SNAP / Food Stamp Challenge, Day 3: Slip-Ups

“We should go to a restaurant tonight,” said my three-year-old daughter, Zoe, over breakfast today. “I can take some of my money and play some games.”

“Sorry honey,” I said. “No restaurants this week.”

“But why?”

“Because,” Amy said, “we’re trying to learn something this week as a family, and that means spending less money on food. So we need to eat at home.”

“But I want to go to a restaurant,” she blinked at us, incredulously. It was almost as if she was using her three-year-old superpowers to peer into my wallet.

I know you’ve got money in there. We can afford to do this, and I want to do this. You probably want to do it too. So why the hell wouldn’t we just go to a restaurant?

Maybe the serpent in the Garden of Eden story actually was a cute little girl in pigtails. Sure would have been more persuasive than some stupid talking snake.

Explaining to kids who have grown up their entire lives with such privilege is almost like trying to translate a foreign language for them. No, not everyone just goes in and grabs whatever they feel like from the fridge or the shelves. They don’t order in when they’re too tired or lazy to cook, and they don’t mark every mundane occurrence in their lives with a celebratory dinner out. It’s normal to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal.

I mentioned to a reporter from our local paper that I was considering making this an annual practice, setting aside one week each year to do this SNAP Challenge.

“Why do it again?” she asked.

The reason I gave her was that we human beings tend to have convenient amnesia when it comes to our comforts and our privilege. I’m sure I’ll be more mindful about my favorite coffee or picking up a Chipotle burrito right after the challenge, but what about six months from now, when this experience is well in our rearview mirror? I suggested that, although we all find it remarkably easy to take steps up with regards to income, opportunity, privilege and the like, it’s a tougher, bumpier road taking a few steps down.

And sometimes, the means and desires converge in a way that is so natural, you don’t even know you’ve screwed up until it’s already done.

I have the advantage during this challenge of working from home most days, so I have all of the food we’ve bought on hand whenever I need it. Amy works at the church in downtown Portland, and is often in a hurry to get there on time in the mornings. As such, she sometimes forgets to eat breakfast, opting for a yogurt parfait or energy bar from the corner coffee shop. Usually, that’s not a big deal, but this week, the consequence of every slip-up is magnified.

“I have a confession,” she said, when we checked in with each other yesterday afternoon. “I had a morning meeting with this guy today, and I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and well…”

“Just get it out there,” I felt like I was a priest hearing a congregant’s confession.

“I was halfway through the yogurt parfait when I realized I’d just spent most of my daily allowance on breakfast.”

“Crap,” I sighed. “We may have to add another mac and cheese night in here somewhere to stay on track.”

“Oh, and one other thing,” she smiled sheepishly at me from the other end of the video chat. She grinned self consciously as she raised a diet soda into view from below the desk. “Turns out my caffeine addiction gets the better of me around two in the afternoon.”

Definitely another mac and cheese night in our immediate future.

Amy felt bad about throwing the budget off a little, offering a confession on Facebook as contrition. “I’m failing the SNAP Challenge,” she said, divulging her slips-ups to the digital world.

“You’re not failing the challenge,” replied my uncle Jim, “you’re proving it!”

He’s right. If the whole exercise is really about raising awareness – ours and others’ – then it seems to be working. I talked about the challenge on Huffington Post Live yesterday and, as I mentioned, the Oregonian is preparing a feature about the experience. They’re even sending a photographer out to our house to capture me preparing and serving dinner to the family.

So why is this news? After all, more than twenty million Americans live like this or much worse, every day of the year. I think it’s because of exactly what Zoe was touching on when she was trying to coerce us into breaking the fast and going to a restaurant. The idea of wanting something and having the means to have it, yet choosing not to, is so beyond our cultural norms that it grabs people’s attention. Even if we’re only trying this out for seven days, it’s enough to get people asking, “why?” We’ve had people offering to bring food by the office or the house. We’ve had invitations to other people’s homes for dinner so we could have a break from the challenge. And though I appreciate people trying to be nice, I also wonder if it points to a fundamental discomfort we have when confronted with how much we indulge ourselves, every day, with things we don’t actually need.

Thanks for the offers and invites, folks, but we’ll have a take a rain check for at least a few more days.

Resources for SNAP Food Stamp Challenge

Planning for Poverty: The SNAP Challenge

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  • I wonder if the people offering to bring you food or cook you dinner would do the same for people whose lives look like this on a daily basis. Very interesting.

  • sb

    I wanted to share this but the pictures are beyond stupid. Needs an edit.

    • Wow, Shirley hates the photos so much she posted the same complaint in two places! Trust me, I can be way stupider-er than that.

      • sb

        Sorry to be so cranky and now feel my choice of words was bad. Please forgive me. I like it better now and will share on my timeline–as I have been sharing your challenge for the last couple weeks. You are doing great and I hope you do this again. My profile pic is the SNAP logo this week.

    • Christine

      Are there still people around who are seriously offended by the Simpsons? They stopped being ‘edgy’ like a decade ago.

  • LM

    I lived on food stamps for the past year (I have a job, now, that pays well). Since I’m just one person, I had enough to live on, as long as I cooked. I could even afford fresh fruit – in season and on sale.

    Know what I didn’t have? Money for gas. I live in a food desert. That means to get to a full-service grocery store, I have to walk a mile to a bus stop, ride it for a couple more miles, then walk another mile to the grocery store. And that’s the close one. The farther ones take two buses, and some only run during rush hour.
    I was lucky; I had a friend who was able to give me money for gas, and family that was able to provide me safe housing. Not everyone in my neighborhood has that safety net.

  • Nice post!

  • HIzzle

    You struck a chord with me in describing trying to explain what your family is doing to your 3-year old who has been blessed to grow up in a food-secure environment. I work at a food bank as a SNAP advocate. My well-to-do family members have no understanding or respect for what I do. It is so disheartening to try to explain what food insecure people are dealing with to 40 and 70 year old people who have never gone hungry. A lack of empathy seems to be the key to many of the attitudes that are rampant in our country. Kudos to your family.