A couple of weeks ago I participated in a plant-based version of SNAP Challenge led by a group of local vegans. The SNAP Challenge asks participants to commit to a limited food budget of about $1.50 per meal. (The average amount allocated to each person receiving SNAP is $4.50 per day.) SNAP stands for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program" and it is similar (but not the same) as the government's old food stamp program. Several public figures wrote about their experience including Panera CEO Ron Schaich.
Probably like most of my vegan SNAP Challenge group I felt pretty confident that I could pull off healthy, satisfying meals that came within the budget. I was able stay within the $4.50 a day budget but as I cooked I thought about how many other resources I have readily available that may be a challenge for others. I wanted to share some reflections on my vegan SNAP Challenge week - I'd love to hear about your experience or comments on what you've read here:
- I was very conscious of how helpful it was to have such extensive experience planning and cooking meals. I'm a pretty experienced cook - stretching all the way back to my "pregan" or pre-vegan days. I know how to pick out recipes that use cost-conscious ingredients and knew to prepare only those that would have leftovers that could feed me for lunch or dinner the next day. In addition to falling within the budget, they also needed to taste good, be reasonably easy to prepare, and satisfy. I think it would be pretty tough to pull all that off if you were just learning to cook! Everyone in our group learned early on that oatmeal was the way to go for breakfast. I had oats with a banana every morning. Soup was another healthy and satisfying staple and I could save leftover portions for lunches.
- I also thought about how much I relied on my fully equipped kitchen. I have a Vitamix, a food processor, bunches of knives, cutting boards, pots, pans and my pantry is stocked with hundreds of spices and dry goods. It's so much easier make things taste good when you already have everything on hand. I remembered what it was like to replace dozens of spices after a divorce - it was a grocery expense I hadn't planned on and someone on a very limited budget would have to very thoughtful about their choices. I also thought about what recipes could be made without a stove or food processor - just a microwave or a rice cooker as you find in many big city apartments.
- Transportation matters. In my younger years I lived in the city and didn't have a car. I remember waiting for hours for buses and even taxis that never showed up. City bike rentals and "Zip Cars" are only an option for those with credit cards and a driver's license which limits their availability for those who could benefit most from their use. Dragging canned and bulk goods on public transportation is a pain, no matter how altruistic you may be. Now, I'm five minutes from four farmer's markets and three low-price supermarkets. A friend living in Duluth commented that many people in her neighborhood without cars buy food at a local gas station. Someone who relies on the bus for transportation may be reluctant to haul all that stuff in a backpack to their apartment. They may not have the credit necessary to allow them to order online.
There were interesting discussions on Facebook as the week progressed:
In one post, I suggested that Walmart was a low-cost source of organic produce in many poor communities and this comment sparked an exchange about the pro's and con's of shopping at this chain store. I didn't say so at the time but I'm sometimes pro-Walmart for poor people. After spending six years on an Indian reservation in rural Montana - a food "desert" - let me tell you that Walmart may be the only affordable source of consistently fresh produce in poor communities. Walmart's extensive distribution network means that it can absorb the costs of getting there. Poor people are more likely to be "unbanked" and Walmart charges about $6 to cash checks in comparison to the extortionate fees of storefront check cashing services. This is not a commercial for Walmart - there are plenty of reasons not to like the store - but I just wanted to point out that choice is a luxury for many people. It's worth some amount of money to you not to have to shop there - you might rather pay the mark up at another store that appears to be more conscious of its employees and manufacturing sources. But what if you didn't have that little bit extra to spare?
- There was a conversation about foraging - and though all of us thought it was a little silly to ask poor people to forage all of us could give examples of times we'd done it or seen it happen. People picking apples, black walnuts, asparagus and greens on the side of the road, and plenty of people fishing the canals in Miami. Harder in Brooklyn, of course. It was commonplace for people in Montana to hunt each fall not for sport but so they would have meat for the winter. Other hunters donate meat in those communities and it is so common that there is a system set up for butchering and delivering the steaks directly to the food banks.
- When I told my normally relaxed husband about the SNAP Challenge the night before he returned home from a business trip he said, "I'M NOT DOING THAT!" Before I could even finish my sentence he anxiously continued, "Do we have fruit? Do we have bread?" When we talked about it later he said, "I never did benefits but I probably had to feed myself and my daughter on that amount or less for a long time." The memories had clearly touched a nerve. He continued, "Really, what was hard was finding money for the other stuff - razors, paper towels, laundry soap, and so on." And that's something else to consider.
There was a some incomprehension that SNAP benefits could be that low and much back and forth about the veracity of the $4.50 a day SNAP Challenge. Yep. It's that low. Here's the average per person, by state, from the USDA website. Benefits actually drop November 1, 2013.
- Another person suggested that what we were doing was a little bit arrogant, especially when we could just go out any time and buy ourselves anything that we wanted and would probably never bother to do much with what we've learned.
I took the point about arrogance especially to heart. I am always on a budget but still have enough resources to meet the needs of our daily life. Those resources (as you can see from the list above) extend far beyond cash. I have a reliable car; knowledge; a healthy larder, the luxury of knowing that the Challenge can and will end after just seven days. Throughout my career I have worked in many communities where choice seemed to be a luxury. The experiences of needy families and memories of difficult times in my own life stay with me. It's unfortunate that the conversations about poverty and assistance in this country are most often about who does or does not deserve to be helped, and what we believe they should be doing with their lives or where they went wrong. After all of our opinions are shared, kids still go to school hungry. We give them a lunch ticket and some say they're "lucky" to have it.
The other day I happened to pass a man leaving the food bank with a carton of stuff. On top was a box of Frosted Flakes. I thought about the need for good, healthy food and I thought about how happy his kids would be to see that "Tony the Tiger" box coming through the door. It definitely worked for me when I was a kid! I was glad he had the chance to offer them that moment of sugar-joy. I passed that food shelf three more times this week and then decided to Google the resources for needy families in my small town. I was surprised to learn that a church just down the street from me serves a free lunch every Saturday for almost 100 people. Almost every place of worship in our town operates a busy food pantry and even a couple of animal shelters offered assistance for needy families by providing pet food and low cost vaccinations. The number of resources in a town of just 30,000 people told me something I didn't know about my community.
The biggest takeaway from the vegan SNAP Challenge has been this growing awareness of need in my community and questions about how my skills might be employed to alleviate that need. Even on a very small scale. So my question is, "What's next?" Because it doesn't seem like simple awareness is enough - some action is required. But what kind of action? Advocacy is one thing, but it will take years of concentrated effort for anyone to see change, if change were to happen at all. There's no evidence that anyone in Congress worries about what people think - regardless of what side you're on. So, what are some simple, direct ways I can contribute?
- Make a photocopied recipe 'zine that could be distributed with boxes at local food banks that includes local sources for cheap, fresh food;
- Offer a class and a few photocopies of ideas for microwave or rice cooker meals;
- Can I become an active donor to local food banks and/or find ways to provide other items families may need, i.e. detergent, razors, etc.?
What about you? What did you take away from the vegan SNAP Challenge experience? What do you feel called to do about it?