Friday, November 2, 2007

The Real Challenge

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

On Monday, Oct. 29, 2007, my family and I completed our seven day “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 the three of us, that meant we had a grand total of $63 to spend on all of our family’s food needs for the next week. As I described in a previous entry, community leaders were doing this as part of an effort designed to create public awareness about poverty and to urge people to contact their senators to support the Farm Bill before Congress.
We did it.

And now I have to ask myself “What did we really do?” Well, we learned something.

We learned a great deal about how precious money for food was to all of us. As a family instead of a single person, there was an element of accountability. You had to answer to the rest of the family if you spent any cash.

When we had less than $5 left during the last few days, we all knew we had to account for every penny spent. No one could spend any money unless it was absolutely essential to meals for all of us.

This meant that I could not get that cup of coffee, order of french fries, cheap hamburger, diet coke, candy bar, or bag of popcorn or chips. Buying those items would be a selfish act. These were luxuries, not “essentials.”

I learned a whole new definition of what qualified as a luxury.

We learned to make a few changes. For example, we drank tap water. We diluted the evaporated milk for our coffee. Coffee grounds and filters were used more than once. I popped popcorn on the stove almost every night as a treat. Meat was not part of any of our dinners.
I shopped at the bread outlet store. I took my time looking at various breads, squeezing them a bit, and checking prices. I finally purchased a very nice, health loaf of whole wheat bread for a dollar.

I brought home my find and displayed it like a trophy. I felt like a “big game” hunter that had brought in a feast for the family.

My daughter shouted “Good job, Dad!” because she knew that she would have some nice bread for PB&J sandwiches in the days to come. I immediately thought I should have purchased two loaves. It turns out I was right.

I should make it clear that I am so notoriously “cheap.” I look for bargains that make my daughters shake their heads. For example, my gas station has a special that any size drink is only $.99. Well, for a Housepian, this means this is a soft drink version of an “all you can eat buffet” and I get the biggest drink, even if I can’t finish it.

But, it gets better (and more embarrassing for my family). You can get any “refill” for $.79. So, what do I do? I take back my plastic cup for the $.79 refills. Why pay the extra $.20 and deny myself the joy of that bargain?

During the challenge, however, there were no soft drinks at any price. I really didn’t need it when that money could get us four more bananas on Saturday.

We also learned that eating together was an important event. My daughter and I remarked how good the food tasted. It seemed that the challenge made her mother a better cook. But, we quickly discounted that thought and attributed the change to greater hunger by the reviewers.

We learned a great deal about how hard it is, even for just one week, to live on such a tight food budget. But, this challenge had certain limitations. One of the most significant is that, unlike many of our clients, we had resources to handle additional unexpected expenses.
When I had car trouble this past Monday, I could pay for the repairs. Where would the money come from for the people that actually live on this budget? How do they pay for medication or the light bill?

We also knew that we had a “safety net” throughout the week. Despite our commitment to this project, we knew that at any time we could “go over budget” and buy the food we really wanted and “needed.” It was a security blanket that removed the element of anxiety. We never had to face the “What are we going to do?” moment.

Finally, we knew that this would end on the seventh day. The “end” was always in sight and we would be “free” to go back to old habits and spending. Our clients face this challenge, week after week, and hope that life will get better.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Anyone can do this for a week. Donald Trump can do this for a week. But, what did we really do except learn about living on this budget, sharing our experiences, and drawing attention to the Farm Bill?

Reverend Charlie Stroebel of the Room at the Inn was one of the participants in the Food Challenge and wrote “…Imagine what would happen if we only bought enough food for ourselves and designated other food for the hungry among us, and it didn't have the stigma of Food Stamps attached? It's at the heart of 2nd Harvest, food pantries, etc....”

If I really wanted to do something about hunger, pain and sadness, I don’t have to stop Monday at midnight. I could continue to forego the diet cokes and coffees and examine all our food purchases. I could stop spending money on these "luxuries" and using those funds in a more productive manner to help the community like Charlie suggests.

I am going to think about it, because I need to do something tangible that means something to the people that live like this week after week. Giving up an “excess” in exchange for something “essential.”

Like I said, Donald Trump could have done this challenge. He also could make a donation to the 2nd Harvest Food Bank and it would be a drop in the bucket. But, wouldn’t it also mean more to him if he gave up one of his “excesses” to provide some “essentials” for someone? Suppose he gave up some of his hairspray money to a local food bank. Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful step?

So, that is the lasting impression for me. The challenge has not ended, it is just beginning. It has become a challenge for self-examination and action.