glimpse of what it is like to live off of the SNAP program, my English Rhetoric class took a trip to our local Kroger and participated in a simulation shopping trip as if we were on the program. We took the city bus to Kroger, since many people on the SNAP program might have to rely on public transportation. Once there, we were split into groups and given scenarios to shop under certain circumstances. I was in a group of three, and our lucky allotment was, yes, four dollars and zero cents. Let the challenge begin.

I don’t know if you did the math, but that is little over a dollar per person. If you haven’t noticed, purchasing a nutritious and filling meal for roughly only $1.33 seems nearly impossible once you are surrounded by shelves and shelves of cheap, processed foods and expensive, fresh foods. So, the only thing to do is to look at everything, memorize the prices, and then look at everything again. You have to be sure that what you are choosing will allow for more room within the budget. So you look and you look, keeping in mind that you may be on a time limit if you are waiting for the bus. You wrack your brain and crunch the numbers and with disappointment you have to sometimes put things back because you just can’t afford it. You have that zero mark you can’t go beyond, and it weighs down on you heavily. The moment of truth arrives as you scan each item.

We ended up with a bag of cheap pasta, equally cheap sauce, whole, un-cut carrots and three bananas. I remember smiling with pleasure at the major victory of the total that read $3.57. We stayed clear of that four dollars and zero cents monster that kept us confined with an unbreakable grip.

Sure, as a student here at Xavier, sometimes I feel I know what it’s like to be broke. I falsely assume I understand fully the anxiety caused by the sight of an empty wallet. I act like payday is a matter of life or death. But the truth is, I don’t REALLY know what it is like to be absolutely broke. I don’t know the blows to the confidence and the pangs of embarrassment people experience when they can’t provide for their family or themselves on their own. If I were in the shoes of someone on SNAP, I would better understand what it means to have no money. In an instant, it wouldn’t be a struggle to afford things I want; it would be a struggle to afford things I need.

That trip helped me to see that receiving that kind of assistance isn’t always nutritious and it’s definitely not easy. It makes me thankful that I am blessed to have, at the very least, an extra penny to spend when I shop. It also makes me conscious that I can shop with much less anxiety than recipients of the program are subject to. I think everyone here at Xavier would benefit from this kind of experience, because people going through this struggle walk among us every single day. How can we be a people for others, if we do not understand the other people we are trying to help? In essence, that four dollars and zero cents bought more than a meal. It bought me the lesson that being a people for others starts with putting ourselves in the place of others, because when it comes to someones life, there is zero room for error.

Brooke Mills is a first-year public relations major in the University Scholars program.
She comes from a small town called Ashville, Ohio, so big city life is fairly new and
exciting for her. Just watch out for her on the roads. If you ever need a good laugh, you
can find her, talk to her, and watch her comical facial expressions commonly made fun
of by her friends.