A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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

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What are we eating: Supper

At the outset of our Lenten SNAP Challenge, a friend—who had actually been on food stamps for a while—warned that we would be eating a lot of rice and ramen. I wondered about that too. There has definitely been a lot of rice in various forms. But part of that I credit to my spouse’s current fascination with variations on the fried rice theme. I reckon that we would be doing that even it we were still in Epiphany. So here is a selection of the dinners we’ve prepared at home over the last week and a half. In most cases, we prepared enough for the meal in question, perhaps a second dinner, and at least a lunch or two. This too is not unusual for us. We tend to run on leftovers, particularly on the uber-busy days of the week.

We’ll start with fancy and work our way down.Image

This is pabellón, the national dish of Venezuela. David and I did a field course in Venezuela in 1991 and have fond memories of this dish. For some reason, David got a hankering for it a week or so ago so I hunted up a recipe and here’s the result. This was a big splurge as reported in Week 3 because the dish has meat. Basically what you are looking at is braised beef (not a great cut), rice, and black beans arranged in the stripes of the Venezuelan flag. The dish is finished with two fried plantains and a fried egg on top. In addition to the beef itself, the beans called for a port hock. Neck bones work just as well and are half the price! The dish was also elaborate to make. It involved a day in the slow cooker for the meat, then a second day for the beans. (We only have one slow cooker.) Then the rice, plantain and egg on the third day. Leftovers turned out to be wildly popular and the recipe was so loved that the beans will likely make a return appearance just by themselves. Four thumbs up!


To recycle the braised beef and beans, we served sopes with some food bank lettuce. The family is very fond of the sope corn cakes, which were quickly topped with leftover beef, beans and a bit of cheese and salsa. Four thumbs up.


This is mukimo, a dish from Kenya that begins by boiling diced onions, potato and garlic in just enough water to cover the potatoes. When the potatoes are cooked, throw in a bag of frozen spinach, a bag of frozen corn and a bag of frozen peas. Continue to boil until there is no water left. Add a generous splash of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Mash and serve. The recipe came from a Lenten devotion booklet prepared by Catholic Relief Services, and brought home from school. The booklet outlined a Lenten practice that included spending a week leaning about, reflecting on, and eating like one of the countries where they work. This just looked too good not to try. (And my repertoire of African recipes is quite small!) BIG hit, super healthy and economical with food bank potatoes and onions plus $0.99 bags of veggies at Wegmans. Four thumbs up.

The other surprise favorite (sorry not photo on this one—it wasn’t too attractive to look at but was astonishingly tasty) was a root veggie stew. I had acquired a bag of rutabagas from the food bank. Perplexed, I pulled everything out of the fridge and started chopping. In went all the rutabagas, carrots, red bell pepper, a celery root, celery stalk, onions, garlic and a can of canellini beans for some protein. Add water, some ground thyme and simmer for a while. It was an astonishingly beige meal and I fully expected it to be rejected as unfamiliar. But the girls gobbled it up and asked for more. Four thumbs up.

Also not pictured is a house favorite pea curry. This is a mild curry in a tomato based sauce over green peas and tofu. What’s not to love? I served it to EfM last week and there was an abundance left over. That may mean that most of them didn’t like it, but some did! In our family it was four thumbs up over rice. There’s that rice again.


Here’s the quick and dirty cheese ravioli and broccoli with creamy tomato sauce of the week. Wegmans rav combined with a bag of frozen broccoli boiled together until done. (I was trying to be efficient.) The sauce begins with my alfredo base (butter, cream and an egg yolk) with tomato paste instead of cheese whisked in. This one got mixed reviews. Although it is hard to go wrong with ravioli in this house, the boiled broccoli (instead of microwaved) were deemed unpleasantly soggy and the sauce fell flat. Two tumbs up.

And the fail of the week: Tuna noodle bake.


This is another all food bank meal. I was trying to go for a tetrazzini vibe with the noodles in a baking dish layered with tuna, carrots and tetrazzini cream sauce with cheese on top. Nobody (but me) liked the canned tuna—in fairness it is unfamiliar. And I tried to serve it the day after the beloved goldfish died. (Thoughtless at best; heartless at worst!) And the sauce, once again, fell flat. One thumb up—but as you all know, I’ll eat and enjoy just about anything.



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The Spouse’s Perspective—Guest Post by David

Readers have asked how others in the family have experienced the SNAP Lenten Challenge. Well, let’s see.  Here is a guest post from the head of the household:  David.

I’ve certainly been aware of the effort and time Nan has been putting in to budgeting, record-keeping, and menu-creation [and reflection—added by the editor] – and through that the seriousness of the exercise. However, at least through the first ⅔ of the time, I honestly didn’t feel like our eating habits were particularly different. There certainly has always been enough to eat. It wasn’t until I became a little more reflective that I began to notice the ways in which things have changed.

First, as a willing participant, I completely eliminated all incidental food purchases. I hadn’t thought about it previously, but it turns out that I had been purchasing food (read pretzels, chocolate-covered cashews, and trail mix, mostly) fairly regularly at the College Store to stock my desk for snacking while I work (or zone out) in my office. I haven’t tallied how much this would be (though I probably could, given my records in Quicken), but I estimate at least $30 per week there. A small but significant fraction of our budget. The impact on my calorie intake is probably even greater. The SNAP budge restriction also eliminated impulse purchases at the grocery, which, mostly, were things in the same vein – chocolate covered cherries, anyone? Those purchases, at $5 a pop, add up very quickly. So, there’s one thing different – much fewer random high-calorie inputs and a stronger sense of how expensive those kinds of treats are. The corollary here is the recognition of how lucky we are that we can make those kinds of purchases normally.

We had cut down on wine purchases anyway, but now we pretty much only have it when it’s leftover from some event or gifted to us (birthday treats from my parents, for example). Strange that one becomes attached to something that’s an acquired taste anyway. Does wine really taste that good? No, not really. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy drinking it, but maybe the attractions of addictive substances are the subject of a different blog.)

The refrain from the girls “Not more rice!” is interesting, too – their sense of repetition has been noticeable, though, honestly, it isn’t something I felt. Their observation is, however, true. We have relied much more extensively on rice as the major constituent of many of our meals.

We are able bakers and create breads, pies, biscuits and muffins with frequency. Have our abilities, predilections, and circumstances (we have lots of bakeware and a functional oven) made it easier for us? Probably. A couple of times I wanted pizza.  I just made the dough and used what we had in the fridge for toppings and some canned tomato sauce from the basement. I think I only had to purchase cheese. I’m on sabbatical (and therefore have time) and know how to make pizza dough (or at least it’s easy to look up on a tablet). The circumstances of our experience make it easier, maybe.  Still, I have noticed some physical effects – my finger and toenails are quite weak; they break and peel very easily. Could it be that reduced protein intake is weakening them? Maybe.

Nan may have already reflected on this, but receiving even a few things from the food bank (apparently left over as the stuff no one would take) extended our options extensively. Bruised apples and pears were cooked down into butter or pies. Six heads of iceberg lettuce makes a lot of salad or can be cooked as greens and added to fried rice. A box of crackers makes a welcome snack. We like to think of ourselves as offering hospitality to many with offers of shared food. Receiving it, rather than offering it, was interesting, as it seemed like a bonus. I was indeed, truly grateful, but also felt like, “well, we don’t really need this, shouldn’t this go to someone else?”

Our benefactor, who works for a food bank, reports that these were foods that no one wanted (or, perhaps, could carry or could store or who knows). Still she does report that things like cases of Ho Hos can cause fights. I don’t really know what to think of it. Maybe most important is to be grateful, humble, and reflective on the gifts of food and the gifts of insight this exercise is providing.

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Score Card—Week 4

We have completed our fourth 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.  We are now more than half way through our journey. How did we do?

This week we went $25.51 over budget!  Holy guacamole—what happened?  Well, in part, guacamole.  Read on.

Budget buster #1 was a two-birthday week. Both David and I both turned 50 during this fourth week of the SNAP Lenten Challenge. It has always been our family’s custom to have a special dinner for birthdays. For mine, I made a root veggie stew composed mostly of things we got from the food bank.  Apparently rutabagas, onions, bell peppers and carrots aren’t popular with the guests at the lunch program, but if you chop them all up, throw in some barley and cannellini beans it makes a stew that is absolutely irresistible to the ten-and-under crowd.  It might not have been my first choice of birthday dinners, but it was Sunday—House Church day—and meals are vegan during Lent.  The budget killer was the blueberry pie that I requested for my birthday dessert: $17.98 for fresh blueberries from Mexico.  Not only were these just not okay with the budget but environmentally, what was I thinking!  I suggested frozen, but the pie maker rejected the idea.  And we didn’t pick last summer so the freezer had nothing to offer.  For his birthday, David requested a pork and udon recipe, including chocolate pie for dessert.  That meal was $27.48, mostly going to for the organic piggy.  Leftovers stretched to lunch and after-school snack for the girls, but still—that was a pricey meal for a food stamp family.

Budget buster #2:  We served dinner for the EfM crowd again this week at a total of $34 or $5.67 per person attending.  Not bad, really.  And we had the bonus of another meal for the four of us from the leftovers.  But added together, these little extravagances pushed us well over our budget for the week.  And guacamole ($10.48 including chips) was the appetizer.  It turns out this is a pretty economical and popular choice with our group.  Appetizers are expensive.

And finally, budget buster #3 was the coffee hour/snack time for the Department of Geoscience this week that we hosted at $22.59.  This may seem pretty unnecessary; perhaps I should step aside from this service for Lent.  But it is a long-term ministry of building back some deeply fractured relationships and that’s who we want to be.  It is well worth the price but it did contribute to trashing our budget.

I’m hopeful to do much better in the coming week.  My fellow travelers in EfM will feed me.  Someone else is hosting the GEO Coffee.  And no more treats for anyone!  Although we still have a piece of cake left in the fridge that was gifted by our dear friend Alaina in honor of our birthdays.  So, okay!

A small treat for everyone!  Let’s not lose sight of the culture of abundance.

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What are we eating: Breakfast & Lunch

One reader asked for a log of what we eat these days. Is it all rice and ramen noodles?  I have done that before. It was called graduate school. But in those days I had $150 per week for all of my expenses, not just food!

For us breakfast and lunch are the meals that have changed least.  For breakfast, we’re all eating hot cereal at this time of year. Your choices are oatmeal, grits or cream of rice, depending on which grain you feel like starting with. The girls each have a glass of milk and Rose and David have orange juice. I have tea. We usually make two or three pieces of toast—whatever happens to be around—and share that as well. We also have some cold cereal around for a change of pace. Wegmans brand raisin bran is an awesome value at $1.99 per box.

Lunch hasn’t changed much either. David and I seldom eat a formal lunch. The big change is, perhaps, that David restrains his urge to travel to the bookstore for the daily bag of pretzels. I have been foregoing my usual handful of nuts at 2 p.m. and foraging around campus instead. Someone has usually brought in some sort of snack that can be found when the blood sugar gets perilously low. What I usually find probably isn’t as healthy as the nuts, but it’s not like I’m Supersizing for the month.

The girls’ lunches haven’t changed much. They still bring lunch to school each day. Here’s a typical offering:

Here are two typical lunches. Some left-overs, granola bar, hard boiled egg, fruit and veggies.

Here are two typical lunches. Some left-overs, granola bar, hard boiled egg, fruit and veggies.

Each girl got a container of left overs. On this particular day it was pea curry on rice. Each has a granola bar and a hard boiled egg. And one compartment is reserved for the fruit or veggie of choice. Orange for Laurel; carrots and cukes for Rose. Some days a half sandwich replaces the leftovers. Some days are two-veggie days. But the idea is all the same.

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Score Card—Week 3

We have completed our third week of the Lenten SNAP Challenge: trying to eat—hopefully even eat well—on $147 per week for our family of four. We are almost half way through our journey. How did we do?

We had $6.55 left over at the end of the week.

We had a very light week in terms of feeding others. Just a few extra kids here for meals a few times during the week and other gift of food helped out tremendously.

We did splurge on meat for one extended meal this week. David was craving pabellón criollo, the national dish of Venezuala. It is composed of stewed meat ($12.09), black beans ($7.89), rice, fried plantains ($1.00) with a fried egg on top. At $20.98 this was by far our most expensive meal this week. However, we made an extra big pot of beans and spread it over three dinners, a lunch and a couple of snacks, which made it more like $7 per meal.

The trade-off came on Saturday. The gym was hosting a parents-night-out benefit and we wanted to participate. Just think: Four hours to ourselves! Under normal circumstances, we would have gone out for a leisurely dinner. However, under our rules, that would have counted toward our budget and I knew were were going to be close. So, instead of dinner, we had leftovers at home, went out for dessert ($14—counted toward our budget), and then went to a movie (Monuments Men). I rather missed dining with my husband, but we made a rain check for dinner during the next parents-night-out. Thankfully, our SNAP fast will only last 40 days.

Stay tuned for next week. I’m predicting a rough time with the budget. I am scheduled to bring dinner for EfM again on Monday and we have two birthdays in the coming week.

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“I don’t like _________!”

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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Score Card—Week 2

We have completed our second week of the Lenten SNAP Challenge: trying to eat—hopefully even eat well—on $147 per week for our family of four. How did we do?

$3.76 over budget for the week.

Here’s the breakdown. Remember that we went into the week $31.20 over budget from last week. That had to come right off the top of this week’s budget. We also made the choice to splurge on two “big-ticket” items—you’re going to laugh when you see what now constitutes “big-ticket” for this faux-food-stamp Mom. The first, which we actually sort of planned for, was $22.16 on dinner out for Rose and I after her gymnastics meet on Saturday. It has become the custom of the Level 4 families to go out for a meal  after a meet if we finish close to lunch or supper time. It’s a chance for the girls and parents to bond. Saturday, the coaches joined us too. I debated whether we should join in. I knew it would cost more than if we packed our supper or even stopped for fast food. But food—meals together—have always been important to the creation and maintenance of social fabric. We need that. So, we headed off to the Olive Garden, sat eight girls at one table and eight adults at the other table and enjoyed a leisurely meal.

The second “big-ticket” and the one that pushed us over budget was $7.71 for a small corned beef brisket for St. Patrick’s Day. We aren’t Irish and, I guess, neither is corned beef. But it was the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal in my growing-up home—with my father wearing all orange. The girls love it and asked for it, so it seemed like time for a treat. A little feast. We haven’t had meat since this adventure began so maybe this could also be a nutritional reprieve….she rationalizes. My nutritionally savvy readers are either laughing or jumping up and down with outrage. Okay. It was a treat, pure and simple. After making the decision, I rummaged through the bin at Wegmans until I found the absolutely smallest and least inexpensive cut. Even $7.71 felt like a big splurge, particularly on a Monday—the sixth day of our accounting week. But I bought it and they ate it happily, with a bit for lunch the next day.

Brown rice was the other big splurge this week. We tend to prefer brown rice both for flavor and nutritional value. But who knew that it was almost three times as expensive as the refined type? Folks who have to make those choices all the time! The 4 lbs. sack was $10.99. Like the organic milk, this is a nutritional tax that I’m happy to pay.

How about feeding others this week? In contrast to last, it was a relatively light week. We made a pot of chili, a batch of pretzels and two batches of brownies for the synchronized swim meet on Saturday. Brownie supplies were about $5.00 (mixes—yes I do mixes for brownies—were $1.99 each but then there the egg and oil which would require more calculating than I feel like at the moment…dozen eggs = $3.79 divided by 6 = $0.63 for the two eggs plus the oil…you get it), chili supplies were about $9.00, and pretzel supplies were about $3.00.

In contrast, we were richly fed by others. Friends had us to supper on Sunday and I had a meal with the Finger Lakes Forum in association with a speaking engagement: Dinner and a show where I was the show. Our budget also continues to be relieved by generous gifts of food.

I have also learned from experience. I knew we would be passing through a food desert on the way to Saturday’s gymnastics meet, so I packed a lunch. Rose turned up her nose at the peanut butter sandwich, but chowed on the apples and crackers. Maybe not a nutritional win, but she had fuel for the meet at little cost. Under other circumstances, I might have stopped at Subway out of convenience and for a treat, but Saturday it was peanut butter on the Southern Tier Expressway. And that was okay.

This week I learned to give myself permission to buy a treat. But the feasting on corned beef had to be balanced with a bean chili fast on other days. Thankfully, my children love bean chili.