I intended to write about the end of my SNAP challenge, which was Tuesday last week, but something unexpected came up at church which took away my time to write.
Our last dinner on the SNAP challenge was mujadara, a one-pot meal of lentils and rice. I’m not sure if the recipe I used from The New York Times was a delicious one-off as this version included wilted spring greens and crisped leeks.
I first made the dish a month ago, and we liked it (well, my wife and I liked it, my daughters not so much). This time I had to make some adjustments with the dish because I was on the challenge. First, I used my last cinnamon stick when I made this dish last month. I had to use ground cinnamon because I couldn’t afford cinnamon sticks. I also didn’t have leeks, so I crisped some onions. We got swiss chard from the CSA, so I used that as the spring green.
Here are the basic results of the challenge for my family. First, we got through the challenge successfully in that we did not blow the budget (we even finished with two dollars and change left over). We were able to have fresh vegetables, which were basically onions, carrots, and celery. And some people will use that as proof that a SNAP budget, $4.40 per day per person is not impossible.
BUT … and there are caveats:
- Making the SNAP budget last takes a lot of time. It took a lot of time to plan the meals. It took a lot of time to shop. It took a lot of time to cook.
- We had some form of beans at least once every day.
- I know how to cook. I maintain a wide range of seasonings upon which I can draw to make food more interesting. In other words, I can do more with pasta than just put tomato sauce over it.
- My kitchen is reasonably well equipped with quality cookware and kitchen appliances to make food preparation easier.
- Getting enough calories to get through a day is a challenge. My diet was fine as long as I was sitting most of the day. Basically, this budget is only adequate for people who expend very little energy each day.
- I drank lots of water in order to feel full.
- Incorporating fresh vegetables within this budget is a major challenge. Fruit is almost out of the question, except bananas.
- It’s hard to be picky about food brands. It’s hard to eat to support local agriculture. It’s hard to eat to support justice, such as fair trade coffee.
- Being mindful of the cost of food makes enjoying food difficult. First, because you are always cognizant of its costs. Second, the budget limits selection (I’m not talking about having an occasional lobster or a beef tenderloin) to very few choices (if it’s beef, generally it is ground beef). The budget makes affording small pleasantries, such as cookies nearly impossible.
- Over time, a SNAP diet will become pretty monotonous because of its limitations.
On Wednesday morning I made a breakfast burrito with an egg, potatoes, onions, and sausage. It was very good. It was very enjoyable. It was something that would have been a challenge to eat on a SNAP budget because I may or may not have been able to purchase any one of those ingredients because it would have busted the budget. (Note: I had an egg leftover from the previous week, as well as the other ingredients.)
Some people noted that this was not like it really is for poor people. I agree. It is only one aspect of poverty and it only lasts a week. Nevertheless, it is sobering.
Some people said that living on a SNAP budget exclusively overlooks that the program is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, emphasizing Supplemental. I guess I would ask, supplements what? Sure, we can take solace in an emergency food network of food pantries and soup kitchens. But is that really how we address food insecurity in the richest country in the history of the world? Are we really serious that this is the way we want our poor to get their food every week for months or even years on end?
I noted that to my staff the other day. We have three major supermarkets in town: Price Chopper, Stop and Shop, and Big Y. Imagine if each of them opened no more than six hours a week and the day and hours of operation were at the individual store’s convenience. Then, imagine that when you went to the store, you handed them $10.00 and you got your bag of groceries, which someone thoughtfully packed for you before you arrived with food they thought you would eat. That’s what using a food pantry is like.
Some people think that this is political. Maybe, but if this is political, isn’t this something one should do in order to have a sense of what it is to live this way? At least after participating, whether left or right, one has a deeper appreciation for what it is like to be poor and thus be more informed as to what can be done to help eliminate food insecurity?
Tonight we had our SNAP Challenge community dinner. This was for all the people who participated in the SNAP challenge. Our state senator, Ben Downing, and our state rep for Pittsfield, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, joined us (they also did the SNAP challenge). This was a celebration dinner a sort “break fast” meal.
The conversations we had about our respective experiences were rich. We all struggled through the challenge. We recognize that doing nothing will also do nothing to change the present situation. We know that the government programs can be tweaked to make them more effective, but there is a limit to what government can do. We also realize that as churches we have an opportunity for ministry that goes beyond having a food pantry or a soup kitchen. As many churches have kitchens, which are underutilized, we have a facility where we can teach people how to cook, especially cook the food they receive from food pantries. We also noted that we could develop a cook book to provide instructions to people on how to prepare food in order to maximize the food they get (as someone noted, teaching people how to cook the way they did two generations ago).
This experience was valuable for me. While it didn’t change my overall position on food insecurity (it’s sinful in a nation with so much wealth that we can have 49 million people food insecure every day), it gave me more insight and appreciation into the subtleties of food insecurity.
Doing this SNAP challenge was incarnational, meaning that by participating in this I learned through my own physical experience what it is like to suffer, even a little bit, with food insecurity. To those who think that this was political … in Jesus, God came to live and suffer with the poor, the outcasts, and the marginalized people in first century Palestine. Well, I guess Jesus was political too.