Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “Sacramento”

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.

Crystal

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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’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

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?

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