I took my first trip to the grocery store with the daunting task of buying enough food for a week for a total of $31. Why only $31? This is the amount that one week of food stamps would allow me. My head is spinning. I feel vulnerable, angry, tense and frightened.
Along with hundreds of faith leaders around the country and at least a dozen members of Congress, I agreed to join in a symbolic weeklong “Foodstamp Challenge.” All of us pledged to try, for one week, to eat only what would be covered by our allowance on SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”). The timing is meaningful, as the Congressional Supercommittee on Deficit Reduction will soon reveal its proposal for slashing the federal deficit. According to a national coalition, “Fighting Poverty with Faith,” “Anti-hunger advocates are deeply concerned that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program . . . might be targeted for massive funding cuts or structural changes that could result in enrollment being capped and many struggling with hunger being kicked off the program. These changes would hurt the families still feeling the effects of the recession and the nearly 49 million Americans who lived in households struggling with hunger in 2010. (http://fightingpovertywithfaith.com)
For weeks since taking the pledge, I have been engaged in thought, even obsessed, by questions: “How is it even possible to eat on $31/week? Would there be room for salad (which I normally consume in copious amounts) on this poverty-induced budget? How often would I be hungry? How much weight would I gain by eating less healthy foods? How many free meals can I find for myself – at friends’ homes, at the synagogue, at public events? If my children were hungry, would I be tempted to steal food for them?” And more.
But this was my first time actually going up and down the aisles at the least expensive grocery store I know, carefully checking the price of each item, with some “maybes” in the front of the cart. The result: Cottage cheese - $2.99; 2 cans of tuna fish - $3.30; egg noodles (to make a kugel casserole, to eat for dinner most nights) - $2.59; eggs - $1.99; 1 c. sour cream (to make the kugel more filling) - $.99; Kraft cheese slices (for snacking and cooking) - $4.09; a loaf of bread (not any of the healthy, gourmet breads I like – too expensive) – $1.99; bottle of Diet Coke (can’t live without that) - $1.89; frozen brussels spouts (cheaper than fresh – to serve with dinner all week) - $2.39; two apples (for the casserole? or save for snacks?) - $1.89; 9 small Roma tomatoes (Note: I normally eat about $4/day in tomatoes alone!) - $2.52; one head of lettuce - $1.99; 3 cucumbers (for a rudimentary salad) - $2.67. For a total of $31.29. I had to give back the pasta shells and small container of applesauce – not even money for those.
Mind you, that takes into account some cheating, including some ingredients I’d add from my own cupboard (hopefully left over from last week’s allowance), and several meals at friends’ homes.
At the check-out counter, an irrational feeling of shame came over me. There I was, dressed in my usual upper-middle-class clothing, looking at the young cashier, sure that he knew that this paltry batch of groceries was all I could afford. Another unpleasant surprise: the egg noodles rang up at 60 cents more than had been marked. Ever wonder why some people seem tense and angry at the checkout counter? May I never judge such people’s behavior again. Maybe they are trying to do the impossible: to live on $31/week for food.
Of course, this is only a simulation on my part. Any time I choose to, I can cheat on the pledge, returning to my real life, in which I don’t have to think much about which groceries I bring home for my family. I already have a full refrigerator and a full pantry at home, and many friends who’d invite me over for a lavish meal any time I called. What if I didn’t have my “real life” to go back to? What if the pantry was bare except for what I bought today? What if this was not a one-week experiment but an enforced way of life?
Please remember one thing when you hear public officials and pundits debating the value of the SNAP food assistance program. Remember one number: $31 for a week. Could you do it? Do you really want others to have to live on less?