A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

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Allelujah! Christ is Risen!

Our Lenten SNAP Challenge ended last night with this acclamation at the Great Vigil of Easter. We threw on the lights, rang bells, cranked up the organ and began the celebration of the most joyous festival of the Christian year.

In his homily, Bishop Prince Singh began by noting that fearing death is a perfectly rational human response. Certainly there is our physical death to fear, but we also fear all the little deaths that punctuate our lives: loss of a job, loss of a relationship, an illness, a failure, a disappointment, an uncertainty, an unmet expectation, an unanswered prayer. Even contemplating these little deaths can leave us paralyzed by action-altering fear. I’m reminded of the aphorism: “What would you do if you knew that you couldn’t fail?” [I would write books. How about you?] Singh argued that these fears hold us back from being our true selves—who we are called to be. In church language: We are not living fully into our baptism. In army language: We are not being all that you can be. To emphasize his point, Singh described an fantasy meeting between the ruthless Roman emperor Caligula and Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus brought back to life after he had been dead for four days and become, by Martha’s own report, quite stinky (John 11:1-43).

Caligula: Lazarus, I’m going to kill you!

Lazarus: HA HA HA HA!

The point, of course, is that if you’ve already been dead and have been raised to new life (and presumably had a long, hot shower), there is nothing left in death to fear. “Go ahead, kill me,” Lazarus might say, “I’ve already been there and it’s really okay.” The punch line for us is that what paralyzes is not the actual event but our anticipation of it and our inability to imagine that new life might follow whatever little death we contemplate. This is a simple—but quintessentially human—failure of imagination.

That’s the Good News in the Christian story. If Jesus can overcome the capital-D death by rising to new life than certainly we can pass through all of our little deaths with the confidence that life will eventually triumph, if we allow it to be. And you thought it was all about sin!

Singh could have stopped there and had a perfectly orthodox Easter sermon. But he didn’t. He went on to think about what that “new life” might look like. And here, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not all bunnies and jelly beans and Easter lilies. We are called to live into the promised that we made at baptism. We reaffirmed that Baptismal Covenant right before we threw on the lights and began ringing bells. Chillingly, the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant calls us to resist evil, to repent sin, to seek and serve all persons, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. If we take even one of those seriously, it is a very tall order indeed. No wonder we hear “don’t be afraid” so often in scripture. The kind of life into which we try to live is seriously scary! Any rational person would be afraid.

After the service, a dear friend with whom I’ve talked about our Lenten SNAP journey asked if I was glad to be done. I hesitated and said that I wasn’t sure. “You’re not sure that you have the take-away?” she asked. Basically, yes. It’s not that I haven’t learned things. I’ve learned quite a lot. The piece that is still missing is what do I DO with what I have learned. The Easter message is that we no longer need to fear because there is always new life. And the new life to which we are called is about seeking and serving and neighbors and justice and peace and dignity. We fast, study and contemplate in Lent so that we are ready to hit the ground and run when the sun rises on Easter morning and our fear lifts with the mists. What I don’t yet know is where I’m called to run.



Like Birthday Presents

I’ve been meaning to write this one for several weeks, but, frankly, every time the big bags of food arrive from the food bank, I get so excited that I forget to log them in. After six weeks of the SNAP discipline, I’m, well, maybe a little more disciplined. So before we tucked in, here is the gift of food that arrived Monday evening:

Contents of this weeks gift of food.

Contents of this weeks gift of food.

This is good stuff. Really good stuff! Apples, pears, grapes, mangoes, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, tuna for a little protein, bread… Really good bread with a bunch of whole grains and organic flour (which is more important to the critters that live in and around the field than it is to me) and seeds and dried fruity things. Pita chips (a treat for Laurel), cookies (a treat for David), and cereal in little containers (a treat for Rose). Some couscous,  which will add some much appreciated diversity to our starch. I’m already fantasizing about mixing in some chickpeas and some of those peppers and onions and some garlic. I might even have the nub of a cucumber in the fridge that could be added to the mix. No—dang—the children ate the cucumber nub.

You have seen the shopping bag through the eyes of gratitude.

Now how about my middle-class consumer eyes: Pears are a bit smooshy. Peppers are tired. Grapes are squishy and have a big fruit-fly party sign on them. We already talked about potatoes. You get the idea. These are items that supermarkets have decided are too far gone for people to buy so they send them to the food bank. What changed me from a savvy consumer of supermarket food to a mom who can overlook the flaws in fruit? Scarcity? After six weeks we are desperate for stuff we haven’t been able to afford to buy? I think it is probably related to our six weeks of SNAP challenge. But the real question is how is it related?

Apologies in advance for not digging deeper into the science here.

Melanie Greenburg has recently written about the psychology of scarcity. She posits that deprivation can lead to feelings of anxiety or anger. We become obsessed with the things that feel scarce.  And we operate in emergency mode—needing to control every molecule so as not to run out of whatever is scarce. Scarcity causes us to make impulsive decisions that focus only on the short term. We become paralyzed when confronted with long-term planning. And an abundance of actual research shows that we actually get dumber. Who knew?

Greenburg concludes that practicing gratitude is one of the proven escapes for scarcity thinking. Interesting that was one of the first places I went, rather than something that needed to be consciously cultivated. But wait! Was it? As I read back on my earliest posts, I remember feeling quite a bit of anxiety. Could we actually complete the SNAP Challenge? Would I still be able to afford the organic milk that I felt was so important? Would the children accept the plastic taste so that we could afford the organic milk? Six weeks later: Yes, yes and no, although they complain less frequently.

But then the first gift of food arrived. We were only in our second week and I was feeling like a month more was a very long time. I picked up the bags and it was like opening birthday presents. Okay, you are saying, she has completely cracked. But really. Think about it. The fun of birthday presents comes from three key features: 1) they are for you because you are special; 2) as you anticipate opening them, you don’t know what’s inside but you know that it’s probably good; and 3) if birthday presents are well selected, you will continue to enjoy them beyond the surprise of their opening. Now consider those food bank bags.

They are just for me because I’m special. In this case, the bags came from my friend Margie, who each week as selected some stuff from the food bank leftovers and made sure they got to me somehow. She once drove them all the way to Geneva, she has dropped them at the gym for us to pick up, and she has remember to bring them ot our weekly meetings. That’s effort. One doesn’t make that kind of effort unless they care and that felt really nice. Sure, the food itself helped, but the caring was the seed of my feeling of gratitude about it. BONUS: I got to share this gift with my family.

I don’t know what’s inside but it’s probably good. The first part of this is just the surprise. It’s always fun to look into the Christmas stocking or take an early peek at the buffet table. But beyond that, I know that Margie will be on the lookout for good stuff like veggies and crackers—just the things we had to take off of our shopping list for Lenten SNAP Challenge.

I can continue to enjoy them beyond the surprise of opening. It always took  several days for us to nosh our way through the weekly bags and every time I took out another item to use, I relived both the gift and the surprise for another moment. BONUS: The food was nourishing and tasty!

BONUS: Birthdays only come once a year. The food bank bags turned up weekly! And that frequency only heightened the gratitude somehow.

So maybe my response didn’t arise from the psychology of scarcity. Except that momentary lapse into failed long-term planning. Rather, it was like a weekly birthday. An opportunity to feel gifted and cared for. Who knew that such a small thing could transform so completely?

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Score Card—Week 6

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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Delta Food

My husband is a copious—some might say obsessive—record keeper. He logs every expense, every bill, every stitch of income in our Quicken archive. So I can tell you exactly how much we spent on almost anything, ever.

Since data is knowledge and knowledge is power (data = power by the transitive property…a lovely thought to the empiricist!), I can look back to last year and think about the difference in what we usually spend and this year’s Lenten discipline. That’s Delta Food—the dollar difference between what we usually spend and the budget under the SNAP Challenge.

The one caveat here is that our previous expenses have been logged not as an itemized list but as a sum of what we spent at the supermarket. Since this includes both food and non-food purchases (e.g., medicine, cleaning supplies, soap, shampoo etc.) there is some estimation involved. Based on our data from recent weeks (where I’ve been logging all purchases individually), I noted that about two thirds of each bill is food with the remainder being those other things. Let’s assume this is more or less the norm, although we could certainly test this assumption with more data…I love data! This is conservative, of course, because our spending on food is reduced this year because of our budget cap. So, to figure the weekly food budget for last Lent, I took the weekly food bill and divided by two thirds, then took the average over the six weeks of Lent.

Based on this calculation, we spent an average of $181 on food each week during Lent 2013. Last year, our family discipline was to avoid seconds, snacks and sweets on days that didn’t start with “S”. However, we were eating what meat is usually in our diet (not too much anyway) and our usual range of recipes with a try at lots of (mostly fresh) veggies. That said, we tried to buy mostly things that are not shipped too far…to the extent possible in upstate New York in late winter. That means more apples, squash and cabbage than strawberries and tomatoes.

Subtracting $147 from $181, that makes Delta Food a mere $34.  Add that up week after week and it certainly becomes real money, but it doesn’t seem like much to me, yet. A couple of important caveats before we try to interpret that number. First, that $181 estimate doesn’t count eating out, which we have included in our weekly SNAP budget. Of course, I have those records too! Last year during Lent we spent an average of $48 per week eating out. Add in the amount we spent eating out and that raises Delta Food to about $82 per week. I would add in another $25 per week for the bakery (paid in cash and so not scrupulously logged) and other specialty foods.  How about $10 per week for local meat. (We bought an emu last spring from a local farm.) Then there’s the average $15 per week for our CSA membership.  (That figure is an average over the entire year—most of the CSA season falls outside of Lent but it is still a food expense.) Now Delta Food is up to about $132 per week.

Now we’re talking about real money.

It has helped that the bakery has been closed due to the baker’s knee injury. The next round of emu will not be butchered for several more months so that money is still in our pockets. And although we paid our CSA membership back in February, we won’t start getting shares until after Easter. (Note: I’ve included $22.50 for CSA in next week’s expenditures because share distribution was supposed to have begun next Wednesday—during Holy Week. However, because of the very long and cold winter into early spring, there’s nothing to harvest yet and share distribution will begin after Easter. Despite this, I’m going to keep it on the list because that’s the deal with CSA: the consumer shares risk—including inclement weather—with the farmer.) And as the bakery reopened on Wednesday, we’ve already spent $12.50 on artisan bread. That habit would be a budget buster.

Delta food, when calculated honestly, tells me that we have made some significant adjustments to our diet in order to meet the SNAP budget. That’s the other component of Delta Food: What has changed and what hasn’t? As the girls noted in their interview, we haven’t gone hungry. That hasn’t changed. Nor have we resorted to highly processed, super cheap, high calorie density foods. That was a commitment I made at the outset. Rather, I discovered that some of our staples—like canned beans, quick oats and frozen veg—are pretty darn inexpensive at our local Wegmans. I give the company a lot of credit for making these basic food items affordable. But, let’s face it, if you don’t have a kitchen with a big rack of spices and don’t know how to cook creatively, oatmeal, canned beans and frozen peas, corn and spinach can be pretty darn unappealing as a staple diet.

A significant component of Delta Food has been a narrowing of our diet. Our intake of veggies and fruit, which is expensive at this time of year, has dropped. Bananas are a good value and a wonderful food for humans, but the girls aren’t big fans. (I personally never understood this.) The protein in our diet has both declined and been focused on beans and dairy. Our diet always gets more narrow in winter because we try to be locovores. But the SNAP Challenge has made this much more pronounced.

Is this terribly unhealthy? No, not really. Have we gained or lost weight? No. I wonder a little about blood lipids, but we didn’t collect those data. Do I feel well?  Yes. Do I have tons of energy and vim? Well, no. But it’s April in the academy and everyone is exhausted.

Bottom line: Delta Food is real money and a significant hit to dietary diversity. But, it has not been disaster. What does that mean for how we think about food stamps and hunger in America? Stay tuned.

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The Potato Problem

I read The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (2001, Random House) a year or so after it came out. The book’s four sections detail the relationship between humans and four charismatic plant species. The book describes how plants use their many seductive powers to harness humans to ensure that they (the plants) spread far and wide. Pollan noted in the early pages that flowering plants have been doing this—manipulating animals of which humans are just one species—for most of their 145+ million year history. As a paleobotanist, I would argue that plants have been manipulating animals for even longer, dating to the earliest seeds and perhaps beyond.

The Botany of Desire traces the evolution of apples from tiny, bitter bird dispersed things in China to the gigantic, sweet and fleshy fruits loved by large mammals in Central Asia. And, of course, being large mammals with a sweet tooth ourselves, we couldn’t resist carrying apples out of Asia and around the globe. The second species, tulips, were sought for their beautiful blooms and Pollan recounts the tulip bubble in 17th Century Holland. Marijuana is a third species that has so enticed us that we grow it in vast greenhouses where it is pampered like a purebred lapdog in the parlor of a queen. But the shocker for me was potatoes.

Potatoes came out of the Andes where they remain a diverse crop of high nutritional value. Potatoes came to Europe with the returning Spanish explorers and became a specialty food for the rich. Fast forward to the late 17th Century and potatoes had become an important supplemental food for the whole population, particularly in high latitudes where it was both hardy in the cold and stored well over winter. Potatoes remained an important component of the European diet but only attained staple status in Ireland. The potato’s transition to a staple food in Ireland happened gradually during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when it first became a winter staple. Then, high prices pushed landlords to export most of Ireland’s grain, leaving their tenant workers to eat potatoes year round. This was fine, as potatoes combined with butter and milk make an almost perfect human diet. And the move toward a single, well-adapted and high yield variety—the Irish Lumper—sealed the fate of the Irish nation.

In 1843 or 1844, Phytophthora infestans arrived. Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete, a so-called “water mold”, that infects the potato plant and causes it to wilt overnight in a disease called blight. The oomycete originated in Mexico, where potato is native, and spread to domestic varieties throughout North America causing local crop failures. That was unfortunate, but since potatoes were still a luxury food in North America, no crisis followed. Blight remains endemic in North America. It is not clear how Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe, but it was likely that ships that sailed from Baltimore to Ireland carried infected potatoes. By 1845, crops were failing in Ireland. By 1852, a million people had died of famine and a million more had left Ireland, mostly for North America.

Phytophthora infestans is only one of many disease organisms that plague potato. In fact, popular modern cultivars are so prone to disease that, when grown in monoculture, the field has to be nearly sterilized with microbicides, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides before it will yield a crop. And the very nature of the potato as a storage organ means that the plant socks away all these chemicals in its plump and tasty tubers. In Botany of Desire, Pollan reported on a farmer in Idaho who will not feed the potatoes he grows to his own family because of the toxic cocktail in which they are grown. Instead, his children eat organic potatoes grown in the manure pile in back of his barn. This farmer is no physician or food toxicologist. He’s just using good common sense.

Reading that chapter, I recalled an old episode of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes in which the toxicity of an average market basket was analyzed. Sure enough, potatoes came out as a key offender for a variety of pesticides. That was followed by an episode of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures in which Cousteau was interested in ocean pollution so had he and his team tested for bioaccumulating toxins—those that are consumed by marine creatures and build up in the body the higher up the food chain one goes. To everyone’s shock, the young son of one of the team’s biologists shot off the chart. The kid ate a vegetarian whole foods organic diet as prescribed by his greenie mom, so sea food was not to blame. There were tears and general panic at the test results until grandma came forward to admit that when mom was at sea with the team, kid liked to go out for french fries. Cut to stand up. And this isn’t just a worry of the popular media. These reporters were following a large primary scientific literature showing that a variety of common pesticides including malathion (an insecticide), HCB (hexachlorobenzene, a bioaccumulating fungiside), lindane (an insecticide) and p,p-DDD (an insecticide metabolite of DDT and mammal carcinogen) persist in conventionally grown potatoes. The good news is that peeling, washing and boiling helps to remove pesticide residues (Soliman, 2001) but, well, YUCK! Pollan had me off potatoes for a couple of years until organic versions made it to my corner of New York. I’ll take my chances with BT, thank you very much, and I don’t really care how it got on or into the spuds.

So where’s the problem? I have a “safe” organic option. The problem is that a bag of potatoes came to us through the food bank. These are quite conventional and I’m sure that they carry the typical toxic load. We peel and soak and boil, so that helps. But I felt the twinge of guilt feeding them to my children, who gobble them up as they do all forms of starch. The twinge became a conversation as we prepared home-made oven “fries” the other evening.

“What should I do with these potatoes? Does peeling help? Are they really okay to eat?” asked David.

My response was flip but 100% true: “Well, most people eat them don’t they?” The implication is “of course they are safe” but the reality is that they are laced with stuff that we really shouldn’t be putting in or on our bodies.

Organic potatoes are a tiny niche market. The vast majority of spuds produced and consumed in the United States, including every single one served with fast food and in school cafeterias, and 99.99% of those served in restaurants, are conventionally produced and laced with bioaccumulating chemicals. None of the materials sprayed on those spuds are particularly toxic to humans, especially at the concentrations found in the final product. This stuff is regulated, after all. But some of the chemicals do build up in our bodies over time and some can mutate our genes in ways that may cause trouble down the road. For me, who is more or less half way done with the body, it may not matter too much. But for my children the stakes feel higher.

We did prepare and eat the potatoes. I’m being paranoid, of course. One sack of laced spuds will not shorten anyone’s life. The real theme here is “most people eat them” all the time. And we wonder at rising cancer rates and developmental changes and the increase in this or that syndrome. And frustratingly, there is no way to conduct research on cause and effect because, well, “most people eat them” a lot. There is no control group. And more importantly, the hypothesis that we can blame all of our cancer woes on a single food is, well, silly.

But let’s say that we all decided that we didn’t want those chemicals in our food. The plant diseases don’t go away and the alternatives—integrative pest management—usually mean scaled down production, scaled way down. That means higher prices and potatoes exit the SNAP shopping basket. They become, as they began, a boutique food for the wealthy…like organic potatoes are now. A significant source of cheap plant calories, vitamins and minerals disappears from the diet of the masses—and the poor who need high quality food as much or more than the rest of us. Maybe we shouldn’t mourn the demise of fries. But mukimo is another story.

Soliman, K.M. 2001. Changes in concentration of pesticide residues in potatoes during washing and home preparation. Food and Chemical Toxicology 39:887-891.

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The Kid Perspective

Laurel is my ten-year-old. She is an introvert like most of the rest of the family. She’s introspective, thoughtful and an old soul. She has a dry sense of humor and is a master of irony. She will read anything that has words on it but prefers fantasy and science fiction, preferably laced with pre-teen angst. She is in fifth grade at SFSS and is ambivalent about middle school. But she does like drawing and drama. She is a dancer who has appeared in the Rochester City Ballet’s Nutcracker for the last three seasons. She has also performed on the HWS campus in pieces for the Faculty Dance Concert (2012) and Senior Choreographers Concert (2014). She is a synchronized swimmer who currently competes solo and is working on a duet with her new partner.

Ariel Rose is my seven-year-old. She the family extrovert—everybody knows Rose and everybody loves Rose. She is always in motion, with about half of that motion being with her feet off the ground. She has little patience for reading but likes to solve quantitative and spatial problems. She’s a Minecraft addict and has recently discovered Sudoku. She is in second grade at SFSS where she goes by Ariel. Her favorite subjects are math and science. Her passion is gymnastics (where she goes by Shamoo). She finished this competitive season in USA Gymnastics Level 4, flipping for Team Eagle in Canandaigua. She won the NY State L4 championship on balance beam, and she finished her season with a 9.925 (out of 10) on beam. However, L4 is in the rear view mirror and she’s working on her back handspring on beam, back tuck and layout on floor, and baby giant and fly away on bars to get ready for the next level. The most exciting thing in her life right now is the possibility of earning her grips (hand supports worn by the “big girls” on bars).

I recently interviewed Laurel and Rose for their take on the Lenten SNAP Challenge.

Both girls understand that Lent is the 40 days preceding Easter when we prepare with prayer, fasting and sometimes doing extra good works. They also understand the goal of the SNAP Challenge.

“We give up stuff and this year we’re giving up—well, we’re not giving up. We’re only using some amount of money that someone said we have to use for food,” says Rose.

Laurel adds, “Our family is seeing if we can live on the amount of money the government thinks poor people should have for food.”

“Should” being a relative term, of course.

I asked both girls whether they had noticed changes in our diet.

“We eat a lot of leftovers,” they answered in chorus. They also commented that leftovers were okay but it depended on whether they liked the meal the first time around. Laurel believed that I was making bigger batches than usual of most meals, although I’m not sure whether that is actually true. What might be true is that we’re using more of our leftovers. Reducing waste has been a priority in stepping up to the SNAP Challenge.

Both girls also commented—again—that they don’t like the milk.  “I wish the milk tasted better,” noted Laurel. They are responding to the fact that we’ve switched brands to one packaged in plastic and they just don’t like the plastic aftertaste. I honestly thought they would get used to it over 40 days, but this one seems to be embedded in their experience.

I asked the girls if there was anything they missed. Laurel wished for more cold cereal. We’ve largely moved to hot cereal partly because it’s been darn cold, but partly because we can get a lot of breakfast out of a cylinder of oats. Rose wished for spaghetti and meatballs. Certainly, the spaghetti isn’t a problem, but we’ve been trying to not to do the all-pasta-all-the-time strategy to dealing with our budget. Meat was one of the first things that dropped off of our shopping list, though, and so meatballs haven’t been on the horizon.

Both girls reckoned that we had enough good food during the SNAP challenge, but Laurel reported that she had felt hungry some of the time. Then again, she reports being hungry most of the time, particularly when she decides to be picky and refuse the available meals and snacks. That one will continue well beyond Easter, I’m pretty sure. What might return is the option to choose, which I’ve speculated may help the I-don’t-likes.

When I asked Laurel and Rose if they thought that our budget was enough for a family of four like us then reckoned that it was.

“Maybe a little more,” added Rose after a moment’s reflection, “because we might have to get a lot of milk or something, or maybe some rice sometimes.”

Basically, it seems, that despite frequent conversations at dinner about our limitations and our periodic dependence on free food to keep three meals on the table each day, I seem to have insulated them from any sense that we don’t quite have what we might want. Part of this might be that I’ve tried to sprinkle in a few treats with some regularity. For example, tonight we had (grass fed) hamburgers. That’s a big splurge ($10.45) but it sure made everyone feel fat and happy. They’ve certainly grumbled about meal choices that they don’t like, but they do that anyway…with increasing frequency.

I concluded my interview by asking each girl what they thought it would be like not to have enough to eat. Laurel clammed up. After a minute’s thought, Rose responded, “I think I would drive Mommy and Daddy berserk because I would be saying ‘I’m hungry’ all the time. I don’t think I could do gymnastics and school and stuff if I was hungry all the time.”

Got that right.

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Score Card—Week 5

We have completed our fifth week of the Lenten SNAP Challenge: trying to eat—hopefully even eat well—on $147 per week for our family of four. That’s the maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four in our region.  How did we do?

This week we had $12.91 to spare.  If you’re sensing a theme, we didn’t have quite so many responsibilities to others this week. Except for the extra children who appear at the house from time to time, the only others that we fed this week were the students in the paleontology course. They were offered breakfast—bagels, cream cheese and bananas—on their Saturday field trip. It is really the least we could do if we are asking them to depart before the dining halls are open.

The big splurge this week was $28.42 for David and Rose to go out to dinner after Rose’s last gymnastics meet of the season. This is important bonding time for both children and parents, so it was important that they go. And, thanks to our abundance from the food bank, we could afford it!

We seem to do so well with the food bank because what we want most—fresh fruits and veg, whole grain bread, beans and the like—are exactly what others don’t want. They are the ultimate stuff left behind. In this journey of living on a SNAP budget, we’ve cut way down on our fresh fruits and veggies. Where I might normally buy a variety of raw veggies to cut up for lunch box stuffers, I’m now relegated to frozen peas. It works—they love ’em. But that had to go to make our budget. So getting some onions, rutabagas, cabbage, and mountains of broccoli are like packages from heaven. Never mind the oranges! But that gives me pause about what the others are eating.

We have been able to do okay, although we are definitely eating less veg and more grains—and not always the whole kind—than we did before. But we are managing that primarily because of the food bank. And since we get what is left behind and destined for the bin, I wonder what those who left the broccoli behind are having for supper.