A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

“Do not be afraid”

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What is the most frequently issued commandment in the Bible?

“Do not be afraid.”

The injunction—which appears 54 times in Christian scripture—rarely comes directly from the disembodied voice of God, but more commonly from some messenger: an angel, a prophet or other holy person, in a vision or from Jesus himself. And in each case, the message is delivered to some hapless human who has stumbled into a situation where every stitch of common sense would suggest that fear is an appropriate response. So it was for my older daughter.

I hatched the idea of the Lenten SNAP Challenge last fall when Congress was debating, and eventually passed, significant cuts to the SNAP program. The arguments ran along several familiar lines: 1) It’s too expensive. 2) There’s too much waste and fraud. 3) It’s not our responsibility. 4) It’s too generous. I had good answers for 1-3. You pay for what’s important—we all do that individually and should as a society. Hunger is important. There’s actually very little waste and fraud, around two percent, much better than many other, richer, federal programs. I believe it is my responsibility—back to that clear injunction in Matthew 25:35-40. But I wasn’t at all sure how generous it really was. I did some research and came up with the $21 per day for a family of four figure. That seemed reasonable although well short of per diem for the well-heeled. And the friends with whom I spoke seemed evenly divided between those who thought it generous and those who thought it unreasonably stingy. As an aside, the split had some interesting gender, age and responsibility divides. If you were an older man who seldom did the grocery shopping, you were more likely to think the figure generous. I still didn’t have a good opinion on whether SNAP provided abundance or even adequacy. Then I encountered a genre of writing on the SNAP challenge. It seemed that most people who tried it for a day or a week complained bitterly and commonly failed, suggesting that the $21 was woefully inadequate. Still unconvinced, I reckoned that the only way to know was to try and a day or a week wasn’t long enough. Simultaneously, my girls were bringing home conversations about hunger from school. Mostly they were talking about far-away people who could benefit from their spare change, sacks of rice and canned beans. It was leading to a conclusion that hunger was someone else’s problem. It is not. It surrounds us even if it is nearly invisible. So I hatched the Lenten plan.

As Ash Wednesday approached, I sprung the plan on the rest of the family. David was surprisingly willing—as long as it wasn’t vegan, he was cool. As long as meals would be served on the accustomed schedule, Rose was cool. And, she helpfully pointed out, mushrooms are really expensive so we should cut them right out. Thanks for the suggestion. Laurel became dark and moody. She was brooding on something. At first, she wouldn’t talk. Then she finally admitted that she was afraid.

“Afraid of what?” I asked. I could guess but I wanted her to say it. “Afraid that I won’t have enough to eat and I’ll be too hungry,” she confessed. I gave her a snuggle and lied one of those parental lies that are harmless but comforting: “Don’t be afraid. It will be fine. We will have to make some different choices about what we eat but you won’t go hungry.” In fact, I wasn’t at all sure about that. Our usual food bills generally exceeded $200 a week so things were going to be tight. At that moment, before we started, I wasn’t at all confident that we wouldn’t be at least a little hungry. And in the back of my head were swirling media stories about mothers choosing to feed their kids and fast themselves as the end of the month approached and the food stamps ran out. I was a little afraid too.

So here we were in a situation—granted of our own making—where any reasonable person, applying common sense as my daughter was, should be afraid. And here I was, telling her not to be afraid for no particular reason other than you should trust me—The Mom—to make it okay. Stunningly Biblical moment.

I’ll spare you the sermon about trusting in God to provide. We’re doing fine because of the generosity of others and our own thoughtful planning. Perhaps those are gifts from a loving universe—but they certainly aren’t supernatural or in any but the most common way miraculous. And I can report that the fear has subsided as we have moved through the first week and a half of this practice. I don’t know whether it is because of the command “Do not be afraid” (probably not), the promise that all would be well (unlikely), or the experience that it hasn’t been as bad as imagined. Perhaps we will find out. I plan to interview both girls about their experience a little later in the season.

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