Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “food ethics”

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

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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?

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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