The ACAA 2012 SNAP Challenge was created by ACAA and participants were drawn primarily from ACAA staff and our Board of Directors. This is an archive of posts from the 2010 Challenge.
If you are interested in viewing our 2010 SNAP Challenge blog, please visit http://acaachallenge.wordpress.com/
Reflecting on the experience of food preparation, I would say that I have already had successes and failures on the Food Stamp Challenge. During my breakfast food prep on Day 1 I used the broiler function on my oven to toast my bagel. Unfortunately, I burnt my bagel to a blackened crisp. I didn’t have any bagels to waste, however, so I scraped off the worst bits and washed it down with some orange juice. This evening I made rice and beans for dinner. This was a much greater success. I used canned beans, which cost more but cut down on prep time, and added onions, lots of cumin, thyme, oregano, paprika, salt and pepper. I added a few tablespoons of hot sauce (which I was considering a condiment) and let the mixture simmer for a bit in a large saucepan. I put this over my white rice and had a great, filling meal. This certainly lifted my spirits after the lean day I had during Challenge Day 1. I suppose, overall, I’m spending a similar amount of time on food prep (I love to cook and don’t mind spending time to make something nice), but I’ve never been so cognizant of the risks of crisis during food prep. When I have a full fridge, I have to admit that a badly burnt bagel might have ended up in the trash and been replaced by a bowl of cereal or oatmeal. Food preparation becomes a more time and effort-intensive task if only for the reason that there is little room for error when everything in the cupboard is designated for a particular meal on a particular day.
It turns out, limiting my grocery bill to $21 (and $0.12 in ‘discretionary’ money out of my own pocket) wasn’t the hard part after all. The hard part is reframing how I think about food.
I grew up in a family that did not have a lot of money. We never used food stamps and as far as I know we never accessed the emergency food system (food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens), though my parents made sure all four of their children volunteered at these places on a regular basis. But we were, in the context of the neighborhoods where I spent my afternoons riding a bike down wide streets swathed in a feeling of complete suburban safety, poor.
Once, I wore the same pair of shoes for 8 months after they got two large holes where the upper met the soles. And that was in high school, where I watched my classmates pull into parking spots in brand new F-10s, Grand Cherokees, and Corvettes with THXDAD license plates. To say we were one of the ‘poor’ families who couldn’t afford luxuries and sometimes couldn’t even afford things that were more under the ‘necessity’ column than the ‘luxury’ column would be a fair assesment. But one thing my parents always prioritized was healthy food.
Oh, sure, we ate our fair share of boxed macaroni and cheese and popsicles during the summer months when we were home alone while our parents worked. And when my mom went out of town, my dad defaulted to scrambled eggs or sloppy joes as those were the only two meals he knew how to make well. But on the whole, our food was…well…whole. Our bodies were nourished with whole grains, eggs fresh from the chickens out back, lean meats, and fresh produce. The only time I remember eating a canned vegetable was at the summer camp where I volunteered as a counselor. My mom used a light hand with salt and butter and other fats, and a heavy hand with vegetables. We tease her lovingly to this day over her pat response to our request for dessert: “There is fruit in the fridge!”
It is to her credit, then, that I was raised knowing what food tastes like. Real, wholesome, fresh and healthy food. I can tell you by smelling the stem if a melon is ripe, I know that tomato slices make a great substitute for banana or apple in a peanut butter sandwich, and I knew well before it was considered forward thinking and sustainable to own chickens exactly how much work they are, how much of a mess they make, and how amazing fresh eggs truly taste.
I also learned, because we were poor, how to stretch a budget. We were the family who needed two shopping carts to carry our haul. With four kids born in five years, and the middle two being boys, our grocery receipts were a mile long. And there, in the cart my mom pushed, was the list to shop from and a filing bin chock full of coupons. We ate goulash at least once a week, mixing the week’s leftovers with pasta and cream of whatever-was-on-hand-soup. We only went out once a week, and it was either for pizza or fast food burgers, meaning my parents could take out our family of 6 for around $12. And my mom, amazing cook that she is, would offer one option only at mealtime. If we didn’t like it, we were welcome to make a peanut butter (No jelly! Never jelly, as it was added sugar, calories, and money.) sandwich.
There was a time, when I first moved into my own place in college, where I rebelled against the thrifty and healthy eating I was raised to know. I filled my cart with soda, Lucky Charms, pop tarts, macaroni and cheese in the box. I never cooked at home, favoring dinner with friends after work or a meal on campus between classes. It pains me now to think of how much money I wasted in those carefree years, but I suppose the positive side is that I came back to eating more healthfully on my own. I shudder to think of the kind of judgment my shopping cart would have opened me up to in the grocery line if I’d been pulling out my EBT card to pay for those choices. I shudder to think that anyone would have thought it was ok to judge at all.
And so, when this week started out, I made an effort to shop ‘like I always shop’. I shopped the perimeter of the store, choosing fresh fruits and veggies and whole grains without any HFCS, first. Then I supplemented with other items, creating what I thought to be a healthy selection of foods to carry me through the week. And every day, I open the fridge and the pantry, stare at the bags of food for the week, and wonder if it will be enough to get me through. I understand now, without any question, why many people on Nutrition Assistance might be found buying what the collective taxpayer conscience deems to be ‘unhealthy’ foods. I could have, quite easily, purchased twice the volume of food I did had I shopped the packaged aisles and skipped the fresh produce. It was a choice I made, to try to maintain a healthy and balanced diet, and the trade off is a painful, gnawing hunger that has been a constant companion for me all week.
This morning, my 18 month old son woke hungry. Hungry is sort of his default state, so after a morning snuggle and diaper change, I aim to get a banana into his hands as quickly as possible. It keeps him happy while I make breakfast, but lately one banana isn’t enough. Lately, he wants two. Also? He wants those eggs I am scrambling and 12 ounces of milk. And in another hour, he’ll take his snack on the back patio, thank you very much. Just this week, he figured out he can open the fridge, so after his first banana, he pulled the door open and pointed to the bunch on the shelf and said, “I want moooore.” And so, I laughed at him as I gave him more.
If my family was truly on Nutrition Assistance, I could not have done this. I asked a friend, whose family was on Nutrition Assistance when her children were very young, “How did you do it? When your kids looked up at you and said, ‘I want moooore.’ what did you do?”
“I hid the food,” she told me. “I had to ration it out and hide the rest, and then I would tell them, ‘The bananas are all gone. See?’ and they knew there was no more.” I picture doing that every day – looking into my son’s eyes and telling him I am sorry but there is no more – and hoping the food I’ve hidden is enough to last the week or the month, and I want to cry.
And then I remember, again, how lucky I am that this is just one week for me. That I had the option to let my kids and my husband carry on eating on our normal grocery budget while I experiment with my $21. And I think of the 1.04 million Arizonans for whom there is no choice. And I know that, more often than not, they will have to look into the eyes of someone they love and say, “There is no more.”
I’ve Been Thinking
When I was first informed of the food stamp challenge I was intrigued. I heard that I could spend $30/week on food for myself or better translated $120/week on my family’s food bill for the week.
It got me to thinking….
I know my husband and I budget $125/week at the grocery store for our family of 4. I didn’t think keeping it under this amount would be so difficult. It turns out I was almost right. Before my husband went shopping, we went through our coupons. We paid special attention to the coupons that gave us the most bang for our buck. We then planned our week, and my husband went out the door. Here’s where I state I am amazingly blessed to have a husband that not only shops but cooks. I know I am very unique and understand that most people have to do all things for their family. I am lucky to have a partner.
When my husband got home from shopping (he was aware of the CHALLENGE) I checked the receipt. The total receipt was $135 which was high for us. When I investigated a little further I found out that a lot of the food groceries were “SNAP eligible”. What brought up our total was all the other kinds of household necessities or maybe just “niceties” , like all the products that the teenage members of our household “require”.
This got me thinking…….
I remember when our girls were little. I was a stay at home mom. There was a time when they were both in diapers, and my youngest was still drinking formula. I remember trying to make sure we didn’t run out of both in one week because we could not afford it and would have to be creative with our shopping list. My thoughts immediately turned to the families currently using SNAP that also have all the additional expenses like that outside of food. I take for granted that I don’t have to worry about that.
I thought about how grateful I was.
One of our “bad habits” as a family is eating out. A household of 4 with 4 different schedules lends itself to rushing around and eating on the go. We all enjoy eating dinner as a family and are so thankful when we can, but we sometimes take the easy way and eat out. We haven’t done that once this week. My husband has made dinner every night and used the crock-pot more than ever! We’ve eaten as a family and even had some leftovers for extra teenagers that always seem to be around our house, or for the next days’ lunch or dinner.
I was thinking this was pretty easy if you put your mind to it and were disciplined.
Typically and traditionally, during the week my husband and I make a point to meet for lunch one day. We pick a restaurant, meet there and reconnect before going back to work.
Why should this week be different, I thought? Luckily my husband was thinking…..
We met in a park and brought lunch items from home. Although we both agreed the restaurant route was easier, we enjoyed our time and vowed to do it more often.
We’ve still got a few days to go and I am nervous about the weekend. We almost ALWAYS go out on the weekend. Our feeling is “we deserve it”.
Well, I’ve been thinking….
In the past couple of days I have noticed that in my downtime I have been thinking about all of the food and drinks that I can’t afford on my food stamp budget. I have found myself craving a morning drink from Starbucks, nighttime ice cream, and even a soda (which I don’t usually drink off of the Challenge). The other night as ice cream and sprinkles were running through my head I realized that people that are actually on food stamps may be thinking completely different than I am. While I am dreaming about all of the food that I am not able to afford they may dreaming about the food that they will be able to afford. I quickly reframed my thinking and became grateful that I was even able to afford eating earlier that day. This Challenge has definitaly given me a different perspective of how I think about food and I hope to carry on past this week.
It’s Friday morning and I must admit I’m looking forward to the end of the Food Stamp Challenge – largely for selfish reasons. When I shopped, I purposely planned for meals that would last a number of days – white chicken chili, potato soup, pasta, lots of yogurt and apples, some green vegetables, and now I’m frankly bored with the meals. I’m also feeling restricted by the meals I have access to as well as the amount of money to purchase the food.
I become more and more grateful each day for my life and what I have been afforded, and at the same time more and more committed to make sure that everyone else has the same opportunities and for the life they choose. One that would include no worry about food insecurity, no ongoing hunger or poverty.
I read the article in yesterday’s paper about the elimination of AHCCCS services to thousands of families – essentially the preventive care we all need to stay healthy, and began to worry again about the human implications of the policy decisions being made in the State. I certainly understand you can’t spend what you don’t have, but I also understand there are ways to improve the current budget crisis that are simply not being considered. And that hurts us all.
So I am off to meetings today in a somewhat somber frame of mind, wondering what I can do today to make a difference, and what I can do tomorrow, and the next day and the next day . . . . . . .
I have been very tempted to eat things offered to me “free” of charge this week. I believe pretty strongly that eating those things would have been a distortion of my experience. It is important not to stereotype the experiences of all food stamp users, but I do think that many low-income people have less access to free food than medium- or high-income people. I have medium- and high-income friends who do not find it inconvenient to share things with me when I may not be able to return the favor. My family, if they lived here, would not think it an imposition if I came over for dinner and did not contribute anything or offer to help pay the cost. I have not worn out my welcome at their house, and they are economically stable enough to support me, whether the need is small or large. I work in a nice office where we keep a “community” stock of sodas. Taking from the stock regularly means I have to bring in a 12-pack of soda on a rotating basis. The idea of bringing in a 12-pack is not stressful for me and I don’t feel burdened by that social responsibility, so I can take from the community stock. These factors—where and with whom I work, where and with whom I live, and the incomes of my friends and family—result in an environment which allows me greater access to free food (and a host of other advantages). I haven’t always beaten those temptations this week—I had some candy from a jar in our office—but I now have a more critical understanding of how my social position and the wealth of my social circle allows me to spend less on food than if I were lower-income. In this small way, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, it’s expensive to be poor!
Change from the Past
Sunday: I spent the better part of the day going thru the grocery store sales and my coupons matching them up, my planning included two different stores. As I finished my first stop and was feeling pretty smug about my acquisitions, with my coupons and calculator in hand. I pushed my cart into a line and discovered there was a lady with two heaping full baskets in front of me. I was more than slightly annoyed since I still had one more grocery store to get to and this was taking up entirely too much of my day off. Standing there I couldn’t help but hear how much her bill came to, $534.00 dollars!! But after the clerk gave her the total, she handed her a huge stack of coupons.. Final total $29.84!! I was almost embarrassed about my little stack of coupons, she did give me some pointers and told me she spends at least six hours a week Coupon clipping and matching them with sale items. Don’t know if I’m ready to do that but told her she should teach a class. Spent the rest of the afternoon cooking for the week, bean burros, breakfast burros, baked some chicken so I wouldn’t have much to do after getting home from work.
Monday: My daughter discovered that instead of the usual five dollars a day for lunch, she’s a junior in high school she was going to be allowed only two dollars. And she would be eating at the school cafeteria. The challenge to her had sounded like no big deal the day before, but now!! That evening I asked her how it went, all I got was eye rolling and that cafeteria food sucks….
Wednesday: The evening came and nobody including myself is looking forward to dinner. Left-over’s again!?! I did tell the kids that I had fourteen dollars left from our budget and maybe we could splurge this weekend!! Even planning ahead this cooking every night is a drag, I’m ashamed to say that at least once or twice a week It was my habit to run by somewhere and pick up something for dinner.
Thursday: I think the thing I miss the most is my glass of wine in the evening, can’t afford that this week. Maybe my neighbor who sometimes will drop by to visit with some wine at the end of the day will be by tonight. And yes it’s time again to get the left-over’s out, maybe I’ll change it up and serve the chicken (yuck) with a salad instead of canned vegetables (frozen was too expensive and had no coupons for them).
Friday: Oatmeal for breakfast all week, my cholesterol is probably better but my taste buds are very unhappy….
I have a meeting today I’m sharing my food with the group for lunch-why should I be the only one that suffers…