By Michelle Hardy
For budding philanthropists, a recession can be quite a dream crusher. Not for Suzanne Stiger, though, who supports needy families by donating her time, scissors, and used newspapers.
Manufacturers issue $330 billion dollars worth of coupons each year in the US, but less than $4 billion dollars worth are redeemed. Instead of letting that remaining $326 billion sit at the bottom of America’s kitchen wastebaskets, Suzanne Stigers decided the money belonged at community food pantries instead. She started clipping.
Stigers, a Sparta, New Jersey resident, had always used coupons for family shopping and decided to do the same for struggling families in her area. After submitting a press release on her “Coupons for the Community” campaign to a local newspaper six weeks ago, she attracted enough volunteers and coupon donations to raise $8,000 worth of food for over 600 families.
“These coupons are all out there for us, and its like leaving the money on the table if you don’t take the opportunity to use them,” explained Stigers.
While do-gooders bent on solving world hunger often ask how to change governments, institutions, and stigmas, Stigers believes some of the most important questions can be as simple as, “If we only focused on finding things we could get for 29 cents or less, what could we do?”
The process is fantastically simple. Volunteers at the Sparta First Presbyterian Church help Stigers collect coupons for their Ecumenical Food Pantry, and for approximately every $10 they put toward grocery purchases, they provide $100 worth of donations by supplementing coupons.
Stigers’ fellow clippers each week come from a large group of friends and community members eager to spread her simple concept of neighborly support.
After just six weeks of work, ABC and NBC local news programs interviewed Stigers and her volunteers to commend their progress.
“Coupons for the Community” couldn’t have come at a more imminent time of need. A striking six million Americans have incomes consisting purely of food stamps, according to a New York Times article this January. While this group had been steadily growing after welfare law adjustments, it suddenly increased by 50% in the past two years amidst skyrocketing unemployment rates. Now, millions of families must survive on stamps alone, a system that is painfully slow and exclusionary.
Food stamps don’t pay for “non edible essentials,” such as toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste, and the like. Stigers especially hunts down coupons for these necessities so that food stamp families have more options. Pantries also restrict which families qualify to receive non-edibles, as well as basic food items like meat and milk. Since these restrictions don’t apply to Stigers’ donations, her program helps these pantries be more flexible with those they serve.
The increasing demand for food stamps also creates a five to six week wait for many of the families competing to enter this system. Stigers specifically tries to accommodate these families caught in nightmarish waiting periods with her program’s donations.
I asked Stigers’ advice for college-age activists in particular – passionate about fighting such hunger but often low on cash themselves. Apparently, students don’t even need to leave their dorms (or break their wallets) to join the coupon campaign. For campus residents who don’t subscribe to publications, Stigers suggests using the websites coupons.com and shopathome.com.
“Half of the people served by food pantries are often kids,” explained Stigers, “So this project is a great way for kids to help kids. The concept is very contagious and addictive, and students will have fun if they get involved and start a collective effort on campus.”
Ever since her local broadcast debuts, Stigers has hit the ground running with plans to spread her program far beyond Sparta. She now visits numerous local businesses in her county asking them to pledge small donations based on calculations for particular foods, factoring in coupon discounts of course.
To extend the “Coupons for the Community” mantra that a little means a lot, Stigers’ also invented a campaign called “The 100th Day of School.” New Jersey’s Sussex County elementary schools will ask groups of 100 students to bring in a total of 100 of an item that is worth 100 pennies. Such a campaign in which individuals sacrifice so little but the collective achieves enormous results is likely to go far – maybe even to the White House according to Stigers. She plans to write Michelle Obama asking that this concept become an initiative in schools across the country.
Stigers would love to hear feedback and ideas from any students participating in her projects or interested in getting involved. She asks that students contact her by visiting her website at: http://www.couponsforthecommunity.org/