$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.