Not a SNAP

Linda Valentine chronicles her week’s ‘Food Stamp Challenge’

November 25, 2013

LOUISVILLE

During the week of Nov. 17-23, more than 300 Presbyterians nationwide registered for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s SNAP Food Stamp Challenge.

The challenge was to eat on a food budget of $4.39 per person per day ― the average Food Stamp allotment in the U.S. The goal of the challenge was to draw attention to the gross injustice of poverty and hunger in the U.S. and to open new opportunities for education, understanding, compassion and solidarity.

According to the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge “is not only a call to hunger and poverty awareness, but also a call to action. We are called by God to be in the world and to seek to make it a better place. Changing hearts and minds are the starting point of building a movement and improving policy.”

One of those who “accepted” the challenge was Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Valentine kept a journal of her experience through the week and agreed to a request from Presbyterian News Service to publish it.

Valentine’s journal, unedited:

SNAP Challenge. November 17-23, 2013

My husband Chris and I joined thousands of people this week who are taking the SNAP challenge, living for a week on a food stamp equivalent allowance of $4.25 per person a day ($8.50 for two) as a way of raising awareness – ours and others – as to what it means to live on food stamps.

I begin, however, by acknowledging that we are unlike many people who do depend on food stamps. We have cars and access to a number of grocery stores. We can afford our Costco membership and to buy in Costco quantities, though we have not done that for this week. I have a demanding job, but only one job, and I do not come home physically exhausted to a household of children at the end of the day. Chris is an inspired and imaginative cook. We eat and enjoy fresh foods and cooking. We have time to cook.

Unlike colleagues who have taken up the challenge, we did not begin with our full week budget at the grocery store at the beginning of the week. We did begin with some weekly supplies, towards our $59.50 weekly allowance:

1 chicken, now roasted and the bones now simmering to make stock.          $3.80

A box of salad greens                                                                                                 $4.49

1 dozen eggs from farmer’s market (2X grocery store), .33 each                   $4.00

1 gallon skim milk (.25 per glass)                                                                    $2.00

Coffee, 1 pound                                                                                              $4.50

6 onions at .35 cents each                                                                               $2.10

6 bananas at .25 each                                                                                      $1.49  

Bag of apples .22 each                                                                                    $1.99

pack of 20 tortillas, 12 cents each                                                                   $2.40

loaf of whole wheat bread, 7 cents each                                                        $1.39              

                                                                                                                      $28.16  

We also had on hand some home-made broccoli soup, ingredients $4.85, for 6 servings, or 81 cents each.

I’m keeping track of costs as we go along, but don’t promise that all of the math is absolutely correct.

SUNDAY, DAY 1

Breakfast for 2:

3 scrambled eggs ($1.00), a little cheese (.40), and 1/3 onion (.12) rolled into 5 tortillas (.60)

Two apples, cut up .44

Coffee (will calculate when we figure out how far 1 pound goes)

Cost without coffee: $2.56

Lunch for 2

Salad with chicken (from the weekly supplies) ― estimate $2.00

Brocolli soup $1.62    

We had a chicken salad like this on Saturday, but then, not being budget constrained, we had about twice as much chicken; dried cherries and pecans added in. And, my typical salad dressing is olive oil, flavored vinegar, honey, salt, pepper and sometimes herbs from the garden. Since we grow the herbs, we added those without attributing cost. I discovered, however that olive oil is out this week. Though I could buy a bottle and would only use a small part, the least expensive one at the store was $7.50 and I didn’t think I could advance that much money on one item. Mayonnaise, however, is cheap ― $2.00 per bottle ― and with a little ketchup added makes a version of 1000 Island dressing, so that’s what we’ll use until we come up with a better idea. My grandmother was a home economics major from college in 1922. Always the home economist, I now realize why 1000 Island dressing was her favorite, and this her recipe! I skipped the “islands” though, which I think are crumbled hard-boiled eggs, since we’re eating a lot of eggs. I’ll count this as $1.00, though that’s more than what I used, that covers ½ of the cost of a jar of mayonnaise.

Dinner

We were blessed, in many ways, by our friends’ dinner invitation. We dined with extravagance, in delightful company and greatly appreciated hospitality. So, we ended up the day way under budget, thanks in great part to the generosity of friends.

Total day: about $7.18, plus coffee and the generosity of friends

DAY 2 MONDAY

Breakfast for 2

Yesterday’s breakfast was filling, nutritious and well within budget (except that we haven’t calculated the coffee yet), so we repeated that.

Lunch

Linda’s:

Can of tuna (.79) with a little mayonnaise and a little pickle relish on lettuce. I didn’t calculate the cost of that from a bottle that’s been in the refrigerator for well over a year.

Slice of bread.

Water

Chris:

Skipped lunch except for a glass of milk. He insists that he just wasn’t hungry, not that he was economizing. It helps not to be hungry.

Dinner for 2

Chris’ skill and imagination came out.

Curried chicken over rice with apples and banana as garnish. Normally we would have chutney, raisins and coconut as accompaniments but they’re not in budget. Still, the dish was delicious. Ingredients included some we haven’t calculated in: lemon juice, curry powder, cinnamon, ginger and a squirt of ketchup (instead of tomato paste). Onion (.35) and a cup of plain yogurt (estimated 23 cents per half cup)

Salad, with apples – and 1000 Island dressing of course.

About $4.25

Total day: about $8.25, plus coffee and spices

DAY 3 TUESDAY

We started the day with a conversation about how we would approach this if we didn’t take so much time to prepare complicated dishes – recognizing that this is reality for so many people. So today we began with breakfast of two hardboiled eggs cooked the day before (one each) on two pieces of toast and a glass of milk. Lunch was “plan overs” from yesterday, so no further preparation for that except remembering to bring the container and a fork to work. Chris added a glass of milk to his.

Dinner was microwave-baked potatoes – 2 for me, 2.5 for Chris, with a small amount of plain yogurt and sprinkling of shredded cheese. We each had salad, with 2 apples cut up. For dressing, again, no olive oil, so made it instead from vegetable oil, cider vinegar, mustard and honey. The honey comes from Chris’ own hives, the other ingredients from the cabinet. So, the cost is very low, but I wonder, on a budget like this how one stocks staples like vegetable oil, mustard, vinegar and honey.

I met a friend for coffee this morning, but drank only water. I’d had my fill of coffee at home, and didn’t want to spend my precious allowance on restaurant coffee. Since I’ve been public about taking the SNAP challenge, I explained my situation (and even left a generous tip for the waiter). If I was really dependent on a food stamp budget, I might have just feigned no desire for coffee, or wouldn’t have met in a restaurant, to hide the misplaced shame at being poor.

I thought too, about entertaining. That’s something we enjoy and do often. Barely able to feed cover our own food costs would mean feeding friends difficult, or even impossible I would think.

Finally got around to reading last Sunday’s New York Times. Two articles struck me in particular. Joseph Stiglitz writes about what he calls our “crazy food policy”. He could use even stronger language. We increase subsidies to a small number of wealthy farmers, while cutting the food stamp program “meager aid to our country’s most vulnerable.” Nicholas Kristof’s article “Prudence or Cruelty” calls out the damaging impact of cutting back food stamps, more than 90 percent of the benefits of which go to families living below the poverty line. Nearly 2/3 of the recipients are children, elderly or disabled. Hunger and malnutrition has lasting adverse consequences for development in small children and the ability to focus and learn in school children. He cites a study that found “those who begin receiving food stamps by the age of five had better health as adults. Women who as small children benefited from food stamps were more likely to go further in school, earn money and stay off welfare.” Cutting benefits is wrong for so many reasons, including our long term welfare as a society.

“Care for the widow and orphan and the vulnerable,” God and the prophets instruct. “Feed the hungry,” Jesus commands. “Do justice, love mercy.” How can we not?

I’m not only catching up late on the New York Times, I’m also catching up on wonderful Daily Devotions to use this week, and in other times, to pray and reflect on these matters: http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/hunger/pdf/snap_foodstampdevotionalfinal.pdf

DAY 4 WEDNESDAY

Today we were way under budget. (I’m not counting the wine and cracker after dinner that a friend treated me to.)

A banana before morning work out.

Breakfast hard boiled eggs on toast $1.07 for two. Coffee.

Chris made delicious granola, consisting of just toasted oatmeal with honey, cinnamon and oil.  So we also had a small amount of that over yogurt.

Lunch, chicken sandwiches from the $3.80 chicken of the week that has made several meals, 4 pieces of bread and 2 apples = 72 cents plus the cost of the chicken.

Dinner, Megadarra, Esau’s Dish and salad. Total cost $3.64 (for the lentils, brown rice, onions and yogurt; not including cost of spices and 4 T butter) and we ate about a third of it. Ingredients for Megadarra are:

4 T butter, 8 oz lentils, 1 ¼ pints water, 8 oz rice, 1 t ground cumin, 1 t ground allspice, 1 garlic clove, 2 med onions, 8 oz yogurt.

The key, I think is the carmelizing of the onions. Delicious and filling!

So total for the day for 2, not counting cost of small amount of chicken and the spices ― and coffee ― was about $5.00. Oh, yes, and that glass of wine provided by a friend.

Today I had lunch with colleagues who are on the SNAP challenge. We had a wonderful conversation sharing experiences, reflections, passion for the issues this is raising in us all and even a few funny stories about cooking mistakes and setting smoke alarms ― funny if they weren’t so serious. I spilled coffee this morning, and as I rushed to clean it up, thought about how precious coffee had just been wasted. What if that was all the coffee I could afford for the day? (I could live without coffee, of course, but others might suffer my grumpiness.) One colleague talked about how she over-cooked beans and ordinarily would have thrown them out and started over, but not when that was already a significant part of her daily allowance. We’re thinking about food differently.

DAY 5 THURSDAY

Breakfast

1 egg, yogurt, banana - $1.15. Plus coffee and a little of Chris’ toasted oatmeal granola (cost to be calculated).

Lunch

Plan-over Megaddara from last night, with yogurt. About $1.15 a serving.

Dinner

I was an exchange student in Germany (then West Germany) the summer after my junior year of high school. In contrast to this week’s experience, that was a summer of abundant eating. My German “mother” was a wonderful cook. I gained 10 pounds. One of my favorite meals was Sunday night supper when my German “father” would cut up boiled potatoes that had been left over from mid-day dinner, cook them over the stove with sautéed onions and finish them off with some eggs, salt and pepper. Tonight for dinner I recreated this comfort food dish, added a few sprigs of parsley still in the garden and a salad. Cost about $2.16 for two, plus vegetable oil/cider vinegar/honey mustard dressing and a glass of milk.

I also remembered some lessons I learned that summer. My middle-class German family of five lived in a five-room apartment and had no car. I’d come from a family of five in a two-story suburban home with two cars. I learned how comfortably a family could live with much less than I took for granted; and that was an important lesson for a 16 year old.

FRIDAY DAY 5

I stepped on the scale and saw that I had lost nearly 4 pounds. While I’m glad for that as I have tried to lose weight and would be happy to lose a few more pounds from a health and appearance standpoint – obviously, this means I have a calorie deficit. From a health standpoint, that’s not healthy long term. I’m living, too, with a continual sense of hunger, not troublesome at this point, but long term would be bad. I’m counting the days until I can eat what I want – and thinking of those who have no prospect of relief. So, I’m reminded again that this one week effort is good for raising my consciousness, but not really putting me in the position of our brothers and sisters for whom this is an everyday and ongoing reality.

Americans waste $165 million of food every year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s 40% of food in the US; $2,275 average loss due to food waste for a family of four, Time magazine reports (Nov. 25, 2013) Multiple causes contribute to this appalling waste – farmers grow too much to hedge uncertainty (encouraged by price supports?), distributors reject slighted bruised or misshapen fruits and vegetables, groceries overstock to keep displays looking good, consumers through out perfectly edible produce at home, often mistaking the “sell by” date as a spoil date. (And what about the huge restaurant servings that don’t get finished?). At the same time 49 million Americans live in food insecure households. This is a very broken system.

Breakfast

When I finished breakfast, I was still hungry. So, I ate a piece of toast with peanut butter. We had peanut butter in the cupboard. I’m sure the small amount I used didn’t cost much, but I didn’t figure the jar into our weekly purchase, so that again makes me wonder how on this budget one can build up “staples”.

Lunch

I joined about a dozen colleagues for lunch. Three of us on the SNAP challenge brought our food. The others ate what was provided. We spoke again about our privilege – we work in an office that serves coffee, and from time to time lunch is provided at a meeting. This week, many of the office groups are having pot-luck Thanksgiving lunches. So, we could avail ourselves of what is provided. Just as we can walk into church coffee hours or pot-lucks and have coffee and food, or into a grocery store with free samples. People invite us out - or over - and provide food. It’s but one of the privileges of the lives we lead and the circles we are in. An unhealthy person in tattered clothes would not be ― or feel ― welcome. Or, would not even pass through such places.

Lunch was an egg salad on 2 slices of bread. Cost about 48 cents, plus a little mayonnaise and pickle relish. Luckily, I don’t like, and thus don’t crave, soft drinks. So, I am happy to drink water, though I would have had a big glass of unsweetened ice tea from the jug set out for the group, but I wasn’t sure how much it “cost”. Coffee, as has been noted, is another matter – and I am availing myself of the office coffee, as well as drinking at home and postponing calculating the cost.

I was hungry when I returned home. Tempted to have a piece of bread, I saw we only had two slices left in the loaf and we have another day to go. So I opted instead for a small bit of yogurt and a banana, though the bananas bought earlier this week are more ripe than I would normally eat except in a smoothie. My standard of what is acceptable has changed, without the luxury of just tossing out and buying fresh.

Dinner

We went to a reception at the arts and crafts museum. (Privilege again). Besides a glass of wine, I did partake of three meatballs. I could have eaten the whole tray of food set out, but was ashamed to show my hunger. I didn’t calculate the cost, but delicious as they tasted to me at this time, I’m pretty sure they weren’t made of expensive ingredients.

Back home, small salad with cider vinegar, honey mustard dressing. Chris had a cooking project going for another occasion, so I did take a few morsels from that, just estimating that I was still well within my budget for the day.  

SATURDAY, DAY 7

Breakfast for 2

Starting out as we did at the beginning of the week, we scrambled and rolled 3 eggs into 4 tortillas. We had a small bit of cheese and onion left, so added those. The apple was bruised, but we ate it anyway.

We’re out of milk, so that’s it for the week on milk. Luckily, we don’t have children to feed.

Cost: $2.22 for two, plus coffee.

Lunch

I was hungry before Chris came back from errands, so had ½ sandwich of peanut butter, a little honey and an apple, 29 cents, plus honey. Hungry about an hour later, I ate a can of tuna, 80 cents, plus a little mayonnaise. Chris returned and heated up some left over Megadarra ― not very satisfying he reported, but nutritious.

Dinner

We were invited out. I confess to having exceeded the budget with my contribution of grapes, dates and almond macaroons that I made. I normally would have included fancy cheese and crackers to this dessert dish, but held back on that. More of an indulgence is that we ate meals we could never have afforded ourselves.

This week has stirred up many thoughts and reflections. I’m glad I did it and would do it again and encourage others to do it. I’ve been glad for the conversations it has prompted, though one disturbed me. As I described the SNAP challenge a woman quickly said “Do you think people who get food stamps really need them? My friend, who has a job, says it’s easy to buy them, which he does.”

“Yes, millions of people do not have enough to eat and need assistance” was my quick and unequivocal reply. I was annoyed at the narrative that too many carry around based on a few instances of fraud. I had just read about, and then met, Dave Miner, chair of the Indy (Indianapolis) Hunger Network and former board chair of Bread for the World. Through research, he discovered that federal nutrition programs accounted for more than 90% of the food assistance in Indianapolis ― SNAP contributing 73% alone. Food pantries and community food drives, gleaning programs and soup kitchens are good, but they are small in comparison.

Yes, in the long run, life would be better if we did not need to hand out food or food stamps. People need income and resources, access to food and groceries, means to support themselves and their families. We have more than enough food in this country, and indeed in nearly every part of the world. Yet, millions go hungry, even as we have an epidemic of obesity in the US (another serious problem of food imbalance and poor nutrition). Twenty five percent of children in the US live in poverty. Ten percent of children in the Jefferson County schools (that includes Louisville) are homeless.

This is wrong. This is not what God intends in the richest country in the history of the world. I am reminded, encouraged and inspired to continue to pray, advocate, be aware and work for the abundant world that God wills for all people and to use privilege for good, not perpetuation of systems that keeps millions poor and hungry.

From the Presbyterian Hunger Program weekly devotions:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? . . .   If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:6–7, 9-10

  1. Thought about your article a great deal today. Worked in the Clothes Closet/Foo Pantry...asked to help a woman who could not read "name" / "address" / 'special request' ... and could not recognize the pictures we have there for people who don't read. She asked, "What's that?" It was a picture of a washing machine so a person could check 'detergent' if needed, etc. We went through the entire card of words and pictures and she asked me to write for her. Quite sure she doesn't have seasonings / condiments, etc. in her kitchen cabinet...equally sure she can't read labels, etc., when she goes to the grocery. How does she manage on SNAP with 4 adults and 3 children in her household to feed?

    by Willa Fae Williams

    December 2, 2013

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