A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

Score Card—Week 6

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We have completed our sixth week of the Lenten SNAP Challenge: trying to eat—hopefully even eat well—on $147 per week for our family of four…plus whoever else happens to be around at the moment. I add the caveat this week because school is out for the girls, David is on sabbatical and there are heaps of extra kids in the house this week. One hundred forty-seven dollars is the maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four in our region.  How did we do?

This week we were $21.21 over budget.

I can account for $16.08, which we spent to serve mid-afternoon snacks to our department on Wednesday. Turns out that the price of red grapes—a big favorite with the students—has gone up considerably in the last few weeks. The students were grateful, though! These weekly coffee hours are a focused attempt to rebuild relationships and improve the climate in our workplace. A laudable goal that I work willingly toward.

Here’s the truth:  We didn’t go over budget because I was feeding snacks to the Geoscience students—colleagues didn’t turn up this week. We went over budget because we spent $44.00 eating out with friends last Friday. At the time when we were calculating whether we could afford to go out, I reckoned that we had enough stored up to get us through Tuesday—the end of our calculation week. That was all fine until we spent $45.84 on various food-related items. There were the snacks for the department; I replenished the milk and salad dressing that we had used up (that’s the rule); I got more eggs and vinegar for more Easter egg dying; I got a can of chickpeas and a cucumber for supper; David spent a couple of bucks on lunch; and Laurel went to a Seder for supper. So, basically, we just overindulged*. All together, we spent $181.21, which, interestingly, is almost exactly what our “normal” spending was last year. We just fell off the Lenten wagon.

I could rationalize. The Colleges were sponsoring a parents-night-out fund-raiser and I had had a hard week. We also hadn’t seen these particular friends for over a month. The idea of going out for a meal and laughing a lot was just too tempting. We did offer to cook dinner at our house—which we could do for much less cash. Our friends declined because it seemed like an imposition. We tried for inexpensive options, but let’s face it: We weren’t going to McDonald’s! We stopped thinking like like food stamp recipients for a few hours.

I’ll spare you the hair shirt for having blown my Lenten discipline.

The real question here is why did I think that we should be able to go out just because I wanted to, regardless of budget? Answer: Despite six weeks of trying to live on a poverty budget, I still think like a rich person of privilege. I haven’t managed to really enter the mind and heart of poverty. That’s really no surprise. It is only our food budget that is impoverished. We are still sending our children to a parochial school; they still participate in expensive sports; we are still living in our nice house; I still bought a couple of books and had a massage (my major personal splurge) during Lent; and we really haven’t gone without much other than food. As I’ve reported, I’ve blunted that the sense of deprivation by offering weekly treats. So really, it was only my sense of entitlement that allowed me to violate my budget.

Entitlement has become a meme in American culture. Certainly, I could go on about the sense of entitlement that my students display. And from time to time, I definitely exercise my entitlement as a senior member of my profession. But our Lenten discipline is about trying to experience the condition of others. So either I’ve blown that goal or those without the means also feel entitlement. An important difference is that I don’t really have to make any sacrifices (except self-flagellation in writing!) or run up my credit card to indulge my entitlement. And since the average indebted low-income household carries more than $7,000 of credit card debt, maybe that’s the real answer. We feel we deserve more than our means and we put it on the plastic.

So what I’ve learned today is that my entitlement is the real challenge. Thank goodness Lent comes around every year!

* I could have gamed the system and just waited in Wednesday to buy some of the stuff, but we’ll be buying for our Easter brunch before we ring the bells Saturday night and end our fast. To have pushed into the next week would have just avoided the reflection we need to have.

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