Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the category “Susan”

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.

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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?

“I wish I got paid enough to afford Girl Scout cookies”

…said the Raley’s employee when our Brownies tried to sell him cookies at a site sale a few weeks ago. He smiled, then coupled on several more grocery carts to the one he’d wheeled in from the parking lot, and clatter-squeaked back into the store.

“Oh. Hmm,” the girls nodded. Then, remembering their coached response they called to his red-vested back, “Thanks anyway!”

I’m not about to rant about how low-wage workers should be able to afford Girl Scout cookies. Cookies are a Sometimes Food, after all, not something we need for survival. You can buy cookies at the store with SNAP benefits but not Girl Scout cookies. So for the purposes of our Lenten discipline, our stash stays in the freezer until the next Sunday rolls around (we are observing Sundays as feast days in Lent).

Thin Mint cookie wearing Girl Scout sash

Thin Mints tempt us from inside the freezer.

Still, the Raley’s cart-retriever struck a nerve. He may not actually be living in poverty or even approaching 130% of the poverty line–at which point he’d be eligible for SNAP–but many workers do. Why is that? Isn’t work supposed to be your ticket out of poverty and off of government benefits?

In fact, SNAP is designed to support income earned from work, and the numbers suggest that it is not a disincentive to work. Still, wouldn’t it be great if all workers could dedicate 30 percent of their earned income to food and didn’t need government assistance?

When Jesus sends his disciples out to spread the good news by healing the sick and raising the dead, he challenges them to take nothing with them beyond what they need for a single day. They will be cared for by those they serve, “for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:10). Jesus speaks not just what should be true for his disciples, but what should be true for all workers.

The 21st century expression of this truth is, as President Obama has said, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty. To that I add “no one who would like to work full time but instead has to cobble together multiple part time jobs with no benefits.” Not as good a sound bite, but there it is. For a quick overview showing how SNAP benefits pair with low-wage work, see the table below, taken from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Example: Calculating a Household’s Monthly SNAP Benefits

Consider a family of three with one full-time, minimum wage worker, two children, dependent care costs of $74 a month, and shelter costs of $818 per month.

  • Step 1 — Gross Income: The federal minimum wage for 2013 is $7.25 per hour. Full-time work at this level yields monthly earnings of $1,256.
  • Step 2 — Net Income for Shelter Deduction: Begin with the gross monthly earnings of $1,256. Subtract the standard deduction for a three-person household ($149), the earnings deduction (20 percent times $1,256, or $251), and the childcare deduction ($74). The result is $783 (Countable Income A).
  • Step 3 — Shelter Deduction: Begin with the shelter costs of $818. Subtract half of Countable Income A (half of $783 is $392) for a result of $426.
  • Step 4 — Net Income: Subtract the shelter deduction ($426) from Countable Income A ($783) for a result of $357.
  • Step 5 — Family’s Expected Contribution Towards Food: 30 percent of the household’s net income ($357) is $107.
  • Step 6 — SNAP Benefit: The maximum benefit in 2013 for a family of three is $526. The maximum benefit minus the household contribution ($526 minus $107) equals $419.

The family’s monthly SNAP benefit is $419.

Maybe by the time our Brownies finish their badges this year, they will have a little more awareness about money and what it can buy, and needs vs. wants, particularly regarding food. If we can get it together, I’d like to take the troop on a backyard fruit harvest, where they’ll be helping people who not only can’t buy Girl Scout cookies, but maybe can’t even afford fruit. Then they can puzzle over yet another aspect of the food and money equation.

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

I’m angry at foodies

I’ve been a foodie since the late 1990s when the film Big Night came out, and Alton Brown started his TV show Good Eats. Ivan and I love to host BBQs and theme parties, planning and prepping for days beforehand. Bring on the Inauguration Day clam chowder, the King Cake, the Robert Burns Supper! Most recently I enjoyed a blogger cookie exchange with other local foodies, and really enjoyed myself.

But since taking the SNAP challenge I’m surprised to feel anger welling up. Anger toward myself and toward my fellow foodies. Here’s why: we’re class biased. We aspire to eat the best food, but how many of us also truly aspire–and take action–for everyone to have access to the best food? Why do we allow such a gap to exist?

By “the best food” I’m not talking about lobster and caviar. I can’t afford and don’t really lust after those things…I’m talking mainly about fresh, local fruits and veggies, preferably those that are grown without chemicals. (Yes, there were a few fruits and vegetables featured in the theme parties I’ve listed above.)

And I’m talking about fish that are responsibly harvested, eggs from chickens that have room to roam (and chicken from chickens that have room to roam), beef and pork from cows and pigs that aren’t treated with hormones and producing swamps of toxic waste.

Stuart Leavenworth, editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, questioned in yesterday’s Forum section whether Sacramento is ready to face the challenges of the “Farm to Fork” movement. He contrasted mayor Kevin Johnson’s plans to brand the city as a food destination with the reality that “most consumers purchase the cheapest food available, regardless of season.” Being a food destination will mean that more restaurants are serving locally-sourced foods and that events such as the Foodie Film Fest draw healthy numbers. And this will be a good thing, a positive challenge for Sacramento. But how can we also ensure that low-income people, particularly in this rich agricultural region, can buy and cook that fresh from the farm good stuff?

I just waded through 330 typeset pages of unbridled wonkery–a book called All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? by Joel Berg (2008, Seven Stories Press), which was recommended to me by a social worker friend. A great read. Toward the end the author notes that some farm-to-fork advocates assert that “increasing food prices are a good thing because they deter people from buying junk food.”

How do you answer that, friends? Is that class bias? Is it helpful?

Arranged Vegetables Creating a Face

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.

Ash Wednesday: Gathering up the fragments

It’s an imposition, the Imposition of Ashes. It’s a crude reality some of us are exposed to only fleetingly, those of us whose routine lives stay out of the path of hunger, pain, illness, and death:

From dust you came and to dust you shall return.

Ashes from the prior year’s Palm Sunday fronds, mixed with oil, are smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust. Today we are complex, integrated human beings, yes, but before long we will be fragments of earth to be buried or dispersed.

Fragments

Fragments are also what you have when you look in your fridge or cupboard and say, “There’s no food in here! Let’s go shopping/out to eat.”

This past Sunday I pulled out everything in my cupboard and refrigerator–a half bag of dry pintos, some dried coconut strips; a cooked sweet potato, a few limp stalks of celery–and started grouping like things together to see what I could make. We wanted to empty out as many fragments as possible in preparation for SNAP Challenge Day One: buying a week’s worth of food for the family on $99.

More for inspiration than a specific recipe, I opened a cookbook I haven’t used in a while: the More-with-Less Cookbook. At the end of each chapter is a section called Gather Up the Fragments, which lists ideas for re-purposing bits of this and that.

the More-With-Less cookbook cover

The More-With-Less Cookbook, 1976

example of Gather up fragments page from More with less cookbook

From More-with-Less Cookbook

While I chopped and prepped I reflected, rather smugly, that I’m pretty handy with a knife and skillet. My skills will help us cut down on waste.

I had read an article in the Sacramento Bee about kids not learning to cook anymore these days, and thought, Ha! Not me. Not my kids. We can cook from scratch, oh yes.

It wasn’t until the moment of casserole assembly, oven all pre-heated, when I realized I lacked the 3 cups shredded cheese and would have to go shopping. D’oh!

Anyway, this is what we made with our fragments:

finished enchilada casserole

Enchilada casserole (includes cheese)

coffee cake

Coffee cake made of prunes, oats, dried coconut. Also walnuts from our Christmas stockings.

As of yesterday, what we didn’t eat went into the freezer.

Here’s what our cupboard and fridge look like now. We counted a full gallon of milk I bought on Sunday against our upcoming week’s budget, $2.99, and the bunch of parsley as well, $1.00.

nearly empty refrigerator

nearly empty cupboard

In the cupboard we have half a container of rolled oats, 4.5 ounces left of a 24-ounce box of raisins, and 8 ounces of peanut butter. Most SNAP challenges forbid using food you already have, but we figured it was silly to buy all new everything when we’re going to be at this for six weeks instead of the one week a challenge typically lasts. We “bought” those partial items by deducting their per-ounce prices from our budget.

Back to Ashes

“Remember, O mortal, that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19

We know our origin. We know our destination. Ash Wednesday imposes upon us a confrontation with the reality of our mortality. The fragmented pieces of dust and ash are given the shape of the cross. So, too, the fragments of our lives are given shape and purpose through the discipline of following Christ to the cross. We do not live lives born out of random dust, but out of love of God and love of neighbor.

“Is this not 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?”

Isaiah 58:6

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Pantry Raid

We’re practicing the Carnival tradition of clearing out the pantry and freezer of rich foods (and the refrigerator of beer), in preparation for the somber, scaled-back eating of Lent. This will culminate in a pancake dinner on Tuesday, aka Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras.

jar of sourdough starter

Sourdough pancakes for Fat Tuesday?

In the pantry we’ve got prunes and sliced cactus paddles, among other things.

We won’t eat all the way through the pantry by next Wednesday. Commonly accepted guidelines for food stamp challenges, such as those found here, say that you should not use food from your pantry, but we are making some adaptations. Most food stamp challenges last only a week; we are doing it for the 40 days of Lent.

So, instead of eschewing that food altogether we are working out a way to use it but still include it in our set budget. Ivan will have more details about this in his next post, but basically, we’ll use separate shelves in the pantry for old food and “SNAP food” and we will label the cans and bags we already had with their prices so we can “buy” them (that is, count them against our weekly grocery budget) when needed.

stocked pantry with 8 shelves

We’ll move the food we already had to the bottom four shelves and put the food we buy on our simulated SNAP budget on the top four.

In the freezer we’ve got a lot of corn tortillas. But luckily we have watched a LOT of Alton Brown’s show, Good Eats (from whence I stole the title of this post), so we know exactly what to do with those: enchilada casserole! We’ll chop the cactus paddles finely and mix them up with some onions and that one lonely leek still hanging about since cock-a-leekie soup at our Robert Burns Supper.

Instead of chicken in the casserole we’ll use some of the leftover pulled pork BBQ from when we hosted our church fellowship group and couldn’t stop giggling about the spice blend used for the meat (the butt rub).

food in freezer

Pulled pork BBQ and meatballs are in our immediate future! With blueberries and edamame to round it out.

omaha steaks in freezer

Also lurking in the freezer…a Christmas gift.

Happy Mardi Gras!

A Primer on SNAP

SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Until 2008 the program was known as Food Stamps. It is the largest program in the United States’ hunger safety net. Others include WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and SNAP Disaster Response.

In 2012 there were an estimated 47.5 million SNAP recipients. In my Congressional district, I found that of the 5,291 families receiving SNAP, almost half of them had one employed person in the last 12 months, and 38% of them had two or more income earners in the past 12 months (2010 numbers).

As its name implies, SNAP is supposed to supplement whatever you already spend on groceries. But it doesn’t cover many of the things I consider grocery essentials, such as paper products, cleaning products, or personal care items such as shampoo, tampons, or diapers. So, after buying all those items out of pocket, many SNAP recipients have little money left for food, so they have to depend on SNAP. And food closets, toward the lean end of a 31-day month.

Speaking of food closets, I learned this from an article my friend Adlai Amor wrote for his organization, Bread for the World: only 4.16% of all food assistance received in the United States comes from food closets. So they represent maybe only one or two strings of the safety net, which is less than I had imagined. Click on the infographic to read the rest of the Bread for the World article.

Grocery bag infographic from Bread for the World

Infographic from Bread for the World

Nutrition benefits come in the form of a monthly sum of money loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card that you swipe at the grocery store, on the same machine used for credit or debit cards.

Some farmer’s markets accept EBT. Most that offer this will have a kiosk where you swipe your EBT card and get scrip–plastic or wooden coins–that you use to pay for food at that market only. Vendors who receive scrip get reimbursed at the end of the day.

One of the things Ivan and I are mulling over as we lay out our “rules” for the SNAP challenge is whether or not to use our local farmer’s market, which does not accept EBT. There are a few markets in Sacramento County that do accept it. These are farther away than we’d like to go, so we’ll have to weigh whether spending extra time and gas money for trips out of our neighborhood outweighs the benefit of fresher food (cheaper food, too, in the case of vegetables but not necessarily for fruit).

Well, those are details that we will explore later. If you want a more comprehensive overview of nutrition benefits offered in your state for people in various circumstances (or to find out what you might qualify for), I recommend using Benefit Finder. I plugged in a fake income and some other true data into the Benefit Finder and turned up several food-benefit results, which included free school breakfast and lunch in addition to meals for kids when they are out of school for 15 or more consecutive days, such as during the summer. Even though we actually make more than the $25,000 figure I entered in the tool, I still felt a sense of relief to know that help was there.

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