Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the category “Our family on SNAP”

87 cents

by Ivan Herman

That’s how much we had left on our SNAP budget at the end of the month.  87 cents.  Not much room for error, and not much of a cushion for frills and extras.

On Thursday we had run out of milk and fruit.  We had $9.27 left in our budget.

I took my son to the grocery store in the afternoon.
$3.49 for milk
$1.95 for six bananas
$1.99 for a whole, fresh pineapple (score!)

I tallied it up in my head: about $7.50, and figured I could buy only two Fuji apples on sale at $1.49 per pound (it came out to $.97).  I asked Robin to pick the two apples.  He plunked two into the bag, then grabbed for a third.
“Sorry, little dude, but we don’t have the money to buy a third apple.”
“But I like apples.”
“Yeah, me too.”  <<sigh>>

$8.40 for milk and fruit.
$530 for 4 people over 40 days.
$1.10 per person, per meal.
Only $.87 left over.

We ate frugally, but were still able to eat a balanced diet.
How easy it would be to miss the target!

On a day when we celebrated the institution of our Lord’s Supper, the feast at my own table looked a bit more meager.  At the Maundy Thursday service, as the bread was broken, I hungered for it, both physically and spiritually.  The fridge at home had only a half-loaf of homemade sourdough, and some leftover simple drop biscuits.  But the bread, juice, and wine at the Lord’s Table held the promise of abundance.

Now Easter is upon us, and abundance is at hand.  May our “Alleluias” in grateful praise bring glory to God as well as food for those who still hunger, for “Alleluias” are not just sung and spoken in devotion and worship, but also acted out in compassion and justice.

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Eat this bread

Earlier this week Ivan, Camilla, and I went to a food distribution site in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento. The agency that runs it, Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, accepts customers from anywhere in the region. They limit the number of times you can get food at one of their sites to once per month, but they do provide information about other food resources. We checked to make sure Carmichael Presbyterian’s food closet (our church) is listed on there, and it is–though it serves only certain ZIP codes.

We stopped short of loading up a box of food for ourselves. The zucchini, in particular, was tempting. Our fridge and pantry are still full, surprisingly. We have leftovers of brown rice, a pasta dish, and a weird but tasty chili-borscht thing. Also some of Ivan’s excellent homemade sourdough loaf. In short, we have plenty of carbs left.

Good thing none of us has diabetes.

Homemade pizza

Homemade pizza topped with chicken and pineapple

Or celiac disease.

expensive gluten-free bread

Because we can’t afford this bread!

I didn’t realize anyone around here was already growing zucchini, but apparently some farms are. Sac Food Bank buys produce directly from eight local farms. “Then,” said Kelly Siefkin, communications director at SFBFS, “when they have surplus produce, they call us. We can send a truck around and offload that food for them in just a couple of hours!”

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Alongside the USDA commodities (available to elderly persons, mothers up to one year postpartum, and families with children under six years old) other volunteer-staffed tables offer pre-bagged vegetables and fruits. Each table has an info sheet showing the item’s nutritional features, how to store it, and some ideas for how to prepare it. Volunteers are encouraged to make small talk with customers and give their personal suggestions or recipes.

While you wait in folding chairs under the pop-up tents for your number to be called, you can visit display tables and get information about other programs Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services offers. These include parenting classes, gardening classes, a clothes closet, and general adult education classes, among other things.

Demonstration garden at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services

Demonstration garden at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services

When I asked Kelly how the closure of Sacramento’s Campbell’s Soup plant would impact SFBFS, she noted that the loss of a pallet of Campbell’s product 2-4 times per year wouldn’t dent their stores too deeply. Certainly, she said, the agency would be open to serve all families affected by the closure, whether they need emergency food or want to take advantage of a class. Average hourly pay at the Campbell’s plant is $20/hour…and my guess is that after getting laid off it will be hard for the factory workers to find similar jobs at wages like that. So a good prayer, for those who are inclined to pray, might be that the laid-off workers learn many new marketable skills and find good-paying work again soon.

Another service at SFBFS food sites is free consultation with nurses. Sacramento State nursing students attend each of the three weekly distributions to answer health questions and give referrals to nearby clinics. Jeff, a third-semester student who stopped to talk with us, said that people often show him a list of medications they’re taking. They might need to know whether, out of a list of several meds, there is one that is more important to keep taking than the others?

fresh veggies extend a can of chili

One large onion, a quarter head of purple cabbage, and three tomatoes that were about to go off, added to a can of chili our friend Crystal gave us, makes about eight servings.

A lot of things we’ve read or suspected were true about hunger and food insecurity in the USA have become more clear to us during our Lenten food stamp challenge.

One is that cooking from scratch is key to eating a healthy but inexpensive diet. The only convenience foods we bought during our challenge were frozen vegetables. Oh, and a jar of pasta sauce. And a few cans of beans (we cooked the dry kind too). No pre-made meatballs, no bag of frozen potstickers for those nights when you’re just tired. No pie, no ice cream, no soda, not even juice for the kids. And we still ended up with mostly carbs in the fridge and pantry.

Another is that there are many reasons and combinations of reasons that someone might be food insecure, and among them I would include lack of knowledge about nutrition and how to cook, but also:

  • working a job that does not pay a living wage
  • illness and medical bills
  • caring for a disabled family member
  • divorce and loss of partner’s income

The list goes on and on. So if you hear the commandment of Jesus to love one another, as we heard this Maundy Thursday, and you feel called to obey the commandment by helping solve the puzzle of hunger, consider donating if you haven’t before (maybe money rather than food?). Or volunteer your time, either in food distribution or education.

Spending time in community shows that you care, but it doesn’t have to be all face time. Consider donating your computer skills or other specialized knowledge. Or look at the broader picture. Even though I’ve just listed some cool things Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services is doing, I have to reiterate this from an earlier post: agencies like SFBFS and churches currently fill only 4-5% of the total need for food in the USA. The federal government provides the rest through SNAP and other programs. You can write to your members of Congress; become an advocate for just one or the whole suite of issues that affect our country’s ability to prosper–education, health care, a living wage.

The risen Christ, who we celebrate on Easter, was made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24: 13-35). We learned a lot by changing the way we break bread this Lent. We hope you did too.

Lenten discipline, permanent change

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I’ve lost four pounds. It’s a good thing; I had them to lose.

Before I go any further I’ll assure you that the kids have not lost weight during our SNAP challenge. About the only thing they’re hurting for is Goldfish crackers. When I take one of them to the store and explain that I’m trying to get the best ratio of nutrients to dollars, thus skipping the snack aisle and the $7.49 carton of colored crackers, there’s usually a pause.

Followed by, “But we’re OUT. We need MORE.”

And as it turns out, I broke down Saturday and bought a small package of the Pepperidge Farm goodies anyway, in honor of a glorious sunny day and family ramble in the Sierra foothills. So our kids are not deprived.

I’ve lost weight by abandoning my habit of drinking a glass (or two) of wine at 9:45 every night. You can’t use SNAP benefits to buy alcohol, and because our simulation has us using only our dedicated food stamp-like budget for all the food and drink we consume, the Two Buck Chuck had to go. I have taken to substituting water or iced tea in a wine glass so I can still go through the ritual of shaping my hand just so and swirling.

Someone asked me recently whether we felt our Lenten discipline was producing permanent change. I told her I hope to say a permanent goodbye to those four pounds, and maybe give them a few more neighbors in Lost Pounds heaven. But I hope for more than that.

As far as slashing our grocery spending and eating well, our baseline was pretty good. We were already in the habit of cooking from scratch and chop chop chopping our veggies every night. Most nights. So the SNAP challenge has helped us to further streamline by limiting the number of times per week we go to the store (fewer shopping trips = fewer dollars spent). Plus, we make darn sure it’s a special occasion before we splurge on pricier items such as fish or pre-marinated meat. I hope for more change than that, too.

palm frond

by Felix Burton | Flickr

Yesterday at our Palm Sunday service, Pastor Keith DeVries challenged us to change. He challenged us to change our definition of God. Is God the king of power, of regal colors and flags, evoking a collective tremble in the crowd as he displays his swords and ammunition? Or is God the word made flesh who dwelt among us? Dwells among us. A homeless, unemployed rabbi on a fuzzy donkey, making his way into town on a red carpet of palm fronds and sweaty, dingy clothes.

Not that visions of God as the almighty, omnipotent, Eternal Father Strong to Save are wrong, in their season.

But if we change our definition of God to that of an unarmed king of peace, led in the procession by children, in what ways can that compel us to quit caring about the pomp of the other parade going on? To drop our noisemakers and stop jockeying for position so we can photobomb the celebrities? How do we purge our pride and accept, well, the inevitability of laundry? That thought alone makes it easier for me to imagine laying down my coat for the donkey guy.

Lenten disciplines can help us change our definition of God. It sounds stupid, but by eschewing alcohol and eating out (except for Sundays) I’ve begun to know how it feels to be an outsider. Lots of my friends post on Facebook about their “whew, the kids are in bed” wine or their “happy birthday to me!” restaurant meals. I do this too, but I’m going to be more mindful of it in the future.

Through our discipline I hope to focus more clearly on being an advocate against hunger and for universal access to healthy food. I’m not sure exactly what effects this will have on the shape of my family life or business. But all big change starts with small changes, right? Faith informs our understanding and understanding helps us to take actions in faith. So what’s first? What’s next?

Help? Help!

Church members keep coming to me and asking, “Pastor Ivan, is there any way we can help you and your family? Can we take you out to eat or bring over a casserole for the freezer?” I give the same answer every time that consists of the following basic components: “Thanks, but no thanks.” “That kind of defeats the purpose of the Lenten discipline.” I know they mean well, but when you find someone who is fasting from chocolate for Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

When someone is fasting from chocolate during Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

When someone is fasting from chocolate during Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

As often as I try to graciously say “no,” I must also find a way to graciously say “yes.” Jeremy said, “I took your daughter out for an ice cream at McDonald’s. I hope that doesn’t ruin your budget.” Wyn said during a Stephen Ministry devotional, “Here’s an onion. You can do a lot with an onion.” My father, during his vacation, said, “Even people on SNAP have grandads who give grandkids treats.”

But then there is our dear friend, Crystal. She and her husband, Jeff, know what it’s like to be on SNAP. Some years ago when their first child was born prematurely, Jeff had just been laid off from his job. They had no income, no significant savings, and were consumed with daily running back and forth to the hospital to care for their new baby girl. When applying for assistance to cover the cost of the medical bills for the baby, the social worker told them they could apply for CalFresh (SNAP). “How are you putting food on the table?” she asked them. Extended family and church friends had been graciously providing them food, but their need was evident. While it was only a matter of a couple months before Jeff was back to work and they were off SNAP, at their hour most filled with need it was a difficult decision to say yes to SNAP. There is such a stigma attached to asking for food stamp help.

A few Sundays ago Crystal approached my wife, Susan, in the church parking lot. She thrust a brown paper grocery bag into her arms without asking. “Take it. You’ll need it.”

Inside the bag was a handwritten note:

Ivan and Susan,

Well I thought this could help you in more ways than one. Besides the simple fact of needing more food than money can buy, any extra food can always help.

But also in my life I have found it to be easy to be on the giving end of help. It is a hard thing to ask for help from a friend, family member or stranger. But when your family is in need you have to push aside pride and be willing to take a helping hand.

So this is our gift to you, some food for thought.

Crystal

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A compassionate lesson in asking for help.

Annie Lamott’s newest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers distills our conversations with God into these simple words. She said in an interview that “Help …is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”

Even among generations there is a marked difference in the ability to ask for help and the perception of SNAP. A March 3 article in the Sacramento Bee explored the need among seniors. There is a growing population who are seeking food assistance from food charities, yet who won’t seek help from SNAP.  “So many are eligible for CalFresh food stamps, … but they look at that as a welfare program as opposed to a nutrition supplement.”  River City Food Bank saw the number of older adults seeking assistance rise by 25% in 2012.

I’m convinced Crystal is right.  It is easier to be on the giving end of help than it is to ask for help.  I don’t always ask for help when I need it.  But I do pray that when I ask for it, that I will have the wisdom and ability to push aside my pride to do so.  I also pray there will be assistance programs like SNAP to provide that help.  And when I don’t ask for it, yet still need it, may there be generous hearts with overflowing brown paper bags that come unbidden.

“Look! A Free Banana!”

Knowing that fruit is really one of the most expensive parts of our food budget, I took the chance. Nobody was watching. It wasn’t free, exactly, but nobody wanted it. No, I didn’t steal it. It was in the trash bin. Sitting right on top a bed of dry paper (come on people, recycle!), gleaming yellow with light brown freckles. It looked a bit soft on the bottom end, but the peel was unbroken and clean. I reached down and quickly snagged it, hoping nobody would notice. If someone did see, they would think I was retrieving something I dropped accidentally. I quickly made my way out to the parking lot and chucked it into the front seat of the car to save until my meetings were over.

I felt like a hunter-gatherer or a survivalist who isn’t fool enough to pass by an opportunity for nutritious calories that drop in my lap. Low-hanging fruit, one might say. But plucking a someone else’s banana from the top of a trash can isn’t freegan dumpster-diving. I mean, it’s not the same as digging through rubbish bins and scarfing down other people’s half-eaten chicken sandwiches or cold Pad Thai takeaway.

Or is it?

Statistics alert:  More than half of all fruits and vegetables end up rotting in bins, fields, or landfills rather than being eaten.  We lose more than we use!  If, as a nation, we could improve efficiency and reduce just 15% of our food waste per year, we could feed more than 25 million people just on what we save.  As it stands now, it seems I’m more likely to find fruit in the trash than I am to find it in a bowl.

As I watch the budget, I’m aware we’re not half-way through the month, yet we’re two-thirds of the way through our SNAP allotment. We’re cooking quite a bit from scratch (e.g. baking bread, making yogurt).

 The Rye Bread

The Yogurt

We are trying to be frugal, and are maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet. Yes, a fair amount of consumable assets still reside in the pantry and fridge, but it’s starting to look like lean times will be upon us.

Perhaps I’ll keep my eyes open and visit the bin again soon.

The Rubbish Bin

Not a big deal, but

Our second grader, Camilla, caps off her Ancestor Project with a dinner at school tonight. Each student is to bring a family artifact to display at the dinner (she is bringing a wooden shingle from the house where her namesake ancestor was born in 1891), as well as two dishes to share: a main dish and a vegetable (or dessert, if your last name starts with N-Z). Each dish should serve 8, so says the assignment sheet.

Well, this is awkward.

It’s not a huge expense–we are putting maybe 5 extra dollars into this meal from our SNAP grocery budget–but it was just sort of assumed that each family could afford to buy and prepare food for this special event. What if we really couldn’t spare it?

Camilla’s school is an “open enrollment” public school, which means that students from outside the neighborhood boundary can apply to be in the admission lottery. Generally, parents who choose this school know that they will be in for a few extra expenses, as the school emphasizes experiential learning (read: projects and field trips). And there are fundraisers–man, are there fundraisers–so that every child can attend the trips. But for something seemingly small like sharing food? It may not merit an all-out fundraiser, but there could be a little more sensitivity.

In her oral report, Camilla chose to focus on Denmark as her country of origin (though more of her roots are in England and Germany). Seven generations before Camilla, in 1860 or so we surmise, the Peterson family sailed from Copenhagen to Britain and thence to Boston where they quickly made their way west to Nauvoo, IL and traveled the Mormon trail–possibly with a handcart company–to Utah.

I thought maybe ableskivers, a spherical Danish popover-like bread–would be good for the dinner. Perhaps a savory version, with a bit of cheese inside. But we’ve never made them before, so I worried that experimenting and probably burning a few batches would cost too much in wasted ingredients. I wouldn’t have worried about that before.

So we’re making ham biscuits and greens, to celebrate her North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas roots. I suppose you could say buttermilk biscuits are akin to the English scone? Or something like that. We know how to make it, it’s cheap, and if the kids don’t eat the greens there are some eggs and a pie crust waiting for the leftovers back at home.

biscuits

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Gardening on SNAP

Week two has been a bit tight.  The kids were out of school for President’s Week, so instead of receiving “free lunch,” their lunches had to be covered by our SNAP budget.  Additionally, my parents were visiting from North Carolina and participating with us on the Food Stamp Challenge.  While we added $1.10 per person, per meal during their visit, there were a number of moments when I could tell that Grandpop was going through pie and cookie withdrawal.  With the exception of an ice cream splurge by Grandpop for the kids (I admit—we all enjoyed it) that he proclaimed was an “even families on SNAP sometimes get treats from grandparents” moment, we did pretty well in sticking to the budget.

Toward the end of the month, though, we started to feel the pinch.  Thank goodness for the backyard.  We have a neighbor with a lemon and two orange trees that overhang our fence by a few feet.  The Meyer lemons and naval oranges added some variety to a couple of days that started looking carbohydrate-heavy with rice and flour from the pantry.  A family from church who live down the street brought over some of the oranges off their backyard tree, too.

I’m also harvesting some broccoli from our garden. It ain’t necessarily pretty, but it is edible. SNAP benefits do allow for the purchase of seeds. With a little patience, some educational resources, a bit of a green thumb, and some access to land or a community garden, it’s possible to grow food at low cost.

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However, But such a combination for many people is often difficult to come by, particularly in urban areas.

Backyard gardens are not a solution to hunger for most people. Not only does it take additional time, effort, and acreage many don’t have, there is also no guarantee of success (see my poor excuse for cabbage below), and efforts to improve backyard yield often cost more than the food itself would.  My Dad tells a tale of the deer devastating his tomato garden, and the one lonely tomato he harvested cost him more than $200.  (For a similar tale of the cost-ineffectiveness of home gardening, listen to last year’s Freakonomics podcast, The Tale of the $15 Tomato.)

There are some organizations that provide food solutions that come from gardens.  Soil Born Farms, an urban farming initiative aims to educate urban dwellers about growing food.  They also organize Harvest Sacramento, a movement to harvest fruits from neighborhood trees that could otherwise go to waste.  More than 53,000 pounds of fruit was harvested and donated out of back yards in Sacramento in 2012 through this program.

Food assistance organizations like food closets and food pantries sometimes gladly accept fresh backyard produce to distribute to those in need.  They can’t often receive fresh produce through food banks, and grocery stores often have policies to prevent them from donating expired, but still good produce.  Websites like AmpleHarvest.org catalog the places where you can take all those eggplants and zucchinis that overrun your backyard garden in the summer so that others may enjoy the fruits of your labors.  Other organizations like Senior Gleaners, Society of Saint Andrew, and Gleanings for the Hungry accept surplus or unsold produce from farmers and farm stands and put it to good use to feed the hungry in this country and around the world.  Look for  organization like these in your neck of the woods.

If you have land that is accessible to the public, could you start a community garden or a Victory Garden?

You call that a cabbage?

You call that a cabbage?

“Dad, we’re almost out of food right here.”

My three-year-old son pulled up his step-stool and opened the pantry door looking for an afternoon snack.  “Dad, we’re almost out of food right here,” he said.  It was as though he were discovering the barren shelves for the first time.  Though the tone of his voice didn’t really show it, my own imagination heard the question embedded within: “Will we have enough?”

Cupboard Step Stool

The Bare Cupboard Step Stool
photo by Ivan Herman

The sad fact is we are $5 over our SNAP budget allowance already, and we still have four days left until the end of the month.  There is probably enough in the refrigerator and in the pantry to make it, but it’s going to be close.  I’m grateful February only has 28 days instead of 31.  Like many who receive SNAP benefits, we will begin with a new month’s allowance on the first of the month.

We still have plenty of bread flour, brown rice, oatmeal, and grits.  We have a half box of breakfast cereal, a gallon of milk, six ounces of cheddar cheese, some chicken stock, a large can of chili beans, six eggs, 1/2 head of green cabbage, two bunches of kale, four carrots, an onion, some garlic, five oranges (from a neighbor’s backyard), two apples, and two bananas.

What creative ideas would you use to make this stretch over four days for four people?

Chop chop whisk

Here’s an example of what we’re eating these days.

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Actually, this is something I would have made even before our SNAP simulation, though my thoughts about it would have been: leftovers! Sweet! Rather than: this is a good way to get protein and fiber. We’ve reached the end of the month and funds for fruit are short. We ate our chicken, all but about 24 ounces of stock that is, and our pound of Italian sausage.

Anyway, today’s lunch was some 5-day-old brown rice (very chewy), scrambled with eggs and topped with a vinegary slaw of cabbage, cucumber, and carrot. A few drops each of soy sauce and Sriracha and there you are.

Week One – A Little Hungry, A Bit Anxious

Week One

Hunger is an unusual feeling for me – and probably for most of us. But this week, I’ve been hungry at times. I probably needn’t have been, but knowing that I will need to extend the food til the end of the month and stretch the budget has me a bit anxious.

I’ve skipped a couple meals. My Thursday afternoon meeting ran late, and I had another meeting to make on the other side of town. Normally I would grab a sandwich or tacos at a fast food joint. SNAP benefits aren’t accepted at restaurants. Sure, I could have dropped into the gas station or convenience store and gotten a bag of chips. But between my anxiety over the food budget and my time pressure, the easiest option was to go hungry. Perhaps I should have thought ahead and packed a brown bag supper, but the plan had been to make it home for supper. And who packs a “contingency supper?”

Susan skipped a few meals over the weekend, also due to the convenience factor, or rather, the inconvenience factor. She volunteered at the San Francisco Writers Conference representing her professional editing organization. Because she hadn’t paid to attend the full conference she was not able to eat the meals provided at the hotel. Between her work shifts at the Editorial Freelancers Association booth, dashing about to sit in on panel sessions, and commuting across the Bay where she ate late dinners at the home of a friend, Susan racked up three multi-hour hunger-induced headaches in as many days.

On Thursday she experienced hunger, too, though more for a lack of variety than convenience. There was food in the house that she’d bought right after Ash Wednesday service–$64 worth to be precise. Where normally she would have lunched on the previous night’s leftovers, on Thursday there were no such leftovers to be had. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich would have been easy and quick but she wanted something more satisfying. Eggs. But she’d forgot to buy butter to scramble or fry them in. We had some oil already, that would have been fine, but after deducting the eight or so dollars from our budget to “buy” the oil from our stock, might we come up short later? She got out the pot to boil a few eggs, then realized it was early dismissal day from school and she was responsible for picking up a friend’s daughter as well. Should’ve just gone for the PB & J.

In a Sacramento Valley survey of those who are food insecure, 76% of respondents reported they skip meals or cut portion sizes every month or almost every month. Hunger and inadequate nutrition contributes to physical and emotional health problems, and chronic hunger can exacerbate or even create chronic health health problems, lower productivity in the workplace, and even increase crime. The problems of hunger are deeper than a grumbly tummy or an inconvenient headache.

Statistics from “Hunger Hits Home 2012: Understanding & Combating Hunger in Sacramento County” a project of the Sacramento Hunger Coalition, Sacramento Housing Alliance, and Valley Vision.

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