Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “40 days of 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.

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

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?

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.

“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.

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