"My kids ask what's to eat, and all I have to give them is yet another can of spinach." The mother telling me this was one of several Texans who called our office last October, after we sent out word that some reporters were looking for people affected by a state food stamp crisis.
With the recession leaving record numbers of Texans needing help and the state having too few workers to process applications, Texas last year fell far behind in getting food to qualified families. Today the situation is much better, but last October, Gracie, the mom who told me about the spinach, had waited 64 days so far. (Applications for the neediest families are supposed to be processed within 24 hours, and all applications within 30 days.) She had one of those could-happen-to-anyone stories: within a couple of months, she lost her husband, and soon after her savings. She had been getting by until an uninsured driver hit her car. The repairs took what was left of her financial cushion. While awaiting word on her application for the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for food stamps), Gracie and her children went without electricity and other utilities sometimes just to afford food.
Like several others that week who called to share their stories, she said something like, "I have worked my whole life. I work now. I pay my taxes. It kills me to go into that office and have to ask for help. But I do it for my children, and we're going to get through this." After writing letters, making calls, and paying visits, she finally marched into an eligibility office on Day 64 and refused to leave, until staff finally processed her family's application.
This week I am trying out what Gracie fought so hard for: the right to eat on a food stamps budget. It is part of the Texas Food Bank Network's Food Stamp Challenge. The Challenge asks volunteers to try eating for three days this week on the current individual SNAP budget of $4.50 per day--then try for two more days on a daily food budget of just $3.70. That price tag represents the amount most recipients would have to spend if Congress enacts its proposed cuts to the food stamp budget. Participants in the challenge are asked not to accept any free food or use any food already in their house, including spices, until the Challenge is over.
With only the grocery shopping and Day 1 behind me, I can say the name "Challenge" is fitting. Saturday, with a budget for myself of just $20.90, calculator in hand and husband on child-care duty, I slowly puzzled my way through the grocery aisles. Cheese went into the cart, then came back out to allow me to afford eggs. Eggs seemed more practical, and I thought I could use some to make zucchini bread. But then even the smallest flour and sugar took me over budget, once I had added in the price of rice and pasta.
As complicated as the choices seemed, how much tougher would that shopping have been had my preschooler accompanied me, or if I were pressed for time in order to catch a bus or squeeze in a trip to the laundromat or make my way over to the utility company to talk about getting the lights turned back on. . .
It's easy to forget that families who play by the rules as most of us do often face a whole different set of circumstances. Luck runs out. Going to work every day fails to guarantee enough money for everything children need. Our culture operates on a dishonest assumption sometimes that food stamps go to the indolent, when in reality by and large they go to children and seniors--the people in our society for whom "hey, get a job" will never apply.
So thank you to the folks behind the Challenge, and especially our member the Capital Area Food Bank where I learned about it, for an already eye-opening experience. More to come in the days ahead.