SNAP / Food Stamp Challenge, Day 4: Piatt FAIL

I don’t mind failing as much as I do admitting I’ve failed. And technically, we haven’t blown the SNAP Challenge just yet, but I know for a fact we will by the end of the week.

I went to the store last night for another loaf of bread and a frozen pizza for dinner, which I had promised my kids if they’d make it to mid-week without freaking out. This brought us down to eighteen bucks and change left in the till, which theoretically was going to be enough to fill in the gaps for other items we’d need to do our meals through the weekend.

And then reality hit.

Amy had a 7:30 meeting at church this morning and, in her haste and bleary state, she forgot breakfast. Again. Her meeting was with a parishioner who insisted on buying her a yogurt parfait ($3), knocking us down to $15. I was left in charge of getting both kids off to their respective places since Amy went in early, and in my state of distractedness, I got to church without lunch for either of us. I’d go home and get it, but we don’t have time before our next meetings. I’d skip the meal, but my blood sugar issues don’t allow for that. So we’re going to have to buy something.

That will bring us down to close to nothing left to spend. The good news is I have some things for a day or two more of breakfast, some lunches and at least dinner for tonight. But there’s no way I have enough to stretch through Sunday for all four of us. We’ve screwed up.

And there’s more. The man who Amy met with this morning offered her some tickets to an event this weekend. It’s incredibly generous, and my son in particular will freak out when he finds out what we’re going to do. But it’s a day-long event, and outside food isn’t allowed. The good news is that the tickets he gave us include free food, but if you’ve been following my posts, food you don’t pay for still has to be counted, or else you can game the system so that you call on friends and family to help you fudge your way through the week without any real sacrifices. And finally, we have a youth and young adult cookout Sunday afternoon, and the hosts of the party are providing the meal for all of us. Incredibly generous, once again, but we’ve left no wiggle room in the week’s budget even for a meal at a friend’s house.

So I’m here to confess that, in spite of my planning, despite living in a household that boasts two master’s degrees and all of the necessary tools to pull this off, we’re going to blow it.

Right about now is when I need to remind myself about the piece I wrote very recently on the awesomeness of failure. And I recognize that we can learn just as much (maybe more) from failing at the challenge as we can from succeeding. If my graduate schooling taught me anything, it’s that a controlled study yields valuable information, regardless of the final outcome and whether it meets your expectations. But I wanted to do it. My ego told me I could make it work, that I could hold our privilege and our creature comforts at arm’s-length.

To paraphrase an old song, I fought privilege and privilege won.

I guess this further answers the reporter’s questions from yesterday about why we would consider doing the challenge again next year. Clearly we need more practice at learning how to live on less.

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  • that’s why they call it a supplemental nutritional assistance program. It isn’t to pay for everything but to supplement your food budget.

    • Bri

      Agreed. You have to factor the assistance into an overall budget.

  • JaneyGirl

    I appreciate what you’re
    doing with the challenge and your honesty. But I think you need to address many
    of the comments you’ve received, especially from people actually on SNAP or who
    have that limited of a food budget on their own (no gov’t assistance.) I find
    it very interesting that several people commented on how they lived below the
    level you’ve imposed on yourself and your family, or who said food isn’t as
    much of an issue as gas or rent or whatever. Or, as a couple have pointed out,
    there are other resources for food (I’m sure even SNAP recipients don’t say no
    to a friend inviting them over for a BBQ). I guess I just get the feeling that
    you went into this with an attitude of “I’m going to show how hard this is
    to do” and the proceeded to do so. As one commenter pointed out, that’s a bit
    insulting to her since next week you can just go back to your normal ways—anyone
    can live on a few nights of mac-n-cheese in a week, but what about every week,
    for months? What happens when you’re sick of rice and beans and oatmeal? What
    if you didn’t have a car and lived a mile from public transportation—how does
    that affect your meal choices and budget? So, totally don’t mean to dog on you
    on this. I just am finding it a bit gimmicky and maybe even shallow. The issues
    of poverty in this country are deep and multi-faceted. I’d love to see you
    address those more in the upcoming weeks. Thanks.

  • Janey, this is certainly not intended to trivialize or oversimplify; on the contrary, I’ve tried in earlier posts to point to the many layers of privilege (and lack thereof) that play into this and related issues. For example, I spoke with the host on HuffPost Live about the reality of food deserts, and I’ve also tried to point to the many other confounding issues that play into these kinds of challenges (ie, transportation, other unexpected expenses, medical challenges, etc). It is indeed a complex issue for sure. My hope was simply two-fold in doing this challenge and talking about it. First, I wanted to engender more compassion in my own family. Second, I wanted to try and raise some broader awareness.

    And Jami, as for the “supplement” concept, I appreciate your point. However many people on SNAP rely solely on this resource for food, given that their disposable income in swallowed up regularly by other regular and unexpected expenses. This kind of challenge has been carried out in other places and times before, and generally, this is the way I’ve seen it structured. We had to settle on something, so this is what we went with.

  • j_anson

    Honestly, if you could do this successfully your first try, all it would prove is that it isn’t actually all that hard. But it IS – and that’s the POINT. It’s takes skill, work, and constant vigilance. Being poor is really hard work – hard in terms of effort and hard in terms of planning and thinking through how you will manage things (intellectually, in essence).

  • I’m a little confused here. Wasn’t the point of the exercise to help you, your family (and hopefully your readers) identify with the struggles of the poor? How then have you failed? What would have ‘succeeding’ done except allow you to fan your ego while adding fuel to the fire of all those who think people on public assistance are lazy/living it up on “other people’s money”. The reason you failed is because the SNAP program is inadequate for meeting the needs of the people who qualify for it. The plain truth is that as a country we do not care for the poor, and the people who proclaim the loudest about how we’re a “Christian Nation” are the ones most eager to cut off assistance. You’re correct in saying that people who on this assistance usually rely on it alone to feed their families. (Though the phrase “disposable income” really isn’t accurate. The people who qualify for SNAP don’t have any income that is “disposable”) I’m sorry if this seems overly harsh, but I guess I’m disappointed in your attitude. It’s not about succeeding at a challenge. It’s about walking in the other persons shoes long enough to recognize that, given different circumstances, we might have been them. Breaking down that wall between them and us so that we can rightly use our privilege and our influence when it comes to “the least of these.”

    • Exactly. But of course, my ego wanted me to “pull it off” anyway.

  • Rieley

    If you are hungry, it does not matter if you are eating the same thing (mac-n-cheese) over & over~beans & rice…I used to say , “we grew up so po’ we couldn’t afford the other ‘or’…” Now I’ve gotten approval for SNAP in my adult life, but it barely covers my milk needs at $16/month. Hardly worth the hassle of applying, and I won’t again unless my situation changes. I will say I am still very thankful for all I do have~like manna in the wilderness, best have a thankful heart, and quit the murmuring about ‘wants’ of the world.

    • Rieley

      apparently, this comment has me unable to post to anyone else…I’ve been censored.

  • Kimberly

    well it certainly has raised my awareness about the 24% of the childhood population in fort worth texas who go to bed hungry and the nearly 50% of the snap recieptents are children. We have found some creative ways of making our budget stretch by each one of 6 adults making a meal on $12 dollar budget, Joining the raw revolution and the engine 2 challenge gave us many more options than any of us had thought of. I wonder how many people believe they could buy the food for their meals at whole foods and use their snap budget + $1 . I am really having to evaluate if I am willing to give up my chef prepared foods, itialian ice cream and fair trade coffee to name a few for something I believe is at the heart of my religion, “Live Simply so other might simply live.” Maybe I just need to go live in a third world country again for awhile to clarify my priorities.

  • Gayle

    I don’t think you failed; food stamps aren’t supposed to be the sole source of money for food but a supplement. So don’t be so hard on yourself.

  • Pastor Barbara

    I’ve come late to the party so I don’t completely understand your self-imposed rules for this challenge. Why would you count something that someone has given you as coming from your budget? If you didn’t hint for it or manipulate the situation and if it is a genuine gift I would suggest you receive it as from the Lord, give thanks, and eat it. Sometimes the Lord does supply in unexpected ways when the food or money runs out–at least that’s been my family’s experience in times past. Very faith building….

  • Tracy

    You can survive on SNAP (I’ve done it), and you can survive – kinda – in what I half-flippantly call the ‘death zone’ in which you are just over the income for SNAP but still don’t really make enough to get by. (That’s where I currently live and probably will for life.) You can do just about anything you really have to do when you don’t have any other choice. But it takes a fundamental shift in your thinking. Restaurants? Movies? forget ’em; for you, they don’t exist. Shows? concerts? “Nights on the town”? Ha! the Easter Bunny is more real. Taking your kids to the zoo? Better plan that one about two paydays in advance, and if they want to bring friends, better make it four or five paydays. shopping at Whole Foods…are you kidding me?

    Getting by in my world is a precarious dance. If the car goes down, the utility bills get a month behind. If the bills get paid (at least enough to avoid shutoff), the insurance gets paid late. If the insurance gets paid before shutoff, it’s rice and beans for a week. And if you CAN keep the lights and water on, the car running, the insurance from lapsing, and the kids minimally fed, all in one pay period, without having to hit anyone up for a short-term loan, then you count your blessings, because you’re about 500 percent better off than a lot of the other people you know.

    And I guess that’s the most interesting thing that my own downward mobility in life has taught me (I too was raised in a more ‘privileged’ home) – that there is a fundamental difference between being ‘financially challenged’ and being ‘poor’. Financially challenged is what all those folks on SNAP, and all those folks like me in the ‘death zone’, are every day. but I know a lot of people who make a lot more money and live a whole lot better, who are still Poor. Because they focus on everything they don’t have rather than everything they do. Because they haven’t learned to really appreciate what and whom they’ve got. Because, no matter how much Whole Foods stuff they have in their brand-new beautiful kitchens, they still don’t think they have enough. Those are the people I pray for when I’m driving on my bald tires to my lower-middle-income job.

    Don’t mean to preach, just laying it down like it is. And now I’ve gotta go to work. But thanks, Christian, for your honesty and for drawing attention to how ‘the rest of us’ live every day. Hopefully you won’t have to really do it, because it does suck a lot of the time; but if you do, you’ll survive. God takes care of the financially-challenged, too. 🙂

  • Liz Ragland

    I dropped $60 on my weekly grocery trip for one. Organic apples, organic cheese, organic cereal and organic eggs. There’s no way I could sustain my natural food lifestyle on food stamps. Bravo to your family for accepting this challenge.

  • Christian, I appreciate it very much when someone shows the integrity and honesty displayed in your piece. Like you, I grew up with food in the refrigerator. I graduated from college in a broken state of financial affairs. I thought that was okay, because God would see to it I got a job and my career would begin. For seven years, however, I hopped in and out of dead-end jobs in the service industry; positions that had nothing to do with my degree in communications. I was broke throughout that seven year period, except for 10 months making about $1,200 per month at a call center. I lost the position and, long story short, ended up homeless. I got back on my feet because of help from fellow Christians but it took another seven or more years to heal from the scars that experience gave me. It changed my perspective on poverty and the poor, as well as gave me anger toward ignorance and the corresponding insensitivity I find common among conservatives who talk about welfare reform but have never had to pick themselves up from the bottom.

  • While SNAP is supposed to be “supplemental”, the reality is that it usually isn’t…it’s usually all the family has to buy food after paying for rent, gas, utilities. I appreciate you bringing attention to this and talking about how hard it is. So many times people seem to have this idea that people living on welfare are manipulating the system and living it up and I just don’t think that’s true. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are people who manipulate the system but I think they are the minority rather than majority. The majority are men and women struggling to take care of their families and having to wrestle with failure on a regular basis.

  • Thanks for posting this,. I just read the coverage on your experience in the Oregonian. I think while reading about your experience has been beneficial, what is even more beneficial is reading all the comments from readers generated by your posts. They have been eye opening for me and I really appreciate them all. We grew up poor, below poverty level. We ate boring food, boiled carrots and potatoes every night, received from the local food bank, I remember, and I remember feeling hungry sometimes, and its hard. Now I am more like yourself, in a family with education and jobs, and that part of my life is now history. But coming from a history of food stamp support, with a single mom who was considered the working poor, I could do it again if I had to. That experience gave me skills and insight I never would have had without it. It wouldn’t be easy by any means, as you have shown us. And as you have said, we forget how incredibly blessed we are, and how easy it is to forget. The other thing is that there are people who have much who want to give to those less fortunate, such as provide produce, groceries, have them over for dinner, buy them lunch, etc, and this is what I think our Christian duty is within our community. I would not fault anyone who accepts help from the outside if attempting this challenge. Thanks to everyone’s insight on this issue.

  • Christina Lawton

    Just as Samantha, I just read about your experience in The Oregonian. I’ve never had to fully survive on government assistance; however, one of the things that I have seen first hand is the inability for those in need to cook less expensive items – rather than relying on pre-made foods. An example of that would be the hummus you mentioned. A can of garbanzo beans is going to cost you less than a dollar. The dried beans in the bulk bin is even less. For $4 you could probably make a month’s worth of humms (not that you would want to). As a culinary school graduate, I wish there were more opportunities for someone like me to teach those in need to stretch their dollars further. I also found it interesting at the bottom of the article where it described the challenge, it said to “eat as healthful a diet as you can….remember you can make up for lost nutritents when the challenge ends.” For those truly needing the assistance – the challenge never ends and they need to learn how to get all their nutrients on the limited income.