Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “food”

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?

“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

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 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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