Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Challenge

It is not the rich man you should properly call happy, but him who knows how to use with wisdom the blessings of the gods, to endure hard poverty, and who fears dishonor worse than death, and is not afraid to die for cherished friends or fatherland.

Horace (65 BC - 8 BC), Odes

Today was the beginning of a new challenge for me and my family. We decided to be a part of the “Food Stamp Challenge.” We've agreed to subsist on the budget of an average food-stamp recipient: $21 per week, or approximately $1 per meal per day. For my wife, Carla, and 17 year old daughter, Hadiya, this would mean we had a grand total of $63 to spend on all of our family’s food needs for the next week.

Locally, the challenge is an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Second Harvest Food Bank. It is designed to create public awareness about poverty in our community and to urge people to contact our senators to support the Farm Bill before Congress.

One of the provisions of the Farm Bill is to increase the weekly amount from its current $21 allotment for food stamp recipients. Food-stamp benefits have not been adjusted for inflation in more than a decade. There are dozens of community leaders that have agreed to join in this effort.

In Today’s Tennessean, there are some important articles written by some of these leaders like Avi Poster of the Jewish Federation of Nashville, Jaynee Day, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, and Rev. Sonnye Dixon of Hobson United Methodist Church.

The number of Tennesseans living in poverty is staggering. One out of every five children in Tennessee under age 12 is hungry, according to a report from Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. There are 258,456 who live in poverty in the 46 counties Second Harvest serves in Middle and West Tennessee.

The sad reality is that far too many children go to school and are trying to learn without necessary food. The challenge to break out of a life of poverty through education becomes even more difficult when the child is hungry. I certainly know how my concentration and disposition are affected when I haven’t eaten properly.

When we first agreed to join in the challenge, it was an interesting “idea” to talk about with friends. We talked about blowing our budget in the first few days, how the classmates at Hadiya’s school already teased her about her “sad” lunches,” how I would arrange for others to take me out to lunch to help my budget, and how our food budget might finally be under control for one week. There was plenty of banter and light talk about the idea.

That all changed on Sunday night when we started planning our meals for the week. That was the first reality check. We had to plan for the entire week. There would be no running back to the store multiple times a week. People living in poverty do not have the luxury of running all over town to different stores and on multiple occasions because of the cost of gas.

Considering our tight budget, we began listing what we wanted to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were some “regular” items that never had a chance – ice cream, soft drinks and snack chips, for example. Then, my wife was outvoted when it came to her $8 organic coffee. She finally agreed to compromise and drink “other” coffee at half the cost.

The “Challenge” became real for us as a family when one family member demanded her own $21 rather than shopping and eating as a family on $63.

We went shopping last night with our list of items and a strategy to keep $10 of the $63 in “reserve.” We carefully compared prices of various brands and put items back on shelves as we saw more critical needs.

We forlornly looked at other “favorites” as we passed them by. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to shop with small children as our basket was pretty boring. It had only the bare necessities, with the exception of my wife’s coffee. (I should note that I am a serious coffee drinker, drinking 4-5 cups a day from my coffee pot in my office. However, to be fair, I will be deprived of this luxury because I cannot afford to purchase coffee to brew a pot of coffee in my office. Staff should be warned when the headaches start.)

We came away spending $56.23 with $6.77 in “reserve” for later in the week. (I still need to buy mayonnaise and popcorn). Other than two cans of tuna, the only meat in our shopping cart was a small package of turkey for Hadiya’s lunches.

It also became real when we felt the pain of scanning the items through the self-service checkout, seeing the total grow, and then paying cash. I think paying cash just reinforced the “pain” of a limited budget you don’t feel when using a debit card, credit card, or a check. At one point, I made a mistake entering the code for the tomatoes. If we hadn’t caught the mistake, we would have spent $1.13 more than we should have.

We walked out of the store with a significant lasting impression. This takes hard work, planning and more knowledge than we currently have about eating economically without sacrificing nutrition. It created additional stress for us as a family. We didn’t go skipping merrily out of the store. We knew that we would be facing even more stress as the food ran out when we needed more items but no more money.

We will be able to make it for one week. But, that shopping trip alone gave us a better understanding of what people in poverty go through week after week.

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