A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

“I don’t like _________!”

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We arrived home from school the other day. There was general bustle because both girls had to depart for practice within about an hour. Triage: “Do you have homework?” [groans]

“Did you finish your lunch?”

“I don’t like the orange hummus.” [You liked fine it on Friday.]

“I don’t like the oranges with the peel left on.” [Take them off.]

“Do you want a snack?”

“Yes, but I don’t like the noodles you made yesterday.” [Too bad, they are reappearing for supper.]

“Yes, but I don’t like the solid mozzarella you put in the quesadilla. The shredded is better.” [Explicative deleted!]

I confess to being pretty darn tired of “I don’t like ____!” a phrase that seems to be cropping up more frequently these days.

Before we had children, we made a conscious decision not to raise picky eaters. We had observed plenty of them and just didn’t want to go there. Our favorite stories of fussy eaters came from our times leading the semester abroad in Australia and New Zealand. Armies and field parties run on their stomachs. During our field trip in New Zealand, food options became limited on the west coast of the South Island. This was a lamb-and-potatoes culture. A vegetarian meal meant chicken. Of course, we did our best to accommodate the students with special dietary needs: no shellfish, no strawberries, no pork, and the honest herbivores. But when we rocked up for dinner on the third night of brown slices in brown gravy with mash, there was a sudden outbreak of food issues that threw our cooks into a tizzy and left the real vegetarians with no supper. Next day there was a fight over the four of 40 sandwiches in our packed lunch that the fussy eaters found acceptable. By then end of three weeks in the field, I was ready to turn them all over to their Applebee’s Asian chicken salads.

Then there are the parents we know who dutifully prepare three different dinners every day: one for themselves, one for Kid 1 and one for Kid 2. No overlap. Observing this from the pre-child vantage point, it seemed ridiculous. Viewed from the perspective of a parent, it’s insane.

Until we began our Lenten SNAP Challenge, I rather smugly thought of my own children—ages 10 and 7—as having a pretty wide trophic range. When folks invite us to dinner and ask about dietary preferences, I proudly report that we—including the girls—are happy omnivores who eat just about anything. Occasionally, hosts view this as a challenge. But mostly we are easy guests.

But suddenly, it seems, “I don’t like _______!” has become part our daily food conversation.

What is that about? It could be a phase. Children can be picky and as they grow, preferences change. It could also be that I’m now more sensitive to “I don’t like ____!” because I’m paying more attention to food than I was three weeks ago. Certainly, I always pay attention to food. But my attention is focused on providing lots of healthy and balanced options. And that, I think, is the key: Options.

I remember one of my chief frustrations of being a kid: lack of control. Somebody else—mostly my mother—decided what I would eat and when, what I would wear, who I would hang out with and when, what I would do most of the time, what TV I watched, what books I read, what activities I pursued. That was just the way it was and therefore perfectly normal. But I remember hitting some of her meals that I really really really didn’t like* and wishing that I had some choices. The only available choice, of course, was supper or no supper.

A change for my children since we began the Lenten SNAP Challenge is that there are fewer choices. When considering the pre-practice snack, the first question was “what is there?” with the expectation of three or four options from which to choose. I could usually predict what each child would choose. And I usually stacked the deck with things that were intentionally unappealing. But it remained a choice. Perhaps just the ability to choose gave the children greater investment—and a more positive outlook—toward their meal. With the leaner and meaner Lenten budget, the options have narrowed to yes—I would like a snack or no—I don’t need one. Loss of choice seems to generate push-back. Not unexpected. And one of the realities of our SNAP experiment is that the extras are gone: granola bars, the diversity of fruit and veggies, the plethora of left overs, and various odds and ends that make diverse and interesting lunch and snack options.

The clever reader with plenty of time on his or her hands will say: Just be more creative and figure out a way to offer more diversity. That certainly is the answer. This afternoon, for example, we have a pot of bean chili going, which can be combined with the refugee tortillas in the fridge and a bit of the coveted shredded cheese to make an after school burrito. That should be a hit.

But I’ll be honest: This is the Colleges’ spring break and I have a little extra head space to be food creative. Once classes resume and I am flung headlong into the insanity of academic April, it’s going to be all I can manage to get something semi-nutritious on the table with our balance sheet under budget.

I imagine that this is how it is for most folks on SNAP. They are trying to get by, slightly—or hugely—overwhelmed by the challenges flying at them. They are trying their best, just as we all are. It’s easy for Paul Ryan (net worth $4.9 million) to say “try harder”. He can hire someone to fix his kids’ lunches. It’s even easy for me to tell myself to “try harder” but in reality there’s only so much one can do in a day.

WHOA! For those who know me, there’s a real learning for the season.

* My least favorite of my mother’s regular meal repertoire was prepared as follows: Take three frozen blue fish steaks and place them in a baking dish. Surround the fish with frozen Tater Tots. Pack tightly. Cover with Campbell’s condensed cream of shrimp soup until completely submerged and bake until the whole thing becomes a pink, gelatinous mass. My mother was very vigilant about food safety; nothing was ever under-cooked. And its true, we never contracted food poisoning or trichinosis.

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