The students at the University of Houston are under the guidance of Daphne Hernandez.
"Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance. What I specifically teach in terms of this class is Public Policy and Nutrition."
Students from her department go on to be health professionals. Hernandez says before this semester, she had her students create hypothetical shopping lists to get the best bang for the buck from food stamps.
"But I wanted to take it a step further and really prepare the students for their future, when they see a client who's making decisions on a limited budget. So I decided to challenge the students, and challenge myself, and see what it was like to live on a limited $25 food budget for the week."
Twenty-five dollars is the average weekly benefit for a single person whose income is low enough to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's the formal name for food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs the program. It says about 75 percent of SNAP recipients don't rely just on that benefit. They spend some of their own money on food, as well — a point Hernandez concedes:
"But, there is a portion of society that is 100 percent dependent on the funds. And it's the result of the lingering effects of the recession. And, now with the cuts to unemployment benefits, we're likely going to see an increase in the individuals who are participating in SNAP."
SNAP payments recently endured a one-two punch. In November, stimulus money that temporarily boosted the benefits ran out. And earlier this month, President Obama signed a Farm Bill that cuts more than $8 billion from SNAP over the next decade.
Hernandez says the point of her particular Food Stamp Challenge is to find out how current benefits meet nutritional needs. Now that the challenge is over, she and her students will analyze everything they ate.
"If we're able to show that we're able to maintain a healthy diet, then it's not about increasing the funds of the SNAP benefit program, it's about nutrition education."
UH Senior Fiorella Saavedra was one of ten students who took part in the challenge. She's a biology major with a minor in nutrition. She says her knowledge helped her meet her protein and carbohydrate needs. But she fell short when it came to fiber and calories.
"I guess one thing that I've thought about, in terms of, maybe, a policy change that needs to be made is for people who are on food stamps to receive some type of nutrition education — maybe even cooking workshops — something that will help them make better food decisions."
The USDA does offer classes, through local food agencies, to help SNAP recipients make better food choices. But those classes are optional, and not a requirement to receive food aid.