Monday, February 4, 2013

SNAP the Silence Challenge - A Personal Log

"SNAP the Silence Challenge" is an invitation by Montgomery County's Councilmember Valerie Ervin to join her for one work week (Monday through Friday, February 4-8, 2013) eating on $5 a day. (SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally the "Food Stamp" program.)

Why do this? To raise voices to an issue all too often forgotten; an issue all too seldom discussed: There are people in our community going hungry. Some of our neighbors go to bed hungry. That person sitting next to us at Church may be praying that the meager cash in her pocketbook, along with what is left in her SNAP card, is enough to feed her children for the balance of the month. That man next to you in the grocery store, carefully looking at the price tag on that box of cereal, may be considering whether he can afford it or not...

This is real. This is happening all around us - mostly in silence as pride and false sense of guilt keeps many from expressing the frustration of stretching their SNAP benefits to feed their family.

$5/day. That is approximately how much the average SNAP recipient gets. That's it. Nada mas. $133 for the basic, essential food items for one person for one month.

{For more information about the Challenge, the news release kicking it off, and some excellent resources for food consciousness, see HERE.}

This blog is my humble attempt to document my experience in this journey.

I go into the journey with plenty of apprehension. Are we doing this as a publicity stunt? Will we be viewed as taking advantage of the misery of others? Can we join our struggling brothers and sisters in their struggle, authentically embracing them in sympathy and with love as we experience but a snippet of what they go through in their daily life?... I don't know... I can only pray that it be so.

I also go into this journey connecting with personal memories from my past. Some of the memories I know will be painful. Though others will bring a smile to my face as I recollect the simple joy of life even in times of struggle. I remember all too well accompanying my family to the food pantry ("El Refugio") when I arrived from Cuba as a child in the mid-60's. For us it was a short-lived experience, as our aunts and uncles were by that time beginning to come out of years of hard work as waiters and maids and began establishing their own businesses. Yet the memories of the 100 ways to cook spam will be forever with me...

...A much fresher memory is the frustration experienced when trying to help close family members that continue to struggle with the "food stamp" program. As a professional used to doing complicated bureaucratic forms and contracts, surely I could complete the required food stamp forms easily - Ha! Was I in for a surprise when I could not rebut the social worker when they tell me "Sir, your form is incomplete, thus this month's amount will not be credited until later in the month."  Or, when I received the form in the mail - in incomprehensible, ALL CAPS 'bureaucratis' - saying (I think!) that the application submitted last month was lost in the process and we had to start all over again: "WE APOLOGIZE IF THIS MEANS YOUR BENEFITS WILL BE SUSPENDED." (Oh yes: it was in incomprehensible Spanish as well.)... Just wrestling through the process to apply for and continue receiving food stamp was a part-time job!

One last note before we get started: I am taking this on also as a personal, spiritual challenge. I used to fast (in my youth - through my 30's) as a way to stay connected and focus on social justice causes. I look forward to this week's experience as a spiritual journey as well...

Now on with the SNAP the Silence Challenge!


PREP DAY: Sunday, February 3, 2013
I can not join the official kick-off tomorrow (Monday) so I went ahead and did my own shopping.

If I am going to try to do this relating with the people in my Regional Area that may be experiencing challenges with having enough resources to fee their family, I figured I'd go shopping at the Bestway in Long Branch. (I go shopping here often because they carry lots of excellent Latino food and is very near to my house.)

I went in with two $20 bills in my pocket, looking to spend only $25, but recognizing that some of the stuff I buy will probably last me more than the five days. I did not have the luxury of the assistance of my wife, as she is on her way to Uganda... (THAT in itself gave me pause for reflection. Here we are spending $5/day on food, an amount considered luxury in most of the world.)

What went through my head as I push my cart through the grocery store?

  • Gotta have a plan. I'll eat the same thing each day, thus making it easier to purchase certain items that can be split in five portions.
  • Three chicken breast for $5.12. I can split those into six portions!
  • Bimo pan blanco, the off-brand bread. Definitively less expensive than the brand stuff. $1.99.
  • Frozen collard green bag. Seems to be enough for at least three portions. $1.99.
  • Apples and bananas, a must-have.
  • I'll splurge: yogurt is on sale!
  • 1/2 a gallon of milk; 1/2 a gallon of juice; big bag of off-brand cereal; on-sale ($0.99!) lunch meat.

I did spend over $25 (almost $35), but I will see how much is left at the end of the week.  I guess if I had my full SNAP allotment for the month (say, $133), I could have bought more 'bulk' stuff and thus stretched some of the dollars... Yet, this is hard work: I must have put down at least 1/2 the items I picked up as I reconsidered them because of the high prices...

As I was putting away the groceries at home in a separate place (to make sure I eat only from this 'statch' during the week) I could not help but notice all the 'splurge' items in our kitchen: fancy cookies, expensive 'healthy' breakfast bars, brand 'no pulp' orange juice... (Do we really need all that stuff?!?)

(AGH! I forgot the condiments (salt, pepper, mayo, etc.)... Hmmm... I guess I can get them 'free' at a fast food place or 7-11.)

DAY ONE: Monday, February 4, 2013

The excitement of the first day of the adventure was evident. Tweets, Face Book postings, and plenty of conversation. Wearing the SNAP button also helped spark comments and questions.

The strongest feeling of the day? That it is relatively easy for us to do this. We know it is only for five days. Our neighbors in need go through this every day; they don't have the luxury of thinking 'oh, it will be better next week'... And what is it exactly they go through?

  • Measuring to be careful that we can 'stretch' the portions of food for as many days as possible... I thought I had bought enough chicken for 5 days. Not quite. There is a day I will have to go without.
  • Having to say a gentle 'no thanks' when people invite you to eat out because you simply do not have the money... Of course I had the benefit of letting folks know I was 'acting'; but, how often must struggling families say to their friends and neighbors after church or after soccer practice 'no thanks, we can't go eat out; we'll eat at home'?

I did not go to bed hungry. Indeed, I had splurged and was able to buy yogurt - it was on sale!... Yet, that cheap lunch meat seems to not have settled too well.  Too bad. That is the only lunch meat I have for the week. It is either that or egg sandwich for lunch tomorrow.

DAY TWO: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It is not so much about the hunger. It is more about the time.

It might very well be it is indeed possible to eat o.k. on $5/day. But, it takes a lot of time, energy, and thought to do it.

(Note: In taking the SNAPtheSilence Challenge, I committed to doing my own cooking as well. As someone that has roasted more pigs on a "Caja China" outdoors than made spaghetti on the stove, cooking for my own has been quite an adventure in itself.)

Cooking takes time. I seldom get home before 9 p.m. By the time I defrosted the chicken, broiled it, and made the meager accompaniments, it's 10:00 p.m. before I sit down to eat. Then comes the washing of the dishes. Ugh. nearly 11:00 p.m. Cooking, eating, and cleaning for a meal from scratch is at least a two hour ordeal. It is simply so much easier to have had stopped by an nearby eatery on the way home... But, that would have cost at least $10 rather than the $2.50 I spent on my home-made dinner.

I can't help but think how many men in our community - particularly the Latino immigrant - live in apartments with other men, without anyone that might know how to cook. Some work 12 or 16 hour days. What time do they have for home-cooked meals? What time do they have to go to the grocery store?... (What time do they possibly have to join us in community meetings?!?)... "That 7-11 Taquito may just have to do. Oh, let's split the large sized Chunky Beef can of soup! Does any one have tortillas - let's have some plain ones. Where's the can of Vienna Sausage?... I'm exhausted; time to go to bed."

No, it may not be so much about the hunger... It's about the relentless attention that it takes to stretch that meager SNAP benefit... Accepting that I may not be able to eat what I want for five days is easy; having to make it part of your daily life indefinitively is tough, very tough...

DAY THREE: Wednesday, February 6, 2013
We are so fortunate to have the luxury to do this 'exercise'. So many in our community have to do this not by choice, but by necessity.

As I reflected before, it is not so much about 'going hungry'.  It is about 'going without what everyone else seems to have'. After all, turn the t.v. on and see all those wonderful, beautiful people eating all that scrumptiously delicious looking food.

The folks in the commercials seem to eat out a lot. Yet, $5 does not get you much at most any food joint these days. Sure there is the 'dollar menu' stuff. And there's always 7-11. But, you instinctively know that is simply not healthy stuff. Plus, the portions are meager. They might be enough for a treat, but they are not filling....

How do you tell your kids that they can't have that 'happy meal' because you know that for the price of a couple of 'happy meals' you can buy enough chicken and greens for two or three infinitely more healthy family dinners?

How do you tell your out-of-town friend "no thanks" when he invites you to lunch? You know you have to reciprocate and you simply can't afford to take them where they took you... What do you do? You lie: "Oh, amigo, thanks for inviting me to lunch. I love this restaurant! I come here all the time*. Tell you what, next time you are in town, we'll do dinner at my cousin's house; you bring the beer (smile). I'll cook you some amazing down-home chicken, including the feet (smile again.)"... {*If my friend only knew that the closest I've come to this restaurant is having had conversations with the guy that cleans the tables; he lives a couple of blocks down from me...}

But, the visitor that invited you to lunch is your friend. He knows your house was taken from you because you lost your job and had to foreclose and now you live in your cousin's apartment with his wife and three kids. (The dog had to go.) He does not know you are on SNAP. That would be too much. Maybe you'll share that next time you see him. Now you have to go home, but need to stop by the grocery store first. It will be hard to buy more $.99 nearly expired lunch meat after having had shrimp-filled ravioli at this fine restaurant. Yet you are grateful for what you have. Hold your head up high. You will find that job. You will be off SNAP someday. You don't let SNAP define you; defeat you. You will be able to buy your kids that ice cream and happy meal. Or better yet: You begin realizing that buying that happy meal is not necessary; not necessary at all... Maybe, just maybe, the children will understand. But, the ice cream is another matter. Every kid deserves an ice cream treat occasionally  Someday, but not today. Not tomorrow. Someday. You hope - and pray.

DAY FOUR and FIVE: Thursday and Friday, February 7 and 8, 2013

Cereal with a banana and water-down orange juice for breakfast. Cheap lunch meat sandwich and an apple for lunch. Microwaved chicken (cooked a couple of days ago), some greens, and another banana for dinner. Yogurt as a late night snack treat.

Frankly, not bad. Not bad at all. It IS definitively possible to eat on $5/day - if you have the luxury of time to  prepare and cook three meals a day; if you forego beer; if you can resist the temptation to eat out, to enjoy an outting with friends; if you skip steaks and buy only chicken; if you have the fortitude to persevere, make a living of spending less, and tune out the messages in our culture telling you 'buy buy buy!'... Folks in SNAP, like most struggling folks, have so much to teach us. If only we would listen.

I know SNAP is a supplemental program. But, do the math. SNAP still leaves many families to struggle day in and day out... As my friend Ana Lopez Van Balen so eloquently put in her blog, this week is "leaving me face to face with numbers and stories that are uncomfortable to ignore. And by doing so, I'm no longer the same."

Today is the last day for us on this journey. How will we be changed? Will we 'do something' and not ignore the numbers and stories of those for whom today is like any other day when they have to make do, muddle through, get along, and figure it out so they don't go hungry - or much more important, so their young children or elder parent do not go hungry?

Interesting that this Challenge came the week before Lent. It has certainly helped get me ready for that intense annual faith journey.

Most difficult part of the week for me? Overcoming the sense of 'voyeurism'. It has been awkward at times to explain what we are doing without coming across as we if we are exploiting the poor, tarnishing their dignity, benefiting from  their struggle.

Yet, I know we are doing the right thing. People of good will understand and appreciate. Dialogue is sparked. Consciousness is raised. Our community is at a better place for us having done this.

This has indeed been very much a 'community journey'. We thank Councilwoman Valerie Ervin for challenging us to do this... And, it is not over! We are all invited to come by the Silver Spring Civic Building tonight at 6 p.m. to a conversation with people that took the SNAPtheSilence Challenge and a lively discussion of what it has meant to us as participants and to our community as a whole.

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