A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Rice, Beans, and a Serving of Reality

By Jamie Rogers on November 7, 2017

Barbara Gomperts, MA English ’08, wondered how she was going to make one can of beans last three days.  

She had $4.18 to spend on food each day for the next three days—a total of $12.54.  

Barbara Gomparts

For Gomperts, a nutrition major, this was a project for the NUTR 626 Food Systems class, offered at Mason this summer. But for others, it’s a way of life.  

Students in the class are required to take the SNAP Challenge—named after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Participants in the challenge try eating healthily on the amount of money SNAP benefits provide. In this case it was the national average of $4.18 per day for a single person, says course instructor Kerri LaCharite, a professor in Mason’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.  

The challenge has been around for years, with celebrities often participating for a week or more. LaCharite says she assigns the challenge each semester she teaches the course; it’s a requirement unless a student has a medical or other valid reason for not participating.  

“Even with just three days, it’s usually an emotional and impactful experience for students,” LaCharite says. “They gain some personal insight of the stress of shopping to avoid going over and facing the embarrassment of asking the clerk to take off an item.” 

When the budget is tight, shoppers have to head to the grocery store with a plan. Gomperts chose brown rice, frozen berries, cheddar cheese, whole-fat Greek yogurt, and a can of beans to sustain her for three days. She didn’t have enough money to buy meat for protein, so the beans were key.  

Even so, “I miscalculated,” says Gomperts, who is the office manager in Mason’s Department of English. “I had one can of beans divided by three instead of six.”  

So instead of having a lunch and a dinner of rice, beans, and cheese each day, she had just rice for dinner.  

The challenge is meant for students to answer one key question: Can you eat healthy on food assistance?  

“My answer is no, you can’t—at least not a single person on an average of $125 a month,” Gomperts says.  

The challenge left her short on 19 nutrients and 300 to 400 calories below what she needed to maintain her body weight, Gomperts wrote in her positional essay for the class.  

Overall, the assignment teaches students an important lesson about food, says LaCharite. “They understand cravings at a deeper level. Many students find that they are constantly thinking about food, their next meal, and the stress of rationing.”

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