Nov 17th, Environmental Ministries and Presbyterian Hunger Program invite you to join the Food Stamp Challenge. Click here to learn more and register: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/food-stamp-challenge/learn-more/.
I decided that, for me, this week is as much about my own thinking and empathizing and growth as it was a test to see if I could make it financially on such a limited food budget. I wanted to record my thoughts and feelings, and share them with you, as I experienced what it was like to be limited on food spending and choices this week. Here are my beginning reflections.
The weeks leading up to “The Week,” I notice prices more at the grocery store and wonder what things I will be able to buy and cook for my kids, if limited to the food budget of food stamps. I am aware of the anxiety in my body as I wonder if I can do it. I pay attention as I shop, more than before, though I always try to be conscientious. It’s different though, wondering about $4 per person per day. I pass one aisle and know that atleast for one dinner I can make lentils cheaply. But, without letting my daughter douse it all with french vanilla yogurt, she might not eat it. Can I afford the yogurt she loves, on a food stamp budget? My son who likes hot food, and refuses sandwiches and breakfast cereal, won’t be able to have sausage regularly and will I even be able to afford our weekly local CSA eggs?
In myself, I note the guilty relief that this Challenge is only one week long, and that I can “make it up” to my kids the weeks before and after. The reality of my own terribly insignificant struggle and grief deepens my distress for all the Americans for whom this isn’t any kind of empathetic experiment but a daily, constant source of stress (and hunger, and continued poverty). I am well aware that at some point I might “fail” the Challenge, even with all my best intentions. But that’s because I can fail, without external penalties or consequences. It isn’t life and death, or real long-term hunger, for me, in that one week. And, even so, I’m still worried.
Thinking about how my kids are going to take this one week, I wonder what it would be like on a regular basis if I couldn’t feed my kids enough balanced vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins to get their brains ready for the long days of being middle schoolers (tough enough already). As a mother, I want to give them the best shot at success and I know diet is a big part of that. I’m busy but organized, and only working one full-time job, so I’m going to be able to cook some simple, easy meals from scratch (which is often cheaper). Yet, knowing how to cook, having the electricity and appliances, having a cupboard full of basic supplies and spices, having some job flexibility, and being myself energized by healthy food—these are all things I take for granted. If even one of these gave out, could I provide?
Another worry comes to me: What if I want to offer to take food to someone sick or grieving that week? And it hits me: it is a privilege to have food to be generous with. To tell church to keep me on the list of people to call, that is a privilege. I have enough money and resources to be a helper (even as I have been one of the helped). What would it feel like if I could only ever assume the role of “the helped?” Ouch.
As the laundry list of worries goes on and on, I continue to plan for The Week. I decide to alleviate my anxiety by letting my kids still eat “as normal” at the school cafeteria for their lunches, because surely they’d get free lunch, if I qualified for food stamps? I can only hope, as I know that I could never pack a lunch for them that would both satisfy their hunger and their concerns about what their friends thought, all within a budget that meant their lunch, breakfast, and dinner would only add up to $4 per kid.
My daughter, upon hearing about the Challenge, happily pointed out that we’d be okay, because our cupboard and freezer are full. I had to explain that not every family is so lucky and that we were not going to use those things to supplement the week. She wasn’t happy to hear that, and I wasn’t happy to think about limiting her choices. My girl is athletic and needs the calories and besides, I enjoy providing even some “unnecessary,” fun treats throughout the week. A privilege taken for granted, yet again.
Meanwhile, at work, I worry a little as I see my calendar filled with: a bring-your-own lunch meeting on Monday, a “meet for coffee” date with an outside-the-workplace colleague, and a potluck for the holidays for our work area. The pack-my-own lunch will be far easier than finding a coffee place that would sell me a plain cup of coffee for under $1 (a quarter of my food budget for the day!). And, what could I bring to the work potluck that is going to be nourishing, tasty, and enough to share? Lentils. Maybe I can make a lot, for dinner with the kids, and still have plenty to bring to work? If only I hadn’t just made them this week. I wasn’t remembering how much planning ahead this Food Stamp Challenge might take– and how most people actually on that food budget on a regular basis would have even more difficulties planning ahead, and making ends meet.
May God have mercy, and may Congress take some meaningful action, actually protecting the poor rather than cutting food stamps even further.