Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “poverty”

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.

Help? Help!

Church members keep coming to me and asking, “Pastor Ivan, is there any way we can help you and your family? Can we take you out to eat or bring over a casserole for the freezer?” I give the same answer every time that consists of the following basic components: “Thanks, but no thanks.” “That kind of defeats the purpose of the Lenten discipline.” I know they mean well, but when you find someone who is fasting from chocolate for Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

When someone is fasting from chocolate during Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

When someone is fasting from chocolate during Lent, do you offer them a Snickers?

As often as I try to graciously say “no,” I must also find a way to graciously say “yes.” Jeremy said, “I took your daughter out for an ice cream at McDonald’s. I hope that doesn’t ruin your budget.” Wyn said during a Stephen Ministry devotional, “Here’s an onion. You can do a lot with an onion.” My father, during his vacation, said, “Even people on SNAP have grandads who give grandkids treats.”

But then there is our dear friend, Crystal. She and her husband, Jeff, know what it’s like to be on SNAP. Some years ago when their first child was born prematurely, Jeff had just been laid off from his job. They had no income, no significant savings, and were consumed with daily running back and forth to the hospital to care for their new baby girl. When applying for assistance to cover the cost of the medical bills for the baby, the social worker told them they could apply for CalFresh (SNAP). “How are you putting food on the table?” she asked them. Extended family and church friends had been graciously providing them food, but their need was evident. While it was only a matter of a couple months before Jeff was back to work and they were off SNAP, at their hour most filled with need it was a difficult decision to say yes to SNAP. There is such a stigma attached to asking for food stamp help.

A few Sundays ago Crystal approached my wife, Susan, in the church parking lot. She thrust a brown paper grocery bag into her arms without asking. “Take it. You’ll need it.”

Inside the bag was a handwritten note:

Ivan and Susan,

Well I thought this could help you in more ways than one. Besides the simple fact of needing more food than money can buy, any extra food can always help.

But also in my life I have found it to be easy to be on the giving end of help. It is a hard thing to ask for help from a friend, family member or stranger. But when your family is in need you have to push aside pride and be willing to take a helping hand.

So this is our gift to you, some food for thought.



A compassionate lesson in asking for help.

Annie Lamott’s newest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers distills our conversations with God into these simple words. She said in an interview that “Help …is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”

Even among generations there is a marked difference in the ability to ask for help and the perception of SNAP. A March 3 article in the Sacramento Bee explored the need among seniors. There is a growing population who are seeking food assistance from food charities, yet who won’t seek help from SNAP.  “So many are eligible for CalFresh food stamps, … but they look at that as a welfare program as opposed to a nutrition supplement.”  River City Food Bank saw the number of older adults seeking assistance rise by 25% in 2012.

I’m convinced Crystal is right.  It is easier to be on the giving end of help than it is to ask for help.  I don’t always ask for help when I need it.  But I do pray that when I ask for it, that I will have the wisdom and ability to push aside my pride to do so.  I also pray there will be assistance programs like SNAP to provide that help.  And when I don’t ask for it, yet still need it, may there be generous hearts with overflowing brown paper bags that come unbidden.

“I wish I got paid enough to afford Girl Scout cookies”

…said the Raley’s employee when our Brownies tried to sell him cookies at a site sale a few weeks ago. He smiled, then coupled on several more grocery carts to the one he’d wheeled in from the parking lot, and clatter-squeaked back into the store.

“Oh. Hmm,” the girls nodded. Then, remembering their coached response they called to his red-vested back, “Thanks anyway!”

I’m not about to rant about how low-wage workers should be able to afford Girl Scout cookies. Cookies are a Sometimes Food, after all, not something we need for survival. You can buy cookies at the store with SNAP benefits but not Girl Scout cookies. So for the purposes of our Lenten discipline, our stash stays in the freezer until the next Sunday rolls around (we are observing Sundays as feast days in Lent).

Thin Mint cookie wearing Girl Scout sash

Thin Mints tempt us from inside the freezer.

Still, the Raley’s cart-retriever struck a nerve. He may not actually be living in poverty or even approaching 130% of the poverty line–at which point he’d be eligible for SNAP–but many workers do. Why is that? Isn’t work supposed to be your ticket out of poverty and off of government benefits?

In fact, SNAP is designed to support income earned from work, and the numbers suggest that it is not a disincentive to work. Still, wouldn’t it be great if all workers could dedicate 30 percent of their earned income to food and didn’t need government assistance?

When Jesus sends his disciples out to spread the good news by healing the sick and raising the dead, he challenges them to take nothing with them beyond what they need for a single day. They will be cared for by those they serve, “for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:10). Jesus speaks not just what should be true for his disciples, but what should be true for all workers.

The 21st century expression of this truth is, as President Obama has said, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty. To that I add “no one who would like to work full time but instead has to cobble together multiple part time jobs with no benefits.” Not as good a sound bite, but there it is. For a quick overview showing how SNAP benefits pair with low-wage work, see the table below, taken from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Example: Calculating a Household’s Monthly SNAP Benefits

Consider a family of three with one full-time, minimum wage worker, two children, dependent care costs of $74 a month, and shelter costs of $818 per month.

  • Step 1 — Gross Income: The federal minimum wage for 2013 is $7.25 per hour. Full-time work at this level yields monthly earnings of $1,256.
  • Step 2 — Net Income for Shelter Deduction: Begin with the gross monthly earnings of $1,256. Subtract the standard deduction for a three-person household ($149), the earnings deduction (20 percent times $1,256, or $251), and the childcare deduction ($74). The result is $783 (Countable Income A).
  • Step 3 — Shelter Deduction: Begin with the shelter costs of $818. Subtract half of Countable Income A (half of $783 is $392) for a result of $426.
  • Step 4 — Net Income: Subtract the shelter deduction ($426) from Countable Income A ($783) for a result of $357.
  • Step 5 — Family’s Expected Contribution Towards Food: 30 percent of the household’s net income ($357) is $107.
  • Step 6 — SNAP Benefit: The maximum benefit in 2013 for a family of three is $526. The maximum benefit minus the household contribution ($526 minus $107) equals $419.

The family’s monthly SNAP benefit is $419.

Maybe by the time our Brownies finish their badges this year, they will have a little more awareness about money and what it can buy, and needs vs. wants, particularly regarding food. If we can get it together, I’d like to take the troop on a backyard fruit harvest, where they’ll be helping people who not only can’t buy Girl Scout cookies, but maybe can’t even afford fruit. Then they can puzzle over yet another aspect of the food and money equation.

A Primer on SNAP

SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Until 2008 the program was known as Food Stamps. It is the largest program in the United States’ hunger safety net. Others include WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and SNAP Disaster Response.

In 2012 there were an estimated 47.5 million SNAP recipients. In my Congressional district, I found that of the 5,291 families receiving SNAP, almost half of them had one employed person in the last 12 months, and 38% of them had two or more income earners in the past 12 months (2010 numbers).

As its name implies, SNAP is supposed to supplement whatever you already spend on groceries. But it doesn’t cover many of the things I consider grocery essentials, such as paper products, cleaning products, or personal care items such as shampoo, tampons, or diapers. So, after buying all those items out of pocket, many SNAP recipients have little money left for food, so they have to depend on SNAP. And food closets, toward the lean end of a 31-day month.

Speaking of food closets, I learned this from an article my friend Adlai Amor wrote for his organization, Bread for the World: only 4.16% of all food assistance received in the United States comes from food closets. So they represent maybe only one or two strings of the safety net, which is less than I had imagined. Click on the infographic to read the rest of the Bread for the World article.

Grocery bag infographic from Bread for the World

Infographic from Bread for the World

Nutrition benefits come in the form of a monthly sum of money loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card that you swipe at the grocery store, on the same machine used for credit or debit cards.

Some farmer’s markets accept EBT. Most that offer this will have a kiosk where you swipe your EBT card and get scrip–plastic or wooden coins–that you use to pay for food at that market only. Vendors who receive scrip get reimbursed at the end of the day.

One of the things Ivan and I are mulling over as we lay out our “rules” for the SNAP challenge is whether or not to use our local farmer’s market, which does not accept EBT. There are a few markets in Sacramento County that do accept it. These are farther away than we’d like to go, so we’ll have to weigh whether spending extra time and gas money for trips out of our neighborhood outweighs the benefit of fresher food (cheaper food, too, in the case of vegetables but not necessarily for fruit).

Well, those are details that we will explore later. If you want a more comprehensive overview of nutrition benefits offered in your state for people in various circumstances (or to find out what you might qualify for), I recommend using Benefit Finder. I plugged in a fake income and some other true data into the Benefit Finder and turned up several food-benefit results, which included free school breakfast and lunch in addition to meals for kids when they are out of school for 15 or more consecutive days, such as during the summer. Even though we actually make more than the $25,000 figure I entered in the tool, I still felt a sense of relief to know that help was there.

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