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University of Baltimore law students take the food stamp challenge

Some University of Baltimore law students inadvertently put one foot in the real world last fall when they signed up for the Law and Poverty Seminar. In addition to reading case law related to poverty, they were required to get face-to-face with the poor.

Or stomach-to-stomach.

While some volunteered at homeless shelters and worked on expungement cases at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a majority opted to take the “food stamp challenge”: limit their expenditure on groceries to $26.75 for a week (the average food stamp benefit).

And no freebies from friends.

“I had never taught this seminar with an experiential component before. I didn’t know how they’d react,” said UB Law professor Michele Gilman, who co-taught the seminar with clinical fellow Erika Wilson. “But all the feedback was uniformly positive. Not one person was disgruntled.

“From teaching in the clinical program, I can see the value of what happens when students work with poor clients,” Gilman continued. “It can be a powerful experience. I tried to give these seminar students experience with the realities of poverty. We had some good discussions in class about their essays.”

In her essay, Sarah Mendiola said she noticed the little things — like “peanut butter costs $2.50, even at Wal-Mart.”

“To stay under budget is hard and the fact that you have to plan out a week of meals is even harder,” wrote Mendiola, a third-year student. “I spent $6.36 at Wal-Mart and $20.10 at The Dollar Tree. My food costs for the week were a whopping $26.46. Unfortunately, I ran out of food before the week was over.”

Mendiola said she found it difficult to imagine families actually having to feed themselves on such a small budget.

“If you want … a good quantity of food, it is nearly impossible to afford any fresh fruits or vegetables, or anything healthy or organic,” she noted. “One thing I had to do was plan every meal and carefully control my portions. When I was hungry, I would munch on my splurge, a large box of granola bars I found on sale for $2.28 at Wal-Mart.”

Mendiola, who plans to work with low-income people after law school, said that not only are the poor looked down upon, their lives become open books to every agency they seek aid from.

“It made me wonder how this group of people — who can barely afford enough food to make it week to week — can even navigate the complicated world of financial assistance,” she said in an e-mail interview. “Besides being sympathetic to the everyday plight of poverty, it makes you wonder if all of those that are eligible for benefits are even able to apply and receive them.”

Susan Francis, a third-year student, didn’t think the food stamp challenge would be difficult. After all, she and her partner (who joined her in the challenge) are a single-income household—and $53 a week should have been enough.

“And then I started to think about all the other things we don’t count in that weekly grocery budget,” Francis wrote. “There’s the CSA (community supported agriculture), where we get fresh vegetables every week from a local, organic farmer. There’s the monthly trip to Costco and the liquor store. And there [are] the miscellaneous things we pick up along the way during the week. All of a sudden, the allotted amount didn’t seem so much.”

The hardest thing was not having choices.

“While I tend to live my life pretty frugally, the fundamental difference has been that I’ve always chosen to live that way,” Francis wrote. “We forego a lot of the niceties of life — new clothes, new household items, going out to eat and to cultural events. But it never seemed like a sacrifice because we decided together that our priority would be to pay off our bills and for me to go to law school.

“Missing those things doesn’t seem so harsh when it’s something that you’ve chosen to do,” she continued. “But when it’s not a choice, when there really isn’t any more money to stretch, and you still can’t purchase the basic necessities, that leaves one with a completely different feeling of frustration and powerlessness that I’ve never felt before, even when living on a shoe-string budget while working two jobs to pay my bills.”

Francis plans to become a public interest lawyer, and the challenge didn’t change that.

“But it gave me a very small window into one of the insurmountable challenges that people living in poverty are expected to overcome,” she added. “It gave me a real grounding in what we expect people to survive on, and what a challenge that really is.”

Second-year student David Beste kicked off his week by buying a quantity of bulk food (“Goya ended up being my brand of choice”).

“The largest problem … was that I was bored with what I was eating and the nutritional value was minimal,” Beste wrote. “I am accustomed to large amounts of salads, fruits and vegetables, but these would not fit into my budget. The massive amounts of rice and beans were making me sick.”

As a law student who spends much of his time reading, a growling stomach didn’t go unnoticed: “I did not find any good ways to distract myself from hunger. If anything, I became repulsed at the idea of eating because it became so boring and work-like.”

Based on his experience, Beste made a policy recommendation — find a way to help people with food stamps buy fruits and vegetables.

“If the true intent is to provide healthy options to people in need, the current system falls short,” he wrote. “Perhaps more food stamp value should be available to people, but only for fruits and vegetables and nothing else … . Instead of raising the weekly amount, the ‘fruit/vegetable’ option could be available to those that want it separate from regular food stamps.”

Professor Gilman, who also directs UB Law’s Civil Advocacy Clinic, hopes the students will achieve a more “thoughtful and nuanced” approach with the poor in their careers.

“Our profession is one that is committed to advancing social justice,” the law professor said. “This exercise gave the students a broader framework and gave them experience. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that they know what it feels like to be poor.

“But it slowed things down so they could think,” Gilman added. “It made them reflect on the ways that poverty affects people. It made poverty less abstract, more real.”

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.