A Farm to Families food box at the Marion Polk Food Share on May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A group of Salem nonprofits wants you to know what it’s like to tighten your belt.

Starting next week, 14 area nonprofits will kick off the first-ever Willamette Valley Hunger Challenge, an event intended to raise awareness of food insecurity.

Participants can commit to only spending $45 a week, or $6.38 a day per person on food. That’s the maximum amount recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also called “SNAP” or “food stamps”) can receive. The challenge is to give participants a sense of what it’s like to live on a strict food budget and the accompanying physical and psychological effects.

Participants can also opt to pick a length of time to go without food (with health and safety considerations in mind) to experience what it’s like when their bodies crave food that’s out of reach. Those that opt to fast are encouraged to focus their thoughts on those in their community experiencing hunger.

The challenge coincides with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and will take place from Sunday, Nov. 15 through Sunday, Nov. 22.

“Our hopes are that participants will gain a better understanding of the difficult choices food-insecure families face, discover how we are all working together to find solutions and give support where they can,” said Elise Bauman, executive director of Salem Harvest, a fruit and vegetable gleaning nonprofit that's leading the challenge.

Bauman said that the project is based on the SNAP Challenge, a similar project that’s been adopted elsewhere, and was spearheaded with the help of Craig and Cherie Cline, a local couple involved with philanthropic efforts.

Hunger is a problem in Oregon. Nearly one in seven Oregonian households were food insecure between 2014 and 2016, according to the challenge’s website. In Salem, 20% of households reported receiving food stamps in 2019, according to Census data. Hunger can affect the performance of children in school and lead to health problems with adults, particularly seniors.

“The twin scourges of food insecurity and hunger are deeply harmful — especially to the children of our community,” the couple said on a statement on the challenge’s website. “These maladies are unacceptable to us, and we won’t permit them to exist.  It’s our collective mission to always do whatever we must to reduce and eradicate them.”

Bauman said that the couple suggested the fasting option, and she consulted with multiple faith leaders about the spiritual significance of the practice. She said that when discussing the project’s launch she and the Clines decided to bring in other nonprofits to get the word out. The 14 nonprofits include the Marion Polk Food Share, Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action, Free Fridge Salem, Family Building Blocks and others.

Bauman said she hopes to get hundreds of people to participate this year. While the challenge isn’t specifically seeking to raise money for nonprofits, Bauman said she hopes it will spur participants to act.

“I'm hoping what that what happens next is they find some way in their lives to work towards ending hunger and food insecurity in our community,” she said. “I hope their experience here will broaden their minds.”

She said that might mean volunteering somewhere or even starting a project in their own neighborhood.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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