If there is one thing that the Lenten Season does for us as Christians, it is this: it puts in stark relief the difference between talking and doing. Over the course of the season, we are asked to reflect on what it means to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers as well, to work on becoming the sort of people who nod their heads at Jesus and then pick up their cross (whatever that means) and follow Him.
That is what our family had in mind when we decided to spend Lent 2015 living on SNAP benefits. As a progressive-minded Christian, I knew lots of facts about hunger in the United States. I knew, for example, that children are inordinately likely to bear the burden of hunger in this country. I knew that the recession has resulted in a sharp increase in families who must depend on welfare to eat reasonably well. And I knew that SNAP benefits had been declining on average throughout the recession as lawmakers in cities and states (and our nation) passed on the burden of deficit budgets to the poor.
But knowing doesn’t necessarily translate into doing. I knew all of this, but I wasn’t engaged in actions that would have a tangible impact on hunger issues. Our church generously donates to the Warminster Food Pantry, a local cupboard for folks who fall between the cracks, but I often forgot to put a can in the basket. And our youth group travels down to a local ministry in the city that serves the homeless on a regular basis, but I don’t always go.
Sure, I have my
reasons excuses (do two kids under 4, with all the chaos that includes, get me a little sympathy?), but at the end of the day, I knew that I had the time to make a difference. The reality was just that it was easier to talk about the importance of hospitality and compassion and justice while doing very little to change anything on my own.
All of this is to say that the past few weeks have been an interesting lesson for me. As I have mentioned before, this experiment isn’t so much about trying to replicate food-insecurity as it is about creating space for greater understanding and compassion about the challenges inherent to the struggle. Our goal isn’t to say that we know what it is like to be one of the 15% of US households who were food insecure as of the last national estimates in 2013. Our goal is to be in solidarity, and to support programs like the One Great Hour of Sharing that address food insecurity in the process.
And we have learned a lot so far, although not always what we expected. For example:
- when you have a hard and fast limit on food spending, you spend a great deal more time thinking about food, planning your meals, researching options. Not only do we spend a good chunk of the weekend planning meals for the week, but both my husband and I have found that we are constantly weighing whether a snack or a food-related choice is worth the cost. My husband told me that he stopped snacking all together because he didn’t know if we could afford it; for myself, it has meant eating far fewer empty calories, because I know that they will cost me something more filling. Add in a few kids who don’t know that you are limited, and it gets even more complicated–I have found myself going without a snack so that we can afford to let our daughter enjoy fruit and other snacks that she needs as a growing child.
- that being said, when we plan our weeks out, it isn’t very difficult to stay within the limits of our SNAP allotment. This surprised me at first–I figured that we would be cutting it close at the end of every day, but instead we have found ourselves banking dollars and cents. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that our upper-middle-class family takes for granted a number of conditions that allow us to save more money on our food. First of all, we have the time and the ability to make all of our meals from scratch. Both of us enjoy flexible work environments that allow us to be home in the evening for dinner. We enjoy access to a fully functioning kitchen, and are able to make large quantities of more cost-effective foods that can be enjoyed for days afterwards. We can afford to spend our time doing things like baking bread and muffins and making quiche and chili. And lastly, we have the benefit of a partner to rely on for help.
- Some of our dietary choices are made far easier by the knowledge that this experience has a hard and fast end date. One of the decisions that has made this project far easier was the communal decision to go more or less vegetarian for Lent. Why did we do it? A couple reasons. Firstly, I find the meat production system that results in cheap, affordable beef, poultry, and pork morally objectionable. The rest of the year our family tends to purchase local and organic meat, and I wasn’t willing to buy the cheaper and more affordable meat in order to be able to enjoy it. Second, even if we bought the cheap meat, it would have meant making sacrifices in other areas, and most likely we would have had to have given up fresh fruit or vegetables (or both). Neither of us was up for the trade. And while this has been financially easier, it hasn’t been easy. Our kids love meat, and they have noticed its absence. Heck, I love meat, and I can’t wait to eat a big juicy steak when this is over. But I have a feeling that I will look at that steak with different eyes when I do.
Ultimately, I am learning as much about myself as I am about hunger. I am recognizing that I participate in a system, and that so much of what I take for granted in my life is precisely what makes this project bearable. I am paying more attention to national policy choices that make it harder for families at the poverty line to provide for one another, and I have a heck of a lot more compassion for folks who make these choices day in and day out. I am realizing that it takes a lot of energy to think this much about food, and I am wondering how I might be called to walk alongside folks for whom my project is a lifestyle.
Which makes me wonder: what sorts of systems and benefits do you take for granted? In what ways do you take your production and consumption of food for granted? And what would you do if you were faced with a choice like meat or broccoli? Is that even the sort of choice a person should have to make?