Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “lent”

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.

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?

“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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