A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

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


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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 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.


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“Do not be afraid”

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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The Gift of Food

Feeding charities are a favorite for our family. We are fans of FoodLink and chip in when they have fund-raisers at the market. We also like to contribute non-perishables directly when we can. There is something tangible about carrying a few cans or boxes of something in to the offering basket. Jesus was not clear on a lot of contemporary social issues, but feeding the hungry was an unambiguous imperative (e.g., Matthew 25:35-40).

So with the tables turned (sort of), I was overwhelmed when several bags of left overs and throw aways from a local soup kitchen turned up at my house. After a busy Week 1, we were feeling a bit tight. This gift liberated our budget. It also delighted the girls (a box of cookies), David (a box of Triscuits), and me (mountains of lettuce) with a wealth of special treats that we had imagined were gone for the 40 days.

What was it like for a stubbornly self-reliant New Englander to accept the charity of others? First of all, my gracious friend saved me the social embarrassment of actually going to the food pantry. I suspect that she sensed that I wouldn’t, primarily because I am not really needy. This is a Lenten experiment by a fully employed and well-off family. I would be—and am to a degree—guilty of taking from those who really need. The dispensation here is that she brought me what had been left behind by their guests, and the wilty lettuce, tired broccoli and spotted peppers would likely have been composted. Secondarily, I wouldn’t have gone because that’s not what stubbornly self-reliant New Englanders do. That’s the sin of pride—more later. But I still feel a little guilty.

Why? Because the slightly tired veggies, sack of potatoes, jar of peanut butter and can of tuna feel like indescribably abundance. As I unpacked, I imagined all the meals that I could make and crossed things off of our meager shopping list. I had wanted potatoes for a Kenyan dish our Lenten study suggested that we try—here they were and more! I had been craving salad—more lettuce than we can eat in several days! And there’s the fish for that healthful diet. It was probably the most excited I’ve been unpacking a grocery sack—ever. I’ve never been much for the God of magic tricks—loaves and fish and all that (Mark 8:1-9). But I do believe—perhaps more than ever—in a God whose hands are the hands of my friend who drove 34 miles round trip to bring us food. Not because we really needed it but because it is part of our spiritual growth and a way for her to minister to us as God’s hands in the world.

So there is the spiritual lesson. But I still feel guilty. Why? Because it somehow feels wrong to be gushing with the gratitude of abundance in the midst of Lent and in the midst of a hungry world. But maybe that’s the point: Gratitude. I  have prayed a little more mindfully and with greater joy this week.

We receive this food in gratitude to all beings who have helped to bring it to our table. And vow to respond, in turn, to those in need with wisdom and compassion.


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The Cost of Eating Well

In December, a team of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical school published a meta-analysis in which they compared the cost of eating a healthy diet (defined as including lots of veggies, fish, nuts and whole grains) versus an unhealthy diet full of refined flour and sugar, meat and processed foods. They confined their work to wealthy, developed countries and compared prices both by cost per serving and by cost per calorie. They found that on average eating healthy cost about $1.50 more per person per day than the unhealthy diet. The researchers commented that it is assumed that eating a healthful diet cost more, but conventional wisdom suggested that it cost a lot more than $1.50 per day—$6.00 per day for our family of four. The authors note that this price differential would be significant and even prohibitive for some, but for those who can afford it, they argue, eating better saved in the long run by avoiding a host of diet-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

An interesting aspect of this study is that it compared conventionally produced foods and did not include organic options. From the researcher’s perspective, this makes sense because studies attempting to document an impact of organic food on human health have been equivocal. Some organic options like dairy have more healthful fat balances and fewer synthetic hormones, but the beneficial effects have yet to show up in large studies. Eating fewer pesticides would also seem like a good idea, but again, this has not demonstrated rigorously. What we do know is that organic farming practices are easier on soil and life, which might be a good enough reason to prefer them. But I digress. The point is that conventional wisdom also says that there is a significant surcharge for organic products—less for veggies, more for animal products.

What does this mean for our SNAP family challenge. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I’m a devotee of local, organic food and will generally prefer organic over conventional whenever possible. When I had the luxury of a less limited budget, I didn’t think much about this choice—I almost always went organic. I’ve already talked about milk. Today, I confronted tomatoes. Needing crushed tomatoes for the chili I’m making for the Kokanees swim meet this weekend, I faced down the canned stuff aisle. Looking specifically at Wegmans brand—the least expensive option available—I noted that conventionally produced (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes were $1.49 while the organic version was $1.99. Two cans, that’s $1.00 or a bit more than a half a percent of my weekly budget. I chose organic.

Now, you might say that I’ll get nickeled and dimed out of my budget with those sorts of decisions. Perhaps, but the more important cost-saving decision came before I even got to the can aisle: I rolled by the ground chicken. My usual chili recipe contains ground bird of some sort. At the store today, high Karma ground bird from Frank Perdue would have set me back $4.99 for this recipe, while slightly lower Karma (organic) bird from Wegmans would have cost $5.99. So by going veggie for this dish—even with the organic tomato surcharge—I saved several dollars. And while you may notice that the meat is not there, the nutritional impact is minimal and the things that makes this recipe special are the whole kernel corn and chipotle, so nothing is really lost. And even with the organic tomatoes, this chili is still among the most economical meals that I make—around $7.00 for a pot that lasts us through two dinners and several lunches. Plus it is low in fat, high in protein, rich in veggies and the picky eaters gobble it up.

Reflecting further on the Harvard study, it seems likely that most of the additional cost of the healthy diet comes from fish and nuts. These are expensive—particularly when produced sustainably—and may well be off our Lenten table altogether. Or, at best, the fish might be reserved for a feast day instead of a fast—with apologies to the Roman Catholics!