A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

One family's experiment living on a food-stamp budget

The Rules


Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin, 2009) is a complete gimmick. It contains virtually no original thought but rather collects the folk wisdom of the world’s grandmothers into a pocket-sized best seller that raked in—I can only imagine—a glutton’s fortune for its author. I bought three copies. I love Food Rules because the folk wisdom it collects is just that—wise. For several years “no seconds, snacks or sweets except on days starting with S” was a food rule in our house. It made us mindful, if not any skinnier. Mindful is good. Of course, for every rule, one immediately begins the search for loopholes. We’re human, after all. Our favorite loophole was that Friday at sun down was the start of Shabbat—which starts with S—so we could have pudding with our supper. Now if that isn’t lame for an Episcopal/Buddhist household, I don’t know what is!

As dangerous as rules are for their temptation into rebellion, they provide structure, edges if you will. They purposefully define the space in which we can feel free to explore. Rules, specifically Rules of Life, are also a long-held part of the Christian tradition for lay and ordered alike. Sometimes we call them tradition (eating fish on Friday during Lent for Roman Catholics). Sometimes they are vows we take ourselves or on behalf of another (our baptismal covenant). And sometimes they can be even more formal (monastic rules of life). Or much less formal (an internal code of ethics). Whatever the context, they form the boundaries and context of our day-to-day, moment-to-monent decision-making. So my family’s SNAP practice needs rules too. Here is what we have agreed to:

1. This challenge is just about food. SNAP doesn’t cover soap or crayons or balloons or any of the myriad of other things one can get at the supermarket. So we will “count” only things that we will eat.

2. But we will count all food that we purchase, including food eaten at restaurants. This is a little bit of a cheat because SNAP vouchers cannot be used in restaurants. This rule closes a big loophole for us. In the world outside of Lent, we have the means—if we choose—to circumvent our SNAP practice by eating out. If we do, we must deduct that cost from our weekly budget.

3. Gifts are gifts. We have the good (or bad) fortune of having two family birthdays during Lent. If we happen to be gifted a voucher for a restaurant, we may use it—guilt free. However, if our meal costs more than the value of the gift certificate, that amount comes out of our weekly food budget. We can also accept, with gratitude, any meals that we are offered. If you’ve been thinking to invite us to supper…

4. We still have to meet our own obligation of hospitality from within our SNAP budget. Hospitality has always been a big part of our practice. We bring a contribution to the House Church table each week. I am also scheduled to bring dinner to the Education for Ministry seminar next Monday and have joyfully committed to bring a meal to a family welcoming a new baby. We also will be joining friends for a communal—pitch in—meal over the weekend. Those gifts will come out of our budget. (Hope y’all weren’t expecting fillet!)

5. Found food is fine.

6. The Pantry. This is a challenging question. (Feel free to weigh in imaginary reader.) Using the spices, oil and condiments that are already in our pantry seems fine, with the caveat that if we use something up, we replace it in kind from our budget. For other things, we did our best to eat our way through our food reserves as we approached Ash Wednesday. But there’s still part of a gallon of milk, some flour and corn meal, half a brick of cheese, some rice, oatmeal and frozen veggies still hanging around. The Scot in me just couldn’t throw them out. I still hear my mother’s admonishment about starving children in [fill in the blank]. But is it fair to eat this food during our SNAP fast? I’ve decided that those things that I would be willing to replace on our SNAP budget, I’ll use and replace. Those things that I wouldn’t consider go into the freezer until after Easter.

And thanks be to God that Easter will come for us. We are blessed to have the luxury to make The Rules.


2 thoughts on “The Rules

  1. I was wondering what you’d do with items in the pantry. As an unimaginary reader, my vote is that you ate down the pantry pre-Ash Wednesday, and you have to replace it, anything in the pantry is fair game. Let’s make the assumption that your family wasn’t previously on SNAP, and got on to SNAP yesterday- if that was the case, you’d still eat whatever was in the pantry. So go for it.

    • I felt like I had offered myself too much of loophole there! I guess it is true that if we had suddenly lost our jobs or something and found ourselves needing, we would still have had what we had. However, I’m staying away from the meat in the freezer…just to be fair.

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