SNAP Challenge update

I am almost through the weeklong SNAP Challenge.  I wanted to wait until I had time to reflect on the experience instead of just writing as things happened.  If I had done that, this would have just been a lot of whining!

I really, really miss fresh produce.  I feel so much more lethargic not eating it.  That really confirmed for me how important it is that we are building our community garden at St Thomas so we have fresh organic produce to give out to our neighbors.

The most obvious thing about the week, though, was that the food is boring.  I ate the same thing over and over again.  That could be more of an issue of just poor planning rather than SNAP.  Although, as I think about my friends and neighbors who come to the food pantry each week, and I think about their lives, how much time and energy do they have to plan creative and interesting meals each week?

My friend and colleague , Rev. Audrey Scanlan, put it best.  She, too, tried the SNAP Challenge.  Here’s what she had to say in her blog Prayer Kitchen:

“So, I decided to take the SNAP challenge this week and to plan menus for my family and eat food based on the food stamp benefits that folks receive in CT.

I came home feeling pretty smug with a host of good recipes and menus… all for $100.75

And, actually, it’s gone just fine. We’ve had a good variety of healthy meals this week- not too much different than how we usually eat- and other than the surfeit of English Muffins ( a twin pack on sale of 12 muffins) or the abundance of romaine (6 heads for $2.00!) it’s been pretty much business as usual.

Which is to say that a well educated, suburban, middle class woman with a reliable car, full tank of gas, 3 mega grocery stores to choose from, a five burner gas range- 2 refrigerator-dishwasher-disposal-granite counter kitchen, and reasonably good mental health can pull this off with little effort.

I am ashamed.”

Audrey said it all.  The fact is that this week, although challenging in its own way, I can’t even come close to really experiencing what our neighbors living on food stamps and struggling with food vulnerability experience everyday.  I know this week will end.  The fact is I could do anything for a week.  But what would it be like if this was really my life  —  my whole life, for the foreseeable future?


I didn’t starve.  That is true.  But I did wake up to how much of the joy of my life is surrounding food.  Not so much the eating or preparing of food — after all, as many of you know, I’m Irish.  Culinary arts is not a strong suit for the Irish.   What I noticed more than the food itself this week was that I was lonely.  Very lonely.  And that is because most of my interactions with people occur around food —  meeting for coffee, having lunch together,  having dinner.  It’s how I connect with parishioners, friends, colleagues.  And this week, there was very little of that (except for Jolly and Christine who joined me at the Parish House and brought their own lunches!). I couldn’t afford to go out for meals or coffee.  And I didn’t have enough food to invite people to my home for a meal. It was a real limitation to my everyday life.

I realized this after attending a Christmas gathering on Wednesday for my husband’s staff.  My mood was completely different that day — I was uplifted!  And returning to the SNAP Challenge after that, well — I was just blue.  For this extrovert, the real loss this week was human connection over shared food.

It got me thinking about my friends and neighbors at the food pantry — how do they maintain their human connections?  Clearly their budgets don’t allow for eating out or entertaining very much.  So how do they do it?   What activities connect them to each other?

As I said in an earlier post, to get a real experience of what living on SNAP is like, you would have to do this for a month.  A week is artificial food-wise.  But it still made me realize how much I take for granted.  And it helped remind me that I need so much less, especially less food.  It really woke me up to the realization that it’s the human connection of shared food that really makes all the difference in my life.

The last few meals of the Challenge are really going to be a challenge!  Tomorrow is the electing convention for our Bishop Suffragen  at the cathedral in NYC.  Due to an impending snowstorm, I need to leave the Hudson Valley this afternoon and stay in the city tonight.  Not sure how that fits with the Challenge (Would a person on food stamps be in this situation?  Hard to know.), but it is what it is.

Thanks for you prayers and support this week.  Please share how the experience has been for you!

Blessings —


THe SNAP Challenge




This week, I began the SNAP Challenge.  SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what we commonly call “food stamps”.  THe SNAP Challenge is a program that invites people to try for one week to live on the same amount of money that people on food stamps receive for food — $4.50 per day, or $1.50 a meal.

So this past Sunday, I started the challenge by going shopping.  The picture above is most of what I was able to buy.  To be honest, the food in that picture actually cost $40.33.  I had to go back multiple times and put things back on the shelves because I couldn’t afford what I had chosen. So I am already over budget  and I haven’t even bought enough food for the week.

The shopping experience was very stressful.  It took a tremendous amount of energy and concentration to try and figure out how to make my money go far enough (clearly I need more practice!).  I am amazed at how mindlessly I usually shop.  If I need food, I go out and get it. I never have to stop and say “do I have enough money?” .  If I see something I want, I throw it in my basket.  I am a careful shopper, always looking at what’s on sale and comparing prices.  But if I want it, I buy it.

But Sunday was different. I felt limited, an sometimes very frustrated because I couldn’t make what I needed to match ho much money I had. My first stop was the produce department.  I found a head of lettuce, a cucumber, and a great sale on grape tomatoes — buy one get one free!  I was feeling very proud of myself until I realized I didn’t have enough money for salad dressing —  especially not olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  So the salad fixings went back on the shelf.  It would be frozen veggies for me this week — only  $1.15 a package this week.

I also have some health issues that I need to consider as I shop.  I am gluten free and dairy free.  So  I head for the gluten free cereal — got a great deal on a bag of puffed rice, $2.19.  It tastes a little like cardboard, but with some almond milk and raisins it’s not half bad.  I actually came in under budget for breakfasts the week, which is a good thing because lunch put me way over budget.  Lunch was the greatest challenge.  Deli meat is expensive (and I’m not a big fan of it either).  Salads had already been nixed. Tuna was expensive this week (no sales — I guess people don’t eat a lot  of tuna for Thanksgiving!) So I settled on a loaf of gluten free bread, almond butter (VERY expensive!) and all fruit spread.  Yep — a week of peanut butter and jelly — feel like I’m back in fourth grade.  Dinner was easier.  There was a “buy one get one free” on chicken legs and thighs.  So it’s chicken this week, along with frozen spinach or string beans for dinner.

I made a lunch date with two parishioners for Tuesday.  But had to cancel it when I realized that going out to lunch is not a reality for people living on food stamps.  Another luxury I never really appreciated before.  My parishioners are bringing their lunch to the Parish House and I will eat my PB&J with them there instead.  Thanks, Christine and Jolly, for being good sports!

I think there are some artificial limitations in this challenge. For instance, people on food stamps get money for the month.  I only had one week.  I found a wonderful sale on 10 jars of spaghetti sauce for $10.  That would have been a great deal had I had enough cash to buy it.  People on food stamps may have been able to take advantage of that sale.  But I couldn’t because of the $31.50 limit.  I think the only way to get an actual experience of living on SNAP would be to do the challenge for a month instead of a week.  But the first few days have been hard enough  — a week is plenty for me.

I’ve thought a lot about poor people as I do this.  I read a very disturbing and provocative article about what it is like to live in poverty.  The SNAP Challenge can’t come close to this, but it’s a great way to raise awareness of what everyday life is really like for our neighbors in need.

Here’s the article.  It’s really worth the read:

Some of you have signed on to do this with me.  Please share your experiences in the comments below.  Some of you are taking the shopping challenge.  Those that can’t eat like this for a week are invited to go shopping with just $31.50 and try to put together  a week’s worth of food for yourself.  What is the experience like?  Share your thoughts below.

And for those who would like to support us as we do the Challenge, here is a link to daily prayers you can say for all participating in the SNAP Challenge, and for the hungry in our midst:

More to come as the week goes on!

Blessings —