Monday, January 19, 2009

$1.75 Per Meal

$1.75 per meal. That's how much a family of four qualifying for food stamps receives. Before today I knew it wasn't much, but I had no idea it was that little. $1.75 doesn't even buy a McDonald's Happy Meal, and in some stores barely a soft drink. But let me back up a few days and tell you how I got to this place.

I have always felt a little guilty about viewing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as simply a day off. (In fact, it really isn't a day off for me in the technical sense, but that's another story). Anticipating that the kids would be out of school and wanting to push for more than a day to sleep in, I decided that I wanted to off our family a different way to spend at least part of the day.

So I went to the office this morning as I normally would and put in some time and then by late morning was heading home to pick up two of my kids who wanted to observe MLK Day in a socially just way. I took two groups of kids but shared with the same story on the way to the grocery store.

I reminded them that today Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been eighty years old, had he not been assassinated more than forty years ago. I told them a bit about what he stood for, and that in particular he was concerned with the poor and the dispossessed (although I didn't use the latter word in my descriptions with them). Then I told them about "food stamps." I pulled out the government brochure I took from the internet earlier today, and together we looked at the chart. By the time we were done figuring with the calculator, we discovered that a family of four who eats twenty-meals a week for four weeks a month has $1.75 to spend per meal per person if they rely solely upon government assistance. At first they didn't really understand why that was such a big deal until I asked them how much a typical meal at a fast food restaurant is. Or when I reminded them that when they are gone for an evening meal on a school sporting event we (their parents) usually send them a minimum of $7 to cover their single meal.

Arriving at the grocery store, we determined that we would purchase a week's worth of groceries for an individual ($36.75) and then bring the results to our local food shelf. I handled the calculations as we selected food items and offered suggestions on the way. "Remember," I said, "we want food that is nutritious, filling and inexpensive."

We chose beans (both canned and dried), dried pasta, jarred pasta sauce, instant oatmeal, cereal (on sale for less than $2 a box), and a variety of canned items with high protein possibilities. It didn't take long to reach our pre-assigned dollar limit, and our cart looked rather empty, compared to our regular grocery shopping expeditions which usually require (and occasionally two) full carts for a week's food for our at-home family of eleven.

Because I wanted both to acknowledge their budding attempts at social justice, as well to prove an additional point, I took them out to lunch, too. The first group went to a sub sandwich place where their sandwiches alone were $5 (and they were on sale). The second group went to a Mexican restaurant, where each of our meals, with drinks, tax and tip, were nearly $10 per person. As we scanned the menu I asked them to find options for $1.75. It didn't take long for them to recognize there were no such options. And again I reminded them that those who live at the edges of society don't have many of the same choices so many of us think nothing about.

I don't know how long our expedition today will stick with my kids, but I intend to do similar things in the months ahead as a reminder to my children at how fortunate they are (even though I will keep the moralizing language to myself in hopes that they "get it" with the education piece I bring along with the process). Without exception, each of our twelve children in their earliest years subsisted with birth families at the economic fringes of society. I hope the experience in living in our family will provide them the opportunity of seeing something different.

And, more importantly, that they will one day find selfless ways to give back to the world, as well.


Hopewell said...

That was an excellent lesson. I remember in 6th grade my all-white middle class, suburban VBS class were shocked to such realities by trips [this was in '73] to a local migrant camp and to a street shelter [I don't think they called it then] and to a food pantry. Many parents complained and the program was not repeated. My parents fully supported it--I'm thankful. My kids, coming from abandonment in Ukraine, understand street violence, hunger etc, but the memory is dimming. I may "borrow" this lesson next year. Thank you for telling this.

Life in a tiki hut said...


I know that you are a pastor and since you have found out about the all too stark reality for the worlds hungry and poor. As a Pastor, did your congreation participate with Bread for the World's Offering of Letters? Full disclosure i work for them but we're a collective christian voice urging our nations lawmakers to end hunger here and abroad. I would love to connect you to your regional organizer if you're interested in participating in such an event.

Other Mother said...

Great Idea. Great Dad!
Well done, Sir.

Amelia said...

I have to point out that part of the problem with using food stamps to meet the needs of the hungry is that so many cannot cook or lack the facilities and equipment or lack access to discounted, bulk foods. The food stamps allotment of $1.75 per meal per person actually exceeds my family food budget and we eat very well. For our family of 8, that comes to over $1200 a month. Have you considered plowing up a good piece of your church lawn and planting it with veggies for the food bank this summer? Or teaching classes on stretching food dollars and cooking nutritious meals in the church kitchen- and providing transportation to the classes for those who need it? Saving all sorts of containers to help people do some container gardening? Food stamps will pay for fruit and veggie seeds if they are bought where food is sold.

Social Justice is not just the realm of the government- it is the personal work of every Christian. I think your lesson was a great start and I hope you take it much, much farther.

Bart said...

Agreed that social justice is not just (or maybe even primarily) the realm of government services. Unfortunately too many people of faith have abdicated any kind of concern for those at the margins of life, believing (erroneously) that's why "we pay taxes." Even beyond the financial piece, it is my earnest contention that God intends person-to-person connection ... all of us fare better when we remember those who are not like "us." As far as plowing up the church ground, we unfortunately have virtually no green space ... we are packed and getting more packed in our relatively small facility and parking lot. Great ideas, though!

Paula said...

Hey Bart, you can plant container gardens that will not only feed folks, but add some wonderful color to your parking lot. It really doesn't take much room at all to grow food if you plant the right things. My little 4x6 raised bed produced over 50 lbs of lettuce in just two short months and would have produced more had I reseeded later in the summer. Also, consider planting a few full sized fruit trees. They will take time to grow, but I know a lady who contributed 500 lbs of apples to the local food shelf last year from just a few trees.

I too have to let you know that our food budget is way under the $1.75/meal per person. It all depends on how much cooking from scratch you are willing to do.(or know how to do.) Oats, farina, rice, and pasta are cheap and a good source of carbs. Fresh fruits and veggies can be cheap if you buy what's in season. Proteins are expensive unless you cook beans and eggs. Lentils and barely are cheap and nutrient rich foods. I think cooking classes would be an excellent idea. Too many people today can't cook and rely on the expensive packaged items in the grocery store.