It is glorious for a mother to watch her family dig happily into the bounty of a wonderful meal. And painful for her to watch her children go to bed hungry as she locks the refrigerator.
Food generosity is grounded in the goodness of the world. So, why is it that SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, was cut in November and is on the dock to be cut again?
One reason is that spending for SNAP has grown over the past four years as more Americans became poor. Another reason is bad timing: the Farm Bill, which includes SNAP, is up for reauthorization this year and anything being reauthorized is a target for budget hawks. And finally, there is a public perception that the program is too generous.
I am testing out that theory by doing the SNAP challenge.
A pure SNAP challenge week would have meant shopping in the neighborhoods where the only available grocery stores are grimy, dimly lit, and stocked with sad vegetables and bags of junk food. I would have had to skip my stockpile of coffee beans, wine, and frozen chocolate chip cookies, a dinner party, and two work-related meals. Also, I would have had to follow the Challenge timeline (nov.20-27) rather than choosing seven consecutive days when I have control over work and family and could resist take-out meals and Starbucks. Instead I am doing SNAP-light.
It is still hard.
The good news is that shopping for a family of three on a weekly budget of $94.50 ($31.50 per person) is doable once you have the basics of rice, potatoes, and oil. I bought generic peanut butter, mac and cheese boxes, frozen OJ, milk, eggs, cheap bread, and elderly-looking carrots. Dinner is built around what the Dining sections of the newspaper call comfort dishes: Middle Eastern mujadara , Indian chana punjari, Mexican chili, Hungarian-Jewish hotdog goulash and cabbage noodles, Italian pasta, olive oil, and garlic, American fried eggs and hash browns. Cheap healthy food prepared as our grandmothers prepared it; though our grandmothers had all day to cook while I have to squeeze it in after work.
The bad news is that, six days into SNAP, we are gaining weight. My grandmothers were plump. Maybe that is why so many people coming out of the discount grocery store are obese.
Other bad news this week: getting cranky when my husband and son take second helpings of leftovers meant to be saved for lunch and having to wait two hungry hours after work because there were no vegetables, nuts, or fruit to nibble on while I fix supper.
My dad grew up poor in the Depression. He never talked about those days though it seemed to be the reason he always chose the cheaper option: one secondhand car, small house with one bathroom, when he could have easily afforded more. But his cardinal rule was to never, never skimp on spending money for food.
So, on Saturday, when forced to choose fading mustard greens over sprightly green kale, I thought about that. For my dad, being rich was being rich enough to buy whatever food you saw and craved.
The almost 48 million children, seniors, disabled, and working poor Americans who rely on SNAP will never be "rich enough" as long as they depend on SNAP. Even in families where the adults are working full time but still poor, SNAP isn't enough because their food allotment is carefully ratcheted down for every extra dollar earned. Food insecurity, buried deep in their consciousness, will always be part of their psyche just as it was for my dad.
Stories are told of those who spend their SNAP benefits on steak, brie, and lox. Do we really think it is evil to buy a steak? The consequence is evil, though, because splurging means that the household will run out of food early in the month rather than later. It means three weeks of food pantries, soup kitchens, and empty stomachs rather than the one week which is now routine for most people.
Those who say that the SNAP program is too generous should try it for a week.