Thursday, February 9, 2012

Living Below the Line

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was going to take a "SNAP challenge," spending a week buying and consuming only what he would be able to afford on an average food stamp budget.  For many of LPCS' clients, that would be just under $50/week, since if you are homeless and have no income, you are eligible for as much as $200/month.  With sample menus and shopping lists provided, I jumped on board, too.

My husband was convinced of the plan, but bargained not to participate during the nation-wide challenge the week before Thanksgiving, since he had a birthday to celebrate in there.  So, we decided to try to live out the challenge in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, figuring we could reasonably survive a week of challenge, but nearly a month would be more hard core, right?

I began to review the sample menus.  They had a weekly menu for vegetarians, for quick cooking, for cooking from scratch and a menu from Walgreen's.  Since we were planning on a month-long challenge, we decided to use each of the weekly menus provided, one for each week.  Although we did not follow the exact menus outlined, we found that with careful planning and spending, taking the time to cook from scratch, and increasing the number of vegetarian meals we were eating, we were able to nearly average a food stamp budget for ourselves.  Homemade dishes featuring beans were common; some days, my husband Mike cut out his glass of OJ; snacks were non-existent; a glass of wine with dinner was rare.  Then we got to the week of Walgreen's meals and I found I could not myself nor ask my spouse to willingly follow that menu plan: each day, lunch was a package of ramen noodles or a single peanut butter sandwich.  These items also featured prominently in dinners.  A week short of meeting our challenge, we stopped.  Because we have the ability to make other choices. 

Although living on a tight food budget was a challenge for us that left us ravenous for the next meal, my husband and I were able to meet the SNAP challenge most weeks (with the occasional help of gifted holiday cookies!) because we live in a neighborhood that has bountiful choices for us to shop.  I picked up produce at the fruit market, staples at Aldi, "specialty" items at Jewel and even stopped at Trader Joe's on my way in to work once.  For many people on Chicago's south and west sides, areas known to be food deserts, living on a food stamp budget is a much greater challenge than for us.  If you are in a food desert, you may spend many weeks buying ramen at Walgreen's because the nearest Jewel is too far away.  If you are in a food desert, you may spend many weeks buying higher-fat, higher-sodium, lower-nutrient foods at Walgreen's because there isn't a fruit market nearby.  If you are in a food desert, you may spend many weeks buying processed and frozen foods because fresh foods aren't available at Walgreen's.  (More information on Chicago's food deserts can be found here.)

On a personal level, I am so thankful for my own opportunity to choose where and what foods I buy, cook and eat; and also for the economic ability to keep snacks on hand for when hunger strikes. On a professional level, I am so thankful for the volunteers who provide abundant and healthy dinners for LPCS' guests; and also for the work of anti-hunger organizations and advocates like Michelle Obama and the Greater Chicago Food Depository who are working to provide the opportunities and choices I have to everyone living in Chicago.  Food security is a human right for all of us.

Want to try your own SNAP Challenge?  Sign up to participate in the national "Live Below the Line" challenge taking place this May.  You can sign up by visiting the Live Below the Line website.  

If you want to read others reactions to their SNAP challenges, check out the post-challenge blog from the sponsoring nonprofit.
--Betsy Carlson, Program Director

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