Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “leftovers”

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.

Eat this bread

Earlier this week Ivan, Camilla, and I went to a food distribution site in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento. The agency that runs it, Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, accepts customers from anywhere in the region. They limit the number of times you can get food at one of their sites to once per month, but they do provide information about other food resources. We checked to make sure Carmichael Presbyterian’s food closet (our church) is listed on there, and it is–though it serves only certain ZIP codes.

We stopped short of loading up a box of food for ourselves. The zucchini, in particular, was tempting. Our fridge and pantry are still full, surprisingly. We have leftovers of brown rice, a pasta dish, and a weird but tasty chili-borscht thing. Also some of Ivan’s excellent homemade sourdough loaf. In short, we have plenty of carbs left.

Good thing none of us has diabetes.

Homemade pizza

Homemade pizza topped with chicken and pineapple

Or celiac disease.

expensive gluten-free bread

Because we can’t afford this bread!

I didn’t realize anyone around here was already growing zucchini, but apparently some farms are. Sac Food Bank buys produce directly from eight local farms. “Then,” said Kelly Siefkin, communications director at SFBFS, “when they have surplus produce, they call us. We can send a truck around and offload that food for them in just a couple of hours!”

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Alongside the USDA commodities (available to elderly persons, mothers up to one year postpartum, and families with children under six years old) other volunteer-staffed tables offer pre-bagged vegetables and fruits. Each table has an info sheet showing the item’s nutritional features, how to store it, and some ideas for how to prepare it. Volunteers are encouraged to make small talk with customers and give their personal suggestions or recipes.

While you wait in folding chairs under the pop-up tents for your number to be called, you can visit display tables and get information about other programs Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services offers. These include parenting classes, gardening classes, a clothes closet, and general adult education classes, among other things.

Demonstration garden at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services

Demonstration garden at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services

When I asked Kelly how the closure of Sacramento’s Campbell’s Soup plant would impact SFBFS, she noted that the loss of a pallet of Campbell’s product 2-4 times per year wouldn’t dent their stores too deeply. Certainly, she said, the agency would be open to serve all families affected by the closure, whether they need emergency food or want to take advantage of a class. Average hourly pay at the Campbell’s plant is $20/hour…and my guess is that after getting laid off it will be hard for the factory workers to find similar jobs at wages like that. So a good prayer, for those who are inclined to pray, might be that the laid-off workers learn many new marketable skills and find good-paying work again soon.

Another service at SFBFS food sites is free consultation with nurses. Sacramento State nursing students attend each of the three weekly distributions to answer health questions and give referrals to nearby clinics. Jeff, a third-semester student who stopped to talk with us, said that people often show him a list of medications they’re taking. They might need to know whether, out of a list of several meds, there is one that is more important to keep taking than the others?

fresh veggies extend a can of chili

One large onion, a quarter head of purple cabbage, and three tomatoes that were about to go off, added to a can of chili our friend Crystal gave us, makes about eight servings.

A lot of things we’ve read or suspected were true about hunger and food insecurity in the USA have become more clear to us during our Lenten food stamp challenge.

One is that cooking from scratch is key to eating a healthy but inexpensive diet. The only convenience foods we bought during our challenge were frozen vegetables. Oh, and a jar of pasta sauce. And a few cans of beans (we cooked the dry kind too). No pre-made meatballs, no bag of frozen potstickers for those nights when you’re just tired. No pie, no ice cream, no soda, not even juice for the kids. And we still ended up with mostly carbs in the fridge and pantry.

Another is that there are many reasons and combinations of reasons that someone might be food insecure, and among them I would include lack of knowledge about nutrition and how to cook, but also:

  • working a job that does not pay a living wage
  • illness and medical bills
  • caring for a disabled family member
  • divorce and loss of partner’s income

The list goes on and on. So if you hear the commandment of Jesus to love one another, as we heard this Maundy Thursday, and you feel called to obey the commandment by helping solve the puzzle of hunger, consider donating if you haven’t before (maybe money rather than food?). Or volunteer your time, either in food distribution or education.

Spending time in community shows that you care, but it doesn’t have to be all face time. Consider donating your computer skills or other specialized knowledge. Or look at the broader picture. Even though I’ve just listed some cool things Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services is doing, I have to reiterate this from an earlier post: agencies like SFBFS and churches currently fill only 4-5% of the total need for food in the USA. The federal government provides the rest through SNAP and other programs. You can write to your members of Congress; become an advocate for just one or the whole suite of issues that affect our country’s ability to prosper–education, health care, a living wage.

The risen Christ, who we celebrate on Easter, was made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24: 13-35). We learned a lot by changing the way we break bread this Lent. We hope you did too.

“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

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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