Earlier this month, I joined many in the Jewish community in St. Louis and across the country in a Food Stamp Challenge. The Challenge was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Mazon and the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements to raise awareness for the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and to keep the program from falling prey to severe budget cuts. We limited all the food we ate to $31.50 per person, per week — the average food stamp allotment — to call attention to the challenges faced each meal, each day, by 46 million of our neighbors, many of them children.
Those who qualify for SNAP make less than the federal poverty level and have less than $2,000 in assets. Our challenge was to try to make healthy food choices on the same amount given to them. For many, these food stamps are a bridge to a better life, a transitional program that allows them to finish school and get a job. SNAP is a lifesaving program that keeps millions of our poorest citizens from hunger and despair.
The experience began with a shopping trip to a supermarket where you have to put a quarter in a slot to get a cart and bring your own bags. It was tempting on this budget to buy the six cans of green beans for the same price of two servings of the fresh beans and the high fructose corn syrup corn pops that are cheaper — because of farm subsidies — than that healthy bunch of broccoli. With $31.50 per person, there is no wiggle room for comfort food or variety if you want to eat healthy. It takes hours of preparation and planning to plan and prepare balanced meals. If you want meat or treats, you go without the staples many of us take for granted. We wondered how kids on food stamps have the energy for sports and clear thinking in school and how those with serious medical conditions can maintain their health.
A single mother who raised her children on food stamps told me that you learn to wash the salt off of the canned vegetables, but the high sodium and the sugar and corn syrup in the inexpensive processed foods make it hard to teach kids healthy eating. They get a taste for the salt and the syrup. You don’t want them to be hungry, so you buy the things you know will fill their stomachs. But food stamps allowed this mother to go back to school, get a job, and climb out of poverty, despite many challenges. Living in a “food desert” with only fast food and high-priced “convenience” stores made it difficult for her to shop for affordable, healthy food.
Listening to the stories of people who have benefitted from SNAP as we struggled ourselves helped us to hear the call of our own food pantries to make sure that there are fresh and healthy options available. And, as our friends at the Jewish Food Pantry tell us, there are many in our own Jewish community who depend on anti-hunger programs. SNAP is also a life-saving front line program after disasters like tornadoes and storms.
We have also learned that the cut-off for qualifying for SNAP assistance is not on a sliding scale. A small raise can put families over the income limits, though their need is still great. This limits the incentive to work more and keeps people on the program longer than they need to be.
Congress will continue to debate our federal budget for this year with implications for years to come. Cuts to SNAP and other federal anti-hunger programs would be devastating for the millions of the food insecure struggling with hunger, and would have long term costs far greater than any short term savings.
We are one of the richest nations in the world and we throw away enough food to feed many who are suffering right here in our own community. When children go to bed hungry, we are called to do better. The prophet Isaiah tells us that when we offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy our famished neighbors, our light will shine in the darkness. The story of Joseph teaches us that feeding the hungry can avert war and Leviticus teaches that we cannot stand idly by the suffering of others.
May we hear the call of our tradition to alleviate hunger as we continue working to repair this broken part of our world with education, advocacy and generosity.