Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

“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?

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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.

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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Fat Tuesday evening.

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Finishing off all the cheese from the fridge and crackers from the pantry.

“So, how much do you get in Food Stamps?”

That’s been the question folks have been asking me this week. Let me be clear:  We’re not receiving real Food Stamps or SNAP benefits, we’re just setting our family’s food budget during Lent to mirror the following pretend scenario.

There’s a simple answer and a complex rationale. First, the simple answer:

$396 per month

To put it another way, that comes to about $1.10 per meal, per person for our family of four.

One dollar, ten cents.

We have calculated that with the federal SNAP Prescreening Eligibility Tool.

The pretend scenario goes like this: We are a family of four. Parents are able-bodied. One parent works full-time (40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year) earning $11.50 per hour. This is the total family income of $23,000. The Federal Poverty Level for a family of four in 2012 was 23,050. The second parent cares for the dependent children and assists an elderly parent who lives nearby. This parent receives no income from these jobs.

According to the CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP) website, “All able-bodied persons (ages 18-49) without dependents must work 20 hours per week (monthly average 80 hours) or participate 20 hours per week in an approved work activity or do workfare. If not, these persons receive only 3 months of CalFresh benefits in a 36-month period.”

I calculated the rent to be $850 (imagine 2 BR apartment on Marconi Avenue in Carmichael, CA) with utilities not included. No additional assets, unearned income, dependent care expenses, child support, or savings.  Like many American families, we live paycheck to paycheck.

Under this scenario we would qualify for food stamp assistance of between $390 and $399 per month. This falls in line with many other Food Stamp Challenge budgets.

That is our starting point. But our execution of this discipline and challenge gets still more complicated.

Free lunch. Sometimes.

The children are ages seven and three. The older child goes to a local public elementary school.  Families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. For our 40 days of SNAP, we will be asking our daughter to eat school lunch every day. While this will cost us a little extra out-of-pocket ($2.75 per lunch), for the purpose of the challenge, it will allow us to save some money on our Food Stamp Challenge budget. This will likely be the topic of a future blog post as our daughter does not often eat school lunch (and considers it a privilege). However, there are some school lunches she doesn’t enjoy, but her experience may reflect those kids who have few choices. (For more details of breakfast and lunch in San Juan Unified School District, visit their Nutrition page.)

Any family with preschool age children who lives under the Federal Poverty Line qualifies for Head Start preschool. Our son, age three, attends a daycare that provides his lunch at no additional cost. Our scenario will imagine him attending a Head Start with free lunch. Here, too, we will save a little on our food stamp challenge budget.

Sometimes.

During Lent this year, our kids have two weeks off of school: Presidents’ Week (a.k.a. “Ski Week”, February 18-23) and Spring Break (March 25-29).  This means two weeks with no free lunch. It should give us some additional insight to the food needs of families that can change week-to-week.

Sundays – Feast Days!

Sundays are feast days, set apart from the season of Lent. As this exercise is primarily a spiritual discipline, we will not be including what we consume on Sundays in our Food Stamp Challenge budget. This means we must make some calculations and adjustments by subtracting

There are 14 days of Lent in February (not counting Sundays). Since February has 28 days, our Food Stamp Challenge budget for February will be exactly half of $396. We will receive on February 13 $198 for our food budget.

There are 31 days in March, but only 26 of them are days of Lent (four Sundays and Easter Sunday on March 31). Therefore, we will use the following calculation to find our March food budget:

26/31=.83871 x $396 = $332.13

$332.13 will be our budget, paid to us on March 1. What happens if we run out?

Our budget for 40 days of SNAP is $530.13, about $1.10 per meal.

There are a few more benefit calculations to consider such as WIC and TANF, and other real needs during Lent including meals at work and on the road as well as meals with other family members and friends, but those will be topics for another day.

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.

A Primer on Lent

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Lent?  The stuff you clean out of the dryer trap, right?

Nope.

In fact, the word ‘lent’ is derived from the Old English word ‘lencten,’ meaning springtime or the lengthening of days.  The season of Lent in religious observance has become the time preceding the springtime celebration of resurrection and new life: Easter.  In the early centuries of the Christian church new converts would spend 40 days preparing for baptism on Easter Day. These 40 days were an intensive time of preparation, study, and devotion. The number 40 has a deep meaning within Biblical tradition, often pointing to an experience that complete or whole. For example, 40 is the number of days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness in order to be completely prepared to begin his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. This sets forth a pattern in the church for a period of spiritual disciplines that prepared not only the catechumens for baptism, but also the believers and members of the church for a fuller, more meaningful life together.

Unfortunately, our common practices of Lent have devolved. More often than not, these practices end up looking more like punitive punishments and less like spiritual disciplines that teach or prepare. “What are you giving up for Lent?” Chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, and Facebook seem to be popular answers. (In years past I’ve given up shaving for Lent – I don’t think Susan will let me get away with that again this year.)

Chocolate, Alcohol, Caffeine, Facebook?

I think we can aim higher than that.  Rather than perceiving of Lent as time for grief and self-denial, our family will take on a practice that transforms the way we understand the needs of our friends and neighbors. Our 40 Days of SNAP will be a spiritual discipline in that it will challenge us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Beginning Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013, the season of Lent spans 40 days reaching to Easter Sunday on March 31, 2013. There’s a catch, however. If you were to count out days on the calendar, you would notice that in fact there are 46 days until the beginning of Easter. The reason is that Sundays (the Lord’s Day) are days of feasting. The celebration of the Lord’s Day has primacy over the disciplines of Lent; the fast makes way for feasting. We plan to honor this tradition and will not consider Sundays to be included in the SNAP challenge. (But we will not allow Sundays to become days of gluttony, either.)

A Discipline of Incarnational Ministry

The greatest way to value fellow human beings and provide for them an affirmation of their identity and self-worth is to be with them. To spend time with them. To live as they live. To experience the hardships and joys of life with them. This practice is not only at the core of my calling to pastoral ministry, but it is also the core of my understanding of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  What greater way can love be shown than to experience life with or alongside someone else?

There are limitations to this ministry and discipline.  Just as I cannot fully know what is like to suffer from cancer, I also cannot fully know what is to experience food insecurity.  I must be honest about that.  But I can exercise empathy, and I can make the effort to imagine what it is like. These 40 days could be misconstrued that we are pretending or playing at being impoverished. I know I cannot replicate every aspect of living on $23,000 per year for a family of four or even approach the level of pain and stress that it puts on relationships. I won’t know what it’s really like to pay for my food on an EBT card or with a WIC voucher. I won’t feel the eyes on me, questioning my purchasing choices on the public’s dime. However, I do hope it can open a window into understanding how many people try to earn a living, feed and care for their families, and still rejoice in life. I do hope it will open my heart and mind to the experiences of those who face difficult choices day in and day out, and that the lessons we learn during these 40 days will carry forward far beyond Lent.

We’re going on food stamps for Lent

We live in California’s Central Valley, where the best fruits, veggies, and nuts are grown. We care about food and enjoy eating well.

We are members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one tradition among many that says, “be the body of Christ.” And what is more important to the body–yes, Christ’s body–than food?

So, in 2013 during Lent, we are practicing the discipline of living on a food budget that mirrors as closely as possible Food Stamps, or as it’s now known, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

What will we remove or add to our grocery cart to make the dollars work? How will we deviate from the plan to accommodate the less-movable fixtures of our lifestyle? How will we change our lifestyle to accommodate the plan? What lessons will our children (ages 3 and 7) learn?

Ours is a faith that seeks understanding. We do and we learn and belief follows; we believe and learn and do; the spiral edges outward.

You’re invited to join us on our journey. Please feel free to:

  • Comment on our posts with advice, ideas, tips, and encouragement–honest critique also welcome!
  • Send us links to articles on SNAP and other issues related to food, the Farm Bill, making more with less
  • Send us your own stories about hunger and plenty, and what you’ve learned from that experience

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