My Lenten discipline this year included living on the monthly amount a single adult receives for food assistance - $194 based on the latest information from the US Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Much like people on Survivor really aren't surviving in the wilds, given there's a camera crew, an out-of-site box where they can keep certain supplies, and an on-site medical team, I was not really existing on SNAP. I had a cabinet full of food to begin, and I had the financial resources that extended beyond $194 per month for food.
But I wondered what insights I have missed about hunger in our country.
What did I learn?
I became very aware of the cost of food, even using coupons and scouring ads for the best prices. Can anyone on a budget do that to make her/his food dollar stretch a bit more? Yes. But I have a car and gas money and a job that allows for me to shop at reasonable times to go to stores with the best prices. The stores with the lowest prices often sell out of needed food by Friday afternoon. I could work around that and shop on Wednesdays, when the sale circular came out. Many people cannot. I also became aware that while $194 may sound like a generous amount, it's not. That's about $45 a week, or a smidge over $6 per day. And in case you're wondering, the amount doesn't double for 2 people or triple for 3. It only increases slightly.
I became aware there are questions many of us never ask when we buy food or when we casually think people can get out of poverty simply by living on a budget (as if that will undo the system that helped them get there in the first place). What about the person who is feeding a family on limited income without gas money to go to more than one store? What about the person who lives in a food desert and doesn't have a car and must rely on public transportation? What about the person whose job (or more likely jobs) mean the only time to shop is at odd hours? And what about those who have medical restrictions on their diets? I can't even begin to ask all the questions that rolled through my mind every time I shopped.
I became more aware of the constant emphasis on food in our culture, especially in media. We advertise about food all the time. And we advertise about weight loss all the time. And super skinny people are in all these advertisements. I'm not sure what to make of all this, but America needs intensive therapy about our relationship with food and body image.
I became aware that good food is not cheap, and cheap food is the only thing some people on limited budgets can afford. Food in poorer parts of town is almost always more expensive. The food shaming we do in our country with those who make difficult food choices based solely on the dollars (or lack of them) they have in their pocket is unhelpful. Churches and faith communities would do well to work with local governments on this measure. I was impressed by my local community farmer's markets. I watch local farmers throw in a few extra veggies or negotiate prices for good produce for those with limited budgets on my regular trips to our farmers markets. Good farmers aside, access to healthy food choices by those on fixed incomes is limited.
What surprised me was my anxiety when I shopped. My previous grocery trips were often guided by a list of suggestions and forays into "Oh, this looks interesting."
But when I have a sum certain amount of money in an envelope that had to last for an entire month?
Grocery shopping became anxiety producing. I carefully added the costs of what went in my cart. I planned what I would need for each visit, and planned what I could do without if I'd missed a sale price. Again, while the idea of meal planning and budgeting is good, I get 8 hours of sleep and night and work one job. My health is good. My home is safe. The added stressors poverty brings are not present in my life, but the time to budget and plan took extra time out of my schedule and added some stress. Does a family in poverty have that extra time? Do they need more stressors?
At the end of a few grocery trips, some things went back on the shelf because what was in my cart exceeded my weekly budget. A particularly humbling moment happened one evening when a woman was replacing a box of macaroni and cheese from her cart on the shelf as well. She looked at me and said, "Maybe next month we can afford shells and cheese."
I felt like an interloper in that moment because I was. I could have afforded the shells and cheese. Her reality was different. And yet she extended grace to me. Those who are hungry indeed are often full of grace in ways those of us who are already filled are not.
I sat in my car an wept for a while after that encounter.
My anxiety about food was a self-inflicted discipline. But it was real. So how much more is the anxiety who live among us who struggle with enough to eat? And what do we as people of faith DO to help that anxiety? How do we who have enough respond to those who don't? And does our theology add to anxiety, or does it offer peace?
The language that exists in our national dialogue about poverty casts poverty as a moral failing of the people who are poor (our human explanation) instead of a moral failing of the culture and system in which those of us who are not poor support and sustain (something the Prophets tell us is true...hello Amos). Maybe those of us who haven't felt the anxiety of being food insecure, of being one illness away from eviction, and who aren't working too hard for too little need a framework to reward ourselves for our prosperity - a prosperity that may have as much to do with luck as hard work.
Poverty is not a moral failing anymore than wealth is a moral success. Are there people whose life decisions have created their financial distress? Yes. But I would remind us all there are people whose life decisions have created financial reward for themselves at the financial distress of others.
To see government decisions that strip away help for the poor says much about our collective compassion (or lack of it) for the least of these. To hear our own conversations about people who struggle to survive economically, conversations that contain words of blame and accusation says much about our relationship with the least of these. To hear our disdain for fellow citizens who are poor, the very ones Jesus loves, says much about how well we follow the teachings of our Lord.
This language, this theology, does not offer help or hope. It does not feed the hungry. And it is not in line with the teachings of Christ.
What does help, perhaps, is recognizing hunger is a real thing, and many of us are capable of feeding the hungry. Could you donate 10% of your monthly food budget to a local food bank? Could your church step-up its efforts in responding to hunger? Could you fast for one meal or one day each month, and give the money you would have spent to hunger relief agencies? And not giving what is left over from our tables, but the first fruits of our labors so all can share the meal of life.
But we can't stop there. Hunger is a systemic issue. How are faith communities addressing transportation issues so people can get to places to buy food? How are we confronting wage issues that keep people in poverty? How are we helping create places for food to be available in all neighborhoods in our towns and cities? How are we influencing government budgets that support (or cut) programs like school lunches and food assistance?
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America recently called for a fast and released a joint statement addressing hunger. You can read it here.
Jesus fed those who were hungry, literally and spiritually. Those of us who confess the faith of Jesus do not have an option to allow any person in our communities to go hungry. We are commanded by God and Christ to feed the hungry, to care of the poor, and to heal the world. This commandment is not absolved because we are elected to certain positions, because we choose to wrongly believe the poor get what they deserve, or because following it is inconvenient for us.
Jesus loved. He fed the hungry without inquiring as to what they had done to be hungry. That they were hungry was enough for him to act.
We as Christians must go and do likewise.