How much money do you spend every day on food? That is what I found myself wondering recently. I was wondering because I had recently come across the statistic that the average family on food stamps receives benefits roughly equal to three dollars per person, per day, on food. Three dollars. That makes one dollar for each meal, day in and day out.
Interested to know more, I did some research. Turns out that in Bucks County, where I live, there were 37,733 people receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as of April 2014, a total of 6% of the local population. The average monthly benefit per person in PA in the year 2014 was $119.41, which works out to roughly $3.85 a day, and $1.28 a meal.
Given that nearly one sixth of the world’s population lives on a dollar a day, $1.28 per meal didn’t look so bad. But that was before I did the math on my own family’s spending habits at the table. I was astonished to discover that, over a three month period, our family spent an average of $682 a month on food, which, in a family of three healthy eaters (and one baby, who is just beginning to eat himself), works out to $7.34 per person per day, over twice as much money as is provided in the average SNAP benefit.
That number, which over the course of a year works out to over $8000, places our family slightly above the middle 20% of the country in terms of total spending on food produced both inside and outside the home. Compare that to the lowest 20% of the country, who in 2011 spent on average $3500 on food, and the highest 20%, who spent nearly $11,000, and you get the sense of just how vast the chasm is in our country between those who have plenty to eat, and those who count every penny.
What was most amazing to me was that our family considers ourselves to be fairly conservative in our spending. We produce most of our meals at home, mostly from scratch, and we tend to favor making our lunch over picking something up at a restaurant. And yet we still managed to rack up a sizable grocery bill! A grocery bill, mind you, that betrays our relative comfort, for our family has the luxury of time to spend preparing meals from scratch or exploring recipes in the latest Ottolenghi cookbook.
Armed with this knowledge, I found myself wondering: what might it look like to be in solidarity with those whom our government recently described as the “food insecure?” How might Jesus be calling me, a person of relative security and privilege, to respond?
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
So here is the fast we choose: this year, in this holy season of Lent, we choose to stand in solidarity with the hungry and the food insecure in this nation we call home. This Lent, our family will participate in the Hunger Challenge: to eat within the constraints of the average SNAP benefit, or $3.85 per person per day, as an act of witness to the fact that, for many, this isn’t a choice at all. And we will donate the difference in our spending to the One Great Hour of Sharing, which provides food aid and emergency assistance to empower the poor and the oppressed.
Will this be hard? If my jonesing for Starbucks on Ash Wednesday is anyindication, then yes, we are in for a rough journey. But I also believe it will be worth it. Because sometimes the harder thing is exactly where we are meant to go. Sometimes God calls us to do something that makes us uncomfortable because justice requires it. Sometimes, in order to change the world, we have to change ourselves first.