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A food challenge by choice, not necessity

I had already spent $158 on food for the month of February, when I saw the following on the Peterborough Food Pantry’s Facebook page:

“SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. When you take the challenge, you voluntarily decide to live on $4.75 for food, per day, per person, for one week. No free food at work or from friends/family. $4.75 per day is the amount an individual who qualifies for SNAP assistance receives. Think about it.”

The next day, my son, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, and I (a theater major but also a woman who prepared approximately 100,000 meals over 25 years while raising a family of four) decided to step up to the plate so to speak. We would attempt to meet our food needs for the entire month of February based on this fiduciary challenge. Could we?

Multiplying $4.75 times the two of us gave us an allowance of $9.50 per day – a $266 budget over the course of February’s 28 days. More than half of which I had already spent!

We both agreed that tracking our food expenses wouldn’t be difficult. The challenge to eat efficiently and sufficiently would be. Every food expenditure counted towards our budget, even a $10 jar of honey, bought on a whim on a day trip to Vermont. An after-the-fact justifiable impulse buy.

The Repercussions

Okay, so we were eating a lot of homemade pizza, pancakes, hot and sour soup over rice, grilled cheese with ketchup and homemade bread and butter pickles, pita bread, and on occasion, chicken enchiladas. Beans and rice, fresh eggs, homemade bread and jam, yogurt, and a larder full of supplies already on hand were sustaining us.

And what about company? Forget it. We couldn’t serve what would be tomorrow’s leftovers to tonight’s dinner guests. This whole endeavor was turning out to be an eye-opening, consciousness-raising, and simultaneously constricting, as well as daunting endeavor.

What was forfeited by financial necessity was more than three-course meals with or without dessert every night. Our social lifestyle was completely compromised. Mobility to move about freely in a world of friends and family and enjoy the latitude of, say, socializing over a cup of tea and a cookie, were out of the question. It’s a pleasure to be able to serve a meal to a friend without thinking twice about it; a lot of fun to make a pie on President’s Day without worrying about spending $3.99 per can for cherries; a luxury to be able to snack when hungry and not have to wait for meal time; an extravagance to enjoy nutritious fruits and vegetables that may be out of season at certain times of the year but are available nonetheless – for a price.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

The Outcome

By Feb. 19, I overdrew the spending allotment by $4, almost another entire day’s per-person allowance. Could we raid the larder and get by for another nine days with supplies on hand? The honey would last us several months, but we sure weren’t going to be able to utilize what was on hand for March if we consumed it in February.

Still, I figured fresh eggs were worth the price. Could they tide us over?

The answer in a word? No.

The Excuses

We had been going along fairly well until I noticed that the challenge was actually only for one week. We had been eating on our budget for three.

Too much snow and not enough calories to sustain our hard outdoor work making maple syrup was our final excuse for crying “uncle.” I headed to our local grocer for “pickups.”

Still trying to eat wisely and frugally nonetheless I spent $38.76. And I did it again a few days later. This time to the tune of $46.63. We were now over by $85.39 – a week and a half’s worth of next month’s budget, were we to continue the challenge. I could have saved an additional $14 by refraining from purchasing a sandwich and a chocolate milk ($7.00) and ignoring a chocolate jones (another $7). But we succumbed to temptation while at the same time experienced immense relief that we were fortunate enough not to be constrained by such a tight food budget. And I will never forget this, every time I walk the food aisles.

The Wrap

I think I can speak for us both when I say we have renewed gratitude for the abundance in our lives while millions of Americans in households struggling with hunger are living the SNAP challenge by necessity, not by choice.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics U-6 Measure, more than one in seven Americans receives food assistance. For struggling families, SNAP makes a huge difference toward their economic well-being and health. Reports from the U.S. Census Bureau and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service show that SNAP benefits, if counted in income, would have lifted 3.9 million Americans — 1.7 million of then children – above the poverty line in 2011.

Melissa Stephenson is a Peterborough Food Pantry
Volunteer Coordinator.

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