Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “budget”

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.

“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?

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.

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 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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