*I am straying from my promise not to blog about work related things to share something I wrote tonight that I think needs a wider audience.
I work for a non-profit with an anti-poverty mission, and this week our staff and Board are participating in a Food Stamp Challenge. The goal? Live off $30/week for one week, which is the average benefit per person in Arizona currently. As a contrast, a few of us (myself included) are living off only $21, which is the amount that person now getting $30 would receive if the Feds decide to use Food Stamp money to pay for Child Nutrition programs.
We are blogging daily about our experience. Here is my blog entry for today. I hope, if nothing else, this helps people understand some of the dynamics of trying to live a healthy life on food stamps. And if you're a reader who is curious about all the other experiences being shared on the blog, please leave me a comment and I will get you the link.*
Day 3 (Wednesday)
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 inthose 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."