Last week, Vanderbilt School of Medicine challenged its second year students to participate in “The SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) Challenge.” Individuals participating in the SNAP Challenge live on $3.38 per day, which is the average food stamp budget, for five days. To put things into perspective, the students were allowed to spend $16.90 (5 days x $3.38 per day) at the grocery store and required us to not only plan for adequate caloric intake, but also to follow the nutritional advice that we were learning to dispense to our future patients.
I meticulously planned my meals for five days, which consisted of pasta with hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, eggs, and bananas. I accepted the fact that I could not bear a day without diet coke (not to mention five days), even though the soft drink cost an extravagant 30% of my budget. The first thing I noticed was how time-consuming and impractical it was to take a break in my busy day to (1) go home and (2) be creative and prepare a nutritious meal. It would have been much easier to grab a cheap candy bar and go to class. One hectic day, I had peanut butter and jelly for all three meals. Despite my best efforts to plan and prepare my food, my nutritional record at the end of the five days was dismal. I did not come close to hitting half of my recommended intake of fruits or vegetables, and the only goals I met were the ones for saturated and solid fats.
Our professors hoped that we would be able to gain some insight into the challenges that our patients would face when they tried to adhere to a healthy diet. After all, people on food stamps will make up significant portion of our patient population, and we need to learn how to best serve them. As of May 2010, nearly 40 million Americans were on food stamps. Due to the economic recession, this number is expected to rise to 43.3 million, about one in eight adults and one in four children. It is tragic that I, as a conscientious and well-informed medical student, was only able to meet or exceed the nutrition requirements for saturated and solid fats. With this difficulty in obtaining proper nutrition on a base level budget, it is no surprise that the obesity epidemic reflects social disparities in access to health care. Almost a third of low-income children aged 2-5 are overweight or obese. What I learned from my experience in the SNAP challenge is that despite our best efforts to gain perspective on how to give practical advice to future patients, obesity is a rising health epidemic that cannot be treated in the doctor’s office alone. Affordable access to healthy foods is an urgent issue that must be prioritized and addressed.