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The Food Stamp Challenge

by Patricia Lull

“Will you join us?” The question came as a voice message on my phone last fall. The caller was a neighboring rabbi, a leader in local inter-faith initiatives. The us was a group of Jewish and Muslim faith leaders who had committed to work together on a hunger awareness initiative. They were reaching out to me, a Christian faith leader, to join them in a weeklong experiment of living on a food stamp budget.

Let me say up front, there is a world of difference between a seven-day experience and a way of life marked by limited financial resources. Some of you may know what is like to shop on a tight budget. Some of you may regularly face the monthly challenge of juggling utility bills and rent and rising food prices.

Some of you may remember the experience of growing up, missing meals when the pantry was bare or witnessing your parents go without so that the children could eat.

That is the reality for an estimated 50 million of our neighbors in this country. Many are children; too many are elders. Whether we notice or not, in our cities and small towns, having adequate, daily food is a challenge right where we live. To understand that reality differently and to lend my voice to a movement to increase awareness and insure continuing government funding to off-set such missed meals, I agreed to join this initiative.

From the start, I knew that participating in this would have an impact on my life. While I couldn’t predict what I would learn or what the week would stir up in me, I knew that new experiences had often caused me to look at the world in a fresh way. When I meet people from another culture, travel to unfamiliar places, or simply taste new foods, something inside me shifts a bit. Those experiences help me see my way of being in the world in a slightly different way.

Social scientists call that a “theory of change” and in their writings outline complex reflections on how we, as social creatures, embrace change in the workplace, in our understanding of other cultures, or in the way we approach everyday events. Think about your own life in the past five years. What are the significant things that have happened to you? New friendships, a move, diagnosis of a chronic disease, the death of a family member, the decision to get a puppy—all of these caused you to interact with the world in a new way.  (back to top)

The Weekly Food Budget

The Food Stamp Challenge worked like this. Two dozen faith leaders agreed to spend just $31.50 on food for a week. We gathered on a Sunday afternoon at a grocery store in center of the city. A few members of the local media came, too, with cameras to document our experiment. With Christian clergy in collars, and rabbis wearing their yarmulkes, and Islamic leaders in the traditional dress of several countries, we entered the store as an odd-looking procession.

You may wonder why we brought only $31.50 with which to shop. The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has replaced what was once called “food stamps.” Intended only to stretch other dollars in a food budget, the amount of the monthly stipend varies by size of household and the food costs in a given state. Those who planned our event chose $31.50 as a typical award for a single person living in Minnesota.

How would you approach such a challenge? Can you remember similar days of living on a frugal budget when you were a student or first married? Do you clip coupons and watch for bargains in the weekly newspaper flyers?

Remembering their experience during the Great Depression, did your parents teach you how to grow your own vegetables in summer? Do you can, freeze seasonal produce, and swap cost-saving recipes?

Each of us brings along a whole repertoire of memories and skills when we go to the grocery store. Our deeply held thoughts about healthy eating and food preferences are right there in the shopping cart as we start down the first aisle.

I had prepared a shopping list, based on a menu I thought would fit this budget of $31.50 and the time demands of my week. I ordinarily pack my lunch and wanted to make sure I had something that would allow me to avoid the added expense of going out to eat at mid-day. A loaf of bread, peanut butter, carrots, and apples covered that need. I decided to forego all dairy for the week, sparing that expense.

I knew oatmeal, rice, beans, chicken broth, and spaghetti and sauce would provide nutritious meals and leftovers. Frozen peas were more affordable in November than fresh vegetables. A packet of sale-priced chicken drumsticks were my only meat purchase. I knew I would be cranky without my morning cup of coffee and splurged on a small can of ground beans.

A friend came along to help me shop and we moved quickly through the store. I was humored to watch several of my male colleagues asking the media for help, not being the regular shoppers for their households. But even with a shopping list in hand and years of Saturday afternoon practice, I noticed some things for the first time that day.

The apples that were on sale at the very best price were packaged in quantities beyond my financial reach. Most weeks I shop ahead when there’s a sale and don’t think twice about buying food that will last more than a week. Paper goods, detergent, and shampoo are stashed away at my house, purchased when the price is low. But there’s no margin to do that on a limited budget. I knew I could go without the yogurt and the cheese I ordinarily buy, but I could not do that if I had children to feed. Living on my own, there would be no complaints about the simplicity of the week’s menu.

At the checkout my purchases totaled $26.67. Before the week was over, I spent an additional $3.53 on fresh pears and popcorn. That left $1.30 jingling in my pocket all week. And truth be told, I had several lunch meetings and twice enjoyed dinner at the home of friends.  (back to top)

What I learned

Could I live on a food stamp budget? Yes. But I could do so only by changing many of and food choices— cooking at home, economizing every recipe, avoiding desserts and snacks, benefitting from free coffee at work and dinner invitations. I would be reluctant to go without dairy products week after week.

If I were to participate in this challenge again, I’d make myself travel to the grocery store by bus. I had the luxury of driving across town. But I might have chosen different foods if I had needed to ride the bus, transferring once or twice, and dealing with heavy shopping bags on a snowy afternoon—as many of my urban neighbors do every time they shop.

This weeklong experience helped me see more clearly some of the disparities that exist every day. Convenience in travel, a household economy that allows buying in quantity, access to the most affordable and freshest food and produce were right there at the edge of my experience. And then there is the core reality of hunger, which is real for too many people in our communities. I didn’t miss a single meal. They do. And we know that hunger is severe and devastating in a growing number of countries beyond our borders. How can that knowledge, that awareness, not change us as people of faith?  (back to top)

Using Our Voices

If you wanted, you could replicate this experiment. That might be an interesting project for a group of women or several families. Direct experience is a great teacher. As faith leaders we gathered at the beginning and the end of the week to discuss hunger, the advocacy steps we were committed to taking, but most profoundly, to talk about how this stirred up memories and fears in us. This kind of food stamp challenge has greater impact when it leads to collective action and shared learning.

Though it is months since I walked into that grocery story with just $31.50, I cannot go shopping without recalling this experience. What is it that I feel? Sadness, in part, because of the gap between the resources I have and the limitations that bind the choices of my neighbors. The last time I shopped I purchased far more than beans and rice but as my eye traveled to the food displays and rising prices, I couldn’t help but think of other shoppers and the statistic that tells us that one out of six of our neighbors is often hungry. I know God does not intend for it to be that way.

But that jolt of sadness and the recognition of my privilege is not my whole experience. Since that week-long challenge, I have resolved to do two things. As a matter of personal discipline, I shop as wisely as I can. I am more careful than before to only buy what I can reasonably use so that I throw out less food. I have started clipping coupons, watching for ways to reduce my own food expenses. And I have pledged to return the money that I save through coupons and sale prices to a food shelf in my community. My good fortune now benefits others.

And I have increased my advocacy efforts, paying attention to ways that I can share my convictions with those in Congress and in my state legislature. As a citizen, I am using my voice to say that no one in America needs to be hungry. It would be easy to think that changing the big picture of hunger is someone else’s responsibility, but I am convinced that closing the hunger gap will be accomplished shopping cart by shopping cart.

We can do this, and who better to lead the charge than those of us who are people of faith? None of us are too young or too old to ignore our neighbor’s need. While the greatest domestic hunger relief efforts are publicly funded initiatives like SNAP and WIC (a nutrition support for women, infants, and children), the faith community provides the energy and compassion to finally close the hunger gap.

What will you do? More importantly, what can you do together with others to change the equation of hunger and missed meals right where you live? The invitation—will you join us?—didn’t expire with me and a small band of faith leaders in Minnesota. It is the invitation to learning and action that extends to all of us, who sense this call to make a difference right where we live. Together, we can make that difference for our hungry neighbors.

The Rev. Patricia Lull is an ELCA pastor who serves as executive director of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches. If you choose to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, she invites you to send an account of your experience to her at plull@spacc.org.  (back to top)

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