The poverty in Camden, New Jersey was unlike anything I have ever seen before. The rundown houses, abandoned businesses and trash-ridden streets looked like something out of a movie. Driving around, I frequently had to remind myself I was still within the boarders of the richest country in the world.

The day I ate like a resident of Camden is a day I will never forget. Over 973,000 of the people in Camden are living below the poverty line. This means that the average income for a resident is just $22,043 a year, less than one third of the median income for the rest of the state of New Jersey, which is around $70,000 per year.( Over 72,000 people living in Camden have classified themselves as food insecure. This means that 72,000 Camden residents lack adequate access to food and are unsure of where their next meal will come from. The inconsistent access to food leads to a variety of health problems for people, including obesity, diabetes, and shorter life span.

After working with the homeless and hungry population in Camden, myself and thirteen other volunteers from Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, decided to eat like some of the locals for the day.

Each of us were told to bring $3 on our service trip. For what, we had no idea. Bright and early Wednesday morning, we all gathered in the living room of the Romero Center, patiently waiting for the go ahead to start making breakfast and get the coffee brewing. However, we were instructed to gather in our groups of four (our “families”) and head out to the vans. We traveled to one of the two grocery stores in the entire city of Camden and were told to use our (collective) $12 to feed our family breakfast, lunch and dinner for the day. We were not allowed to eat or drink anything that we did not purchase that morning at the store (the Romero Center provided us with unlimited access to water, which is not always the case for people in Camden). Each family was given a slip of paper with a predetermined situation that limited the food items they were able to purchase. Some families had to buy strictly low sodium foods, while others had illegal immigrant members who could not contribute money to their grocery bill. Some families were homeless and had no access to kitchen appliances of any kind, and another had members with diabetes and had to steer clear of sugar and fruit. This put each person in the shoes of someone living like that in Camden every day. For my family in particular, we had to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for four, using a loaf of white bread, a jar of combined pb&j, a bag of potato chips, a half gallon of expired milk, a box of corn flakes and four bananas that we happened to find on sale. At first glance, this seems sustainable, but a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a hearty side of dry cereal is hardly fun to eat three times.

Since coffee was way over budget and my family didn’t even have access to appliances, my participation at the service site I visited was not my best. Like many other Merrimack volunteers, I felt sluggish and out of it, unable to fulfill my goal of being fully present and in the moment. Caisie Wynot, a volunteer from Merrimack, explained that, “after [her] day of living on this budget, [she] had a headache, felt sick and couldn’t contribute to group activities” and couldn’t imagine herself as a student in Camden, attending school and eating like that everyday. As a group, our eyes were opened to the harsh realities of hunger in America.

We only participated in this challenge for 24 hours, so it should have hardly been taxing on our minds or bodies. However, as young adults with affluent resources at our fingertips in our own homes, this was a whole new world for us all. The food we were able to purchase was less than nutritious for the day. Imagine having to buy the most processed, artificial food in the grocery store because that’s all you could afford, and would rather your family eat that than go hungry. This is a reality for so many people in America that most choose to ignore. The human body needs oxygen, food, and water (among other things) to survive. While the air we breathe is seemingly free, the basic necessities of food and water are treated as a luxury. American citizens that need help are being deprived of food to sustain a nutritious life. Teens and adults cannot cognitively perform to their best abilities and poverty and obesity are continuing to correlate. According to, children deprived of essential nutrients in their first few years of life can suffer from a multitude of complications, including a compromised immune system, stunted growth, and delays in motor and cognitive development. In the country of equal opportunity, we are taking away chances of success from every child living under the poverty line in America.

As angry as this information may make you, it cannot stop there. Awareness and anger are the first steps to changing the way the government aids people in need of food assistance. Get involved at the local level. Help out in a shelter or food bank in your area. Donate nutritious food. Educate everyone around you about the horrors of hunger in America. Many people ignore this situation because it seems too hard for just one person to change. But one person spreading awareness and serving others can have a ripple effect. Educate, anger, and inspire others to make a difference with you. And on your journey to change the world, keep people like those in Camden, New Jersey in your thoughts and prayers.