A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

Journey through the Food Desert

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Well, I lied. In an earlier post I said that we were lucky not to live in a food desert. Food deserts are places the lack markets selling diverse and relatively inexpensive food. Food deserts are a central problem in American hunger. What if you can’t find good-quality inexpensive food? You are forced to choose between spending what you don’t have or buying the inexpensive but poor-quality food that is so readily available at gas stations and convenience stores. I was a little smug about living in a food rainforest, to be honest.

And it’s true, we are blessed to live in a food rainforest—or at least a food tall-grass prairie—maybe not the world’s most diverse food landscape but a rich one that supports a lot of different options at a wide range of prices. But what I hadn’t anticipated was traveling through a food desert. Here’s what happened us on Saturday.

We were traveling to take Kid 2 to a gymnastics meet in Buffalo. We had a 7:30 a.m. arrive time at the gym, too early to depart from home Saturday morning. We are blessed with the hospitality of friends in the Buffalo area who offered us supper Friday evening, warm beds and breakfast. So we drove up to Buffalo right after we finished our Friday afternoon obligations. We intended to head home right after the meet to make our Saturday afternoon obligations in Geneva. Perfect. The plan was to finish the meet and high-tail it home for a late lunch—ample leftovers awaited. The Level 4 small teams session included over 100 girls and, as it always does, the balance beam dragged on and on. Then there was a seemingly interminable wait for awards.

ASIDE: It wasn’t the tiny gymnast’s best day out. She did not medal in vault (8.3) or bars (floppy feet = 8.6), came in 8th on floor (although with her best score so far this season = 9.5), and 5th on beam (9.425). She reported that she finally feels like she has a “real” front handspring. And reckons that given how they perform in practice they should all be doing much better. My optimist!

It was 12:45 p.m. by the time we were heading for the parking lot. Kid 1, who had been asking for lunch since about 8:30 a.m., was complaining of near fatal hunger. Making it home for lunch was no longer an option. Our friends has recommended a sandwich shop across the street from the arena so we headed over with high hopes. The on-line menu promised that we could satisfy everyone for around $25. Not the best for this week’s budget but we could live with it. But when we rocked up at the door, we were greeted by a sign saying: CLOSED: THANK YOU FOR YOUR YEARS OF PATRONAGE.

Panic. We drove around a bit but found no other food outlets beyond McDonald’s and we weren’t that desperate yet. We decided to hit the Thruway and stop at the first rest area. Pembroke was the first east-bound stop and we impatiently drove the 18 miles to get there. We rolled in only to realize that four tour buses at beaten us to the stop and the lines for all of the fast-food outlets were snaking well into the lobby. It looked like perhaps a 30 minute wait—maybe more. Given that we were already running late, that wasn’t an option. The Scotsville service area was 30 miles or more down the road. The girls weren’t going to last and for all we knew, another batch of tourists were about to pull in there. So we headed into the snack shop.

Welcome to the food desert.

The inexpensive stuff—chips, soda and candy—were abundant and prominently displayed. We wiggled our way through the crowd of other travelers to the very back of the store. We found something a bit more healthy: turkey jerky, nuts and dried fruit. I’ll skip the castigation on nutrition—we were now slightly desperate. Combined with some bottled milk and tea, we had the best lunch we were going to get. Back we went to the car and tore in.

It was not the most satisfying lunch. Kid 1 turned up her nose at the jerky and nuts, and contented herself with dried apples and a granola bar that we found in the bottom of the gym bag. I began to wonder whether one could legitimately be hungry and picky at the same time, but that’s a subject for another post. The hit to our budget was substantial—$46.48, almost twice as much as the pricey sandwich shop would have charged us for a better meal. And there’s the reality of food deserts. There are plenty of calories. But they were not the calories we needed or wanted and they came with a gold-plated price.

I’m not sure yet what will be the deeper learning from our trip through the food desert. For now, we found that food deserts are not only real for The Others, but that our affluent privilege does not insulate us completely from them. And hunger calls us to make choices we really wish that we didn’t have to make.

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