Sunday, September 29, 2013

SNAP Challenge Reflections

After the SNAP Challenge (trying to eat on just $4.50 a day, or $1.50 a meal—what the government allocates for those on assistance) I am sharply aware of the great relief of not having to watch the price of every bite I put in my mouth. 

It's similar to the relief I felt, years ago, when I was no longer food insecure myself. I had gotten a good job. My kids could finally eat anything they wanted. There was always fruit in the house, and fresh meat and vegetables. I cooked roasts and chickens and hams. I've always loved to cook.

I was, and am, by all counts, a very frugal person. However, not having enough food to feed my family had left a permanent impression. So, when it came to food, I stopped checking prices. I never thought twice about putting something in my cart that we wanted. I didn't skimp on food. It wasn't that I bought caviar. If the store brand was just as good, I happily bought it. But I bought name-brand mayonnaise. It tasted better. I bought snacks like chips and ice cream.  I was careful, not extravagant, but I didn't check the price.  I'd find out at the check-out what I was spending. Next time I'd be more careful if it was too much. But I was set in my mind to not add up or check prices, while pushing my happy, bountiful cart through the aisles.  

I had been traumatized, I think, by having been so broke for so long (a few years).  Not having enough food is a frightening experience. Eating is as basic an instinct as personal safety from danger. Imagine if someone were chasing you with a gun in their hand. Your heart would race. Your adrenaline would pump. You'd be scared—and you'd do anything to get to a safe place, free from your attacker.

That's exactly what it's like to have no money. To have no food. To lose your home.  A panic sets in. And if you're Type A, like me, you wear a strong face and you set at getting the job, getting shelter, getting food... with a determination and resolution that is unsurpassed by any athlete running a marathon in the Olympics.  Every resource exploited, every opportunity created that you can create for yourself, every neuron in your brain firing on this puzzle with no clear clue to how to solve it. 

When I was food insecure and receiving WIC and soup kitchen donations, and losing my home in the early 90's, I sent my two middle children to live with my father in Florida. We would only have four children to feed, and bring four children to look at housing for rent, because no one would rent to us. No one. Six children were too many. I thought four might seem more reasonable. At that point I had a job. I could afford the rentals we looked at.  But everyone in our county turned us away.

My daughters wrote sad "miss you" postcards from Florida. We weren't any closer to getting a home or financial security. I had $3,000 in uninsured emergency room visits for severe abdominal pain, undiagnosed. I began to lose bladder control. Another doctor visit. The diagnosis? Stress.

Trauma aside, the physical rigors of not enough money are grueling for your body. You work long, hard hours, then come home to care for your family, help with homework, and stretch the dollars. Deal with bill collectors and lawyers. You can't sleep. You're exhausted and this is the moment in your life when your brilliant mind and resourcefulness are needed—alert and strong—more than ever. The poor don't need less food, less nutrition. They need more!

When it was all over... When we were in our new home, in a different county where folks accepted large families in rentals... When, about a year later, a new, higher-paying job finally came along... That's when I stopped looking at prices in the grocery store. It was the most liberating, exhilarating, euphoric experience. I'd come home with my bounty and thank God with a gratitude that's hard to describe. A deep, resounding song of gratefulness in my heart.

And I began to give again, as I had in the past. And give regularly. I gave to non-profits that I vetted and trusted, and to homeless shelters and the homeless. That felt so wonderful—a richness far beyond possessions—comes from the joy of giving, especially when you know the preciousness of every penny to those who need it.

So here I am, after the SNAP Challenge, which was completely voluntary. But it's different now. There was no trauma. It was simply a visit. I didn't have to live there. And now I have a different response. I'm happy to go to the store and not count the pennies, but I'm careful about what I buy. I don't want to buy anything we won't eat. I don't want to waste a morsel. I want to be ever-mindful and respectful of the value of the food I buy. I will eat more of the meat on my chickens. I'll eat more of the core of my apples. I'll drink black coffee—something I never would have considered before milk and sugar added 35¢ to my coffee in the SNAP Challenge.

And when I put extras on my food—toppings like cranberries on my salad and sour cream on my taco—I'll be grateful, deeply grateful, that I can afford such luxuries. And I'll keep giving, now more than ever, to those who can't.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

SNAP Challenge – Cotton Swabs & Poetry

On day five of my SNAP Challenge, I think about what is lost when you can't afford to eat. Luxuries like toppings: nuts, cranberries, or sour cream. Sauces and dressings. Pickles and olives. The extras are what make the meal a delight – more than just nutrition.  This week I have experimented with toppings. I had a salad yesterday. the sunflower seeds cost more than the kale the salad was made of, but boy did I enjoy them. 
Today I had a small bowl of organic brown rice for lunch - moistened with a little leftover broth. That ounce of rice was an 18¢ meal, washed down with a glass of tap water. I enjoyed every bite, but I would have enjoyed it a wee bit more with some almonds and raisins, maybe a little onion or fresh tomato chopped in there. The extras make the meal.  But when you're hungry, and you only have $4.50 to spend on all of your food for a day, the extras become less important.
I've heard it said that there can be no "extras" like poetry or art when basic needs are not met.  And I've always accepted that unquestioningly. it made sense.  But I now know it's not true. When you're fighting for your life, poetry, art, music, whatever your creative outlet, might well be the wings that carry you through tragedy with your sanity intact. 
When my life was at its darkest, in spite of all of the demands on me, I took Mother's Day off for myself and painted all day long. I made one painting, sketch to finish, on that one day. I knew that if I didn't finish it then, there would be no moment to set my paints up another day. Taking Mother's Day felt like robbing Fort Knox. It was radical. So radical, in fact, that I felt the need to warn my family, for weeks ahead of time, that they would not have me that one day. They'd be on their own. I was going to be selfish for one day.  They were great about it, and gladly gave me my space to create. From the moment I awoke to the moment I drifted off, that day was miraculous. No burden of the world on my shoulders, for just one day.
When you are the mother of six young children and your husband is suffering from major clinical depression, when you work all day and do all of the cooking and housework every evening, when you have the only job in the family and don't bring home enough money to hold onto your house, every day is actually, accurately, a fight for survival.  
But there are moments when you can't contain a poem bursting out of you. You have to put down the baby and pick up a pencil. You scurry out of the shower, dripping wet, to capture a phrase. You crawl into a chair under a lamp at 3 a.m. shivering because the words can't wait until morning.  If tragic, painful periods in life can't make a poet write, nothing can. 
The catharsis is incredible. A breath of life comes into you—a hope, a light, a joy—that you are more than a castaway, financially helpless, full of self-doubt. You have a heart and a dream and a story to tell.  And the birth of that poem, rising from the very material your pain is made of, momentarily shuts out your sorrow and brokenness,  and anchors you to who you really are, even if only temporarily.  
The artist in me, the poet in me, was not dead, only biding her time.  Besides those momentary bursts, she stayed in the background, all her dreams, visions and words hovering, swirling, forming future work that would be far more insightful and commanding than anything possible before this journey.
So poetry came, here and there throughout my darkest hours.  Short and to the point or elaborate and sprawling. It knew when it was needed.  
And eventually the art, more than just on mother's day, began to flow as well.  As my tides began to turn, paintings could be found all along my shores.  The hurricane was over and these treasures appeared from my depths: gifts for the dawn of a new day.
When you don't have money for food, you can still write a poem. You can't clean your ear with a cotton swab, or do many things that most people take for granted. But if I had to choose between poetry and cotton swabs, I'd always choose poetry.  If I had to choose between painting and eating steak—you guessed it—I'd choose to paint.
I'll leave you with one of the poems I wrote while deep in the belly of the beast:
The Crucible of Eviction
I am in the crucible alone
and with my six children
alone and with my husband
and with my unborn poems
that swim around me naked of words
as I am naked of any explanation.

I am in the crucible of eviction
approach me and you’ll feel the heat.
I am liquid gold
on trial by fire
in the crucible that burns away fantasies.
It is the fire-brand of reality.

I am in the crucible now
but let me visit you again when I am not
when my poems will no longer be naked and silent
but eloquently robed with words

words that celebrate frivolous things
like love...
and dreams.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

SNAP Challenge - The Gift

SNAP Challenge Day 4. I'm writing this at about 9 pm. I'm hungry, like I have been every night, but it will pass. 
I had a nice kale salad for lunch today. The kale was inexpensive so I loaded 3 ounces of it into my salad bowl - that's 24¢ for a lot of kale, not organic. I added an egg, 33¢. That brought me up to just 57¢. From then on I weighed everything as I added it so I knew exactly how much I could have and ended up with an ounce of healthy, sprouted sunflower seeds, a few cranberries, 4 pecans and a smudge of dressing for a grand total of exactly $1.50, the allotment for one meal on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).
When 3 p.m. rolled around, it had been a little less than three hours since lunch and I was pretty hungry.  I looked in my desk and saw that I had a dark Peruvian chocolate bar from the health food store. Man, did I want a bite!  So I broke off a piece—it was about an inch square—and ran down to the kitchen to weigh it.  It was an expensive chocolate bar so I knew there'd be a price to pay.  My bite weighed a quarter of an ounce and cost 33¢. Wow! That's nearly a third of a meal. But I ate it anyway. Boy was it yummy. My first desert in 4 days.
Breakfast had been an organic nectarine cut up in organic milk for $1.58, lunch was $1.50 and my organic chocolate snack was 33¢. That left me with $1.19 for dinner. Sheesh. Rough. I cooked a nice meal of rice and beans with tilapia and tomato.  My serving of tilapia was 3 oz - that's 75¢. A small piece. But 1/3 of the can of organic black beans was more filling, and that was 33¢. The small amount of rice and the 1/3 ounce of fresh organic tomato brought me up to a total of $1.27. I was 8¢ over my limit for the day.
Several friends have questioned my food choices this week. It's strange to try to eat organic food on a poor person's budget.  Yes, of course I could just go fill a shopping cart with ramen noodles and the cheapest bread and pasta I can find. That would certainly fill me up and I could eat all week within budget.  But I just can't do that. I've got an inflammatory disease called hepatic sarcoidosis, and one of the symptoms is gluten intolerance. It gives me such severe fatigue that I can't function. I wouldn't be able to work.  And I'm a cancer survivor as well.  Who knows the role that insecticides and genetically modified foods have played in these life-threatening conditions?  I can't afford to be sick far more than I can't afford to eat good food.  So I choose to eat less and eat the best food for my body. I have energy. I enjoyed a long work day, cooked dinner, and now I sit here writing these words tonight. I could never do these things without a healthy diet. I know because I remember how little strength I had before I changed it. 
Others have said they were worried about me, and can't I just eat normally and pretend to take the SNAP Challenge. I appreciate their love and care for me, but I'm really fine.  I'm not suffering. I might break out in hives from all this math (just kidding), but I'm really fine.
The truth is that because of what I've been through, I'm a pretty tough cookie now. I want to be able to encourage others going through tough times, even simply by the gesture of taking on this Challenge. I want to let them know that their rough times can be a gift, not a curse.  Let me explain my own experience and why I say this.
It was rough not knowing how long my financial nightmare would last. Everyone was saying, "It'll work out, it always does."  But I knew it wasn't true. Of course it doesn't always work out. Look around. There are too many homeless families, too many struggling to get by, too many with no access to medical care. It does not always work out. But each day I tried to do everything possible to change our circumstances.
When I think about my very worst moment, when every attempt had failed so many times in a row that hope seemed like the cruelest joke, mocking me, I am still so grateful for that day. I got to that desperate place after one more thing had failed so many times that I finally got it. I wasn't going to fix this. Of course I'd keep working harder than I'd ever worked in my life—but that wasn't enough. I was going to keep smiling and laughing with the kids and celebrating life with the same optimism I'd always had—but that wasn't enough.  I was going to knock on doors, make phone calls, hunt down my congresswoman and beg for information, assistance, guidance... but it would not be enough.  
At the end of the end of the end of myself, I found that I was 100% at the mercy of forces I could not influence. It took about a year for that utter helplessness to come about for me, a very self-assured, self-confident, self-reliant person. But when it finally came, things finally began to change. Being helpless is not being hopeless. Hope may have seemed futile, but I remained hopeful all along. Helplessness is vulnerability. It's humility. It's surrender. When I came to the end of my self—when weeks turned to months and I had not thought I could bear even another day—finally a door opened slightly and little miracles began to happen, and one step at a time I left tragedy behind. I had sold everything possession of worth and lost my house, but the freedom that loss gave me is priceless, even today. I'm not afraid of anything. I'm not afraid of losing my home or my possessions... Nothing can own you when you've lost everything.
The world's pity doesn't make you a better person or equip you to climb mountains. Taking in, fully experiencing, whatever pain you're in, teaches deep lessons you can't learn from any book, blog, or therapist.  You come to the bottom of the core of you and meet yourself, genuinely, for the first time in that fire of utter vulnerability and helplessness. You are alone there, truly. More alone that at any other time in your life. Those that love you can't go through that fire with you. Their love may give you some form of comfort, but compared to the intensity of that abyss, even their love is not capable of changing your experience. You must experience that helplessness alone.
If I could tell a woman like myself just one thing, a mother with a flock of kids at her feet and no money to care for them, I would tell her this: endure today's nightmare. Embrace each moment of this passage through darkness. Let it melt you down and roll you flat. When it's all behind you, you will be fearless and limitless—and I want to know that amazing woman you'll become.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Taking the SNAP Challenge—Motivation

This week I'm taking the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge. I'll be attempting to eat on the amount allotted per person per day in the SNAP program: $4.50.  That's $1.50 per meal. Quite a challenge. 
The choice to take the SNAP Challenge was easy for me. I liked the idea of seeing what it would be like to eat on such a restricted budget, now that I have health issues and need a gluten-free, organic diet. Can it be done?
The challenge of figuring out what every meal costs is difficult for me. I had forgotten what it was like to watch every bite of food, make sure nothing is wasted. To stand in the grocery store counting—and stretching—my dollars. 
About 20 years ago I was food insecure. My family faced the challenge of hunger. The SNAP Challenge brings back visceral memories of rough days in 1991 when we had no income and eight of us to feed. No unemployment because my husband had been self-employed before he lost his cabinetmaking shop.  The tale of a livelihood going down the drain is always a painful, complex story. It's never cut and dry. There's no one to blame. No one to rage against.  You're there, empty hands that used to be filled with plenty, dumbfounded that your wits, your resourcefulness, your track record, your optimism are all powerless against this giant monster called CIRCUMSTANCE that you could not have predicted and cannot overcome.

I remember a few small tears rolling quietly down my cheek as I stood in the middle of the grocery store one day, surrounded by shopping carts that whisked by me filled with plenty, while I had barely a few scraps in my cart and $40.00 to feed 8 people for a week. I remember the night my daughter asked for more to eat before she went to bed, and I had to tell her the hunger pains would pass in a few minutes and gave her a glass of water.  
That was the only day my kids actually went to bed hungry. Help came to us in the angelic form of a neighbor I had never met before. She invited me into her house and told me she knew what was going on—though I don't know how she did. She was in charge of a food pantry for her church and would start bringing me a box every week until we were back on our feet. She asked what my kids liked to eat and dropped off a big box that Saturday. I heard the doorbell ring and excitedly ushered the box into the house to peak through our treasures. Tuna. Spaghetti sauce. Pasta. Macaroni and cheese. Cans of vegetables. Peanut butter. Bread. And the biggest relief: formula and diapers. 

The relief and joy we felt came only halfway from the bounty we desperately needed. The other half came from the love we felt through those precious gifts.  Between that generosity and WIC (Women Infants and Children) coupons for milk, cheese, cereal and a few other things, kids weren't going to bed hungry.  I finally got a job, but we were evicted anyway, lost our house and left the neighborhood.  But I'll never forget the privilege of learning these priceless lessons for me and my children:
  1. Misfortune can happen to anyone.
  2. Never judge the poor. They are very often not responsible for the condition they find themselves in.
  3. Always be generous and always be kind, the kindness is as important as the generosity.
Taking the SNAP Challenge this week reminds me of those rough times. Those times are behind me now, but they're very present for millions of our struggling neighbors who could really use some love and generosity.  
I'm going to post my experiences every day of this SNAP Challenge week, though I'm a few days into it already. I deeply appreciate your time reading these posts, sharing this journey with me, and considering your neighbors across the street or across the land, that need a little help for a while, so they can get back on their feet.
Feeding America first brought the Challenge to my attention, and provides an easy way to get involved and support hunger relief with a letter to Congress, if you're interested. Plus learn more about the Challenge here.

Stay tuned for daily updates this week as I share my food choices, my results at keeping costs down, and this difficult challenge of eating healthy food on an unhealthy budget.