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Eco-Journey is the blog of the Environmental Ministries Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It includes a wide array of environmental topics: upcoming environmental events, links to interesting articles and studies, information on environmental advocacy, eco-theology topics, and success stories from churches that are going “green.”

Author Rebecca Barnes is the Associate for Environmental Ministries at the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with an MDiv and Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) dual degree.

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November 20, 2013

Serving up Privilege

Okay, let’s be honest. Making it to half-way point, I admit some relief as I notice we still have enough basic supplies and I know basically what to make for the next few nights’ dinner. This is crazy, though, right? Because my half-way point of one tiny week of life within a restrictive food budget, is only to get a tiny glance, a shred of experience, at what it might be like to live only on SNAP/Food Stamps and all the surrounding complex issues surrounding hunger and poverty in the United States.


It is embarrassing really, to admit my relief. It is real, my relief. I feel it in my body. I have been hungry this week. Anxious. Grumpy. Resentful at times. Passing over extras to give my kids more. But this is Only. One. Week. And, I made a choice to participate, and I could undo it any minute. Heck, even my cupboard at work is stock full of provisions as my work colleagues know! My relief at being half-way through is real. It is also chock full of privilege.


So, just what about privilege? Here are my thoughts, today:


1)   The Food Stamp Challenge isn’t a game. It’s not winnable. It shouldn’t be used, by those of us with full cupboards and freezers and the possibility to go “back to normal” tomorrow, to congratulate ourselves even if we can possibly eek through the week. Being on a SNAP benefit food budget is challenging, absolutely. But the goal is not to see if I can get enough to eat this week. The Challenge is actually to advocate for the benefits available to people in our nation. The Challenge is to transform my own heart and mind enough and hope that I can then use my own power and privilege and experience to change myself. To re-invigorate my advocacy. And maybe, somehow, affect the systems of economic injustice because I will keep trying with my words, my vote, and my privilege, to get the message across: there is something really wrong with the income disparity, wage inequality, lack of access to food, and massive economic injustice in our nation and it must change.


2)   Privilege and wealth begets privilege and wealth. Here’s the thing: I get free calories because of my position in society. Perks spring up all around me. I don’t actually need free, most of the time, and yet it is steadily offered in the circles in which I live. Already having the blessing of a supportive church community and a good, steady job at a caring workplace, I reaped huge benefits this week that might not be typical if I truly lived in the economic bracket to be a recipient of SNAP. Because it is harder to build social nets and spiritual nourishment and community, I suspect, when living poor and hungry in this country. Hunger and poverty are socially isolating and time consuming. Here’s an honest look of all the “free” I got:

  1. My first day of the SNAP Challenge? I got to eat a small portion of free food and have a cup of desperately needed coffee because I’m a member of a local church, and because I have a history of being in leadership positions there, so no one would question my being in line or helping prepare coffee (it would be assumed I was doing it to be generous, not because I myself actually needed it).
  2. My second day of the SNAP Challenge? In the morning, a colleague brought in delicious homemade pumpkin bread (from his SNAP budget), and yes, I hungrily gobbled some up. Then, in the afternoon, my work area hosted a reception and I got to leave my desk for 30 minutes, mingle with colleagues, and there was plenty of healthy, kindly prepared mid-afternoon food.
  3. My third day of the SNAP Challenge? Another colleague dropped by with popcorn and I drank a LOT of my workplace’s free coffee. Most people on SNAP budgets could not rely on so much free.

3)   My health is a privilege. This week I’m consuming a lot of peanut butter, and wheat products. I have two different friends who have deadly allergies, one to nuts of all kinds and the other to gluten. My reliance on these foods this week? Another privilege, that I’m not trying to evaluate my own foods (and the free options around me) for whether it will send me to the hospital, mess with my medicine, or spike an ongoing health condition.


4)    Hunger is a part of poverty, and this week hasn’t made me any poorer.  In fact, I saved money on groceries this week, so guess what—that money will be there, come Sunday, and I can do something else with it. So I really have participated in understanding only a fraction of what someone with a really restricted income would have to deal with: lack of food choices, lack of healthiest calories. But, I haven’t had to draw down savings, and I don’t have the anxiety that my utilities will go out or rent monies will run dry. In an emergency, if our power went out and all my food spoiled, I could go get more. I have a working stove, oven, toaster oven, microwave and refrigerator—all helping me make and store food this week. I know I can go a week without using my SNAP equivalent budget on toothpaste and tissues and children’s cold medicines. I even know that I can provide Christmas presents for my children, without a lot of planning ahead. Having a larger sense of economic security is a huge part of being food secure.  

5)    I have not been shamed for living on limits this week. I am well aware that being a part of a Food Stamp Challenge actually has the danger of being both self-congratulatory and well-supported by family and friends. Would I blog about being poor or hungry, if I really, actually, was? If it was the reality of my life day in, day out? Yeah, probably not. I would have a lot more times of being quiet when volunteers are asked to cover food for a program at church. I would blush when asked if I could contribute to something at work. I would try to disappear when the time came to see who wanted to organize, or even come to, a community-wide potluck. Last night, I actually pretended I couldn’t read my sweet girl’s pantomime of wanting a drink from the snackbar, during her second game of the evening for which she was working hard as a cheerleader. I thought, I should have made her take a water bottle. I should have planned better, even though earlier she said no, she didn’t want to take her water bottle. I can’t afford to go buy her a drink. But, she’s standing there, thirsty, and I’m looking away. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. This was one fleeting moment in time, one crumb of shame, to not be able to provide. We quickly remedied the situation upon returning home. I can only imagine the ongoing shame of being in this position on a more regular basis.


Categories: Eco-Justice, Environment, Food, Food Choices, Food Security, Food and Hunger

Tags: economic justice, food, hunger, poverty, priviledge, reflections, snap food stamp challenge

  1. Throughout this week, I cheated a little… ok, a lot… when it came to hitting the $4.25 daily maximum. I kept making excuses: first, to be completely honest, it was because I’d read the stats wrong - $127.43 wasn’t the WEEKLY amount each person got (my initial inner monologue: “I spend WAY less than that! This will be easy!”), but their monthly total. Still, that’s not much less than I usually spend on food in a month. The thing that really got me was when I started making excuses like, “This week is too difficult to participate in the challenge - I can’t pack my lunch today – I need that extra 5 minutes to sleep in – I’m exhausted from working two jobs!” Rewind. It finally hit me that most of the people for whom Food Stamps are a necessity *have* to work two jobs just to make that $4.25/person each day. My flimsy excuse about picking up 20 hours/week at Target wasn’t going to cut it, because I have the luxury of being able to quit that job tomorrow and still afford food if it becomes too much. Then I checked my bank account. How interesting that this challenge comes on the week before I receive my first paycheck at these two new jobs, the week after buying a new car and leasing an apartment. The day my bank account holds a whopping $4.54. Even though my bank account is treacherously close to overdraft, the difference is that I know that at midnight tonight I will have enough money to cover it. That even after periods of unemployment and leaving my job for 15 months to be a volunteer in Belfast, I am privileged enough to know I can afford to splurge for lunch out now and then. As a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Northern Ireland, we had approximately £50/week to spend on living expenses like food. In Belfast, that’s plenty, because we strive to “live simply”… plus your money goes farther in buying the basics. I've seen YAVs in Denver participate in the Food Stamp program alongside the people they serve (and I’ve seen them bust out some pretty creative moves to make it work). But this is a choice we make. For a year. That $4.54 in my bank account reminds me that I have chosen to travel, to dedicate my life to serving others, that I am still lucky enough to afford a car and my own apartment… and that I will be getting paid tomorrow.

    by Tricia

    November 22, 2013

  2. Thanks for thoughtfully sharing the aspects of privilege. At one point in my life, I was actually on welfare and food stamps. Of course it changed my life, but knowing what it feels like to struggle in that way was an experience for which I'll always be thankful. Thank you, again, for a beautifully written reflection.

    by Charlotte Blackburn

    November 21, 2013

  3. Thanks Rebecca. Really, truly helpful reflections.

    by Mamie

    November 20, 2013

  4. Thank you for this, and for all of your updates on the challenge thus far. This stuff is important!

    by Colleen

    November 20, 2013

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