It is hard to believe that Lent is nearly over. But here it is: Wednesday of Holy Week, with only a handful of days left of this experiment. The last 36 days we have explored together what it means to live within the limits imposed by the federal SNAP program. And while I cannot say that we aren’t looking forward to its end, what I can tell you is that this experience has deeply shaped our experience of food. A few reflections on the experience so far:
1) Healthful eating is not just a moral issue, but a justice issue. When your ability to buy food is limited to 3.85 a person a day, your moral and ethical commitments to eating a certain way are put to the test. And it is one thing to say you like to eat local, but it means another thing entirely to choose to forgo meat because you cannot afford the local stuff. Organic is great, but not if you can’t afford enough to feed your family. Our family had to make decisions like: would we rather eat meat ethically, or go vegetarian? Is organic milk important? What about eggs? The experiment was a reminder that for many folks, these ethical struggles are real, but they get far more complicated when you have less to work with.
2) SNAP may seem generous, but only if you have time. As I mentioned in a previous reflection, our family was able to eat fairly well on this experiment, but that was due in large part to the fact that we enjoy the luxury of time to plan and cook, and access to affordable, good grocery options. Two parents with good jobs and flexible schedules can afford to cook their meals at home, can take turns, can plan out the meals so that we stay within our budget. Given that there is evidence to support the notion that people experiencing poverty are locked into a scarcity mindset, it is fair to assume that the luxury of time that my spouse and I were able to utilize in this experiment likely paid a huge role in our success.
3) SNAP can make a huge difference in the quality of a person’s life. It was recently revealed that the proposed Congressional Budget would strip SNAP recipients of, on average, 220 meals a year. Add to that the reality that many states are electing not to extend SNAP benefits through the waiver to work program, and we face a reality in which millions of people struggling to rise out of poverty might fall right back into it. Given that SNAP may be one of the most important anti-hunger initiatives in the country, it strikes me as a grave injustice that the proposed national budget seeks to strip it of its effectiveness. SNAP, when readily available to families in crisis, provides a safety net in the form of access to decent, healthful food for families. As a resident living in the metro area of Philadelphia, these programs are a matter of life and death. Philadelphia enjoys the dubious honor amongst the ten biggest cities in the country of having the highest rate of citizens living in deep poverty, which is defined as an income at half the poverty line, or roughly $10,000. Our number of residents living in deep poverty hovers around 12%, which amounts to twice the national average. That would be distressing enough, but it turns out that nearly a third of those living in deep poverty are children. Cutting SNAP benefits by 220 meals per person in a city where most children reliably receive 2 meals a day during the week from their school lunch program is a recipe for disaster. Given that hunger is linked to school drop out rates, community incidence of crime, and even prison populations, this is bigger than public health. Feeding children and their families is not only cheaper, but it is more effective and better for the economy than the austerity that proponents of cuts declare is necessary to balance the budget.
*steps off the soap box*
Now, clearly this has given me a great deal of food for thought. It has also made me more engaged in food justice issues. Because of our experience with SNAP, I found myself more politically engaged–writing letters to my congress person about the proposed cut in SNAP benefits, for example. And the more I think about it, the more that I realize that this experience was helpful for me and my family perhaps because it helped us to grow in empathy. In the greek, empathy can be translated generally as “to suffer with,” which implies a relationship. And the more I think about it, the more I come to realize that this experiment was about relationship for me. As a pastor, I have been trained to care about the poor, but how often do I suffer with the vulnerable? How often do I put myself in the position of those with less than myself, and try to understand? I don’t think of myself as a heartless person, but I know that I have not always gone out of my way to understand the experience of people unlike myself.
And yet that is precisely the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to. “Pick up your cross and follow me,” he says. In other words, die to yourself, and join me on this journey of healing and justice and peacemaking, not on behalf of the comfortable, but on behalf of those who are sick, who are suffering, who cry out from war zones and from the margins of society. Stand with them, suffer with them, and see if you don’t discover that Christ is there with you. See if you don’t find your LIFE when you let go of YOURSELF.
Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to eat candy bars with abandon. But I also can’t help but think that it won’t truly be Easter, Resurrection won’t feel real to me, until the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, and those who yearn for justice find peace in the land.