Thirty-nine percent of Lane County residents are eligible for food assistance. Last year, the average food stamp recipient in Oregon received 27 dollars per week. But that’s just a number on a page if you don’t have to feed yourself within its limits. Several local faith communities decided to find out exactly what living within that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) limit for a week would feel like. And so they issued a “SNAP Week Challenge,” beginning last Sunday afternoon.
About two dozen of us met at WinCo to do most of our grocery shopping. Most brought shopping lists. Some had calculators. I honestly felt some nostalgia. To do my planning, I had pulled out my copy of the “I Hate To Cook Book” (copyright 1960), but I barely needed it. The recipes I would be using are still some of my favorites.
I bought enough meat and fish to dress up casseroles bulked with noodles, rice or potatoes. Beans and vegetables filled in the rest, with tortillas for brown-bag situations. Unfortunately for me, I have never developed a taste for peanut butter and jelly.
I grew up on food stamps, so to me this felt less like a challenge than a camp reunion. My family had seven hungry children and one overwhelmed mother. There were few points of stillness in that turning world, but the most reliable one was six o’clock. Dinner was served on the dot, almost every night.
I cooked for 45 minutes on Monday night, and for about half an hour two other nights this week. I’ll be eating leftovers between Thursday and Saturday. The carrots I bought should last for snacking. I’m halfway through my budget-conscious week and I haven’t eaten close to half the food I bought. I’m eating humbly, but healthily. I don’t think I’ll be losing any weight.
Getting enough nutrition within this budget wouldn’t be hard if food was only about calories. But in modern America, it almost never is, for any of us. Food is our marker for all sorts of identity-driven needs. “You are what you eat” has risen from slogan to dogma.
I had a girlfriend once break up with me over casseroles. She couldn’t abide my willingness to allow everything on my plate — and everything in my life — to be mixed together to be enjoyed all at once. As the daughter of a successful East Coast dentist, she had learned to keep all parts separate, never ever allowing any touching between them. We laughed about how our culinary upbringing mirrored our different life strategies, but in the end it was a divide we could not brook.
We use food to mark status, promote sociability, and express values. We use it to provide rewards, comfort and security. I believe one reason that obesity is hitting every class of Americans — regardless of their food budget — is that modern life leaves us needing more comfort than our comfort foods can provide, no matter how much we eat.
A deeper hunger pervades — not to feel full, but to feel fulfilled. When we don’t feel fulfilled, we crave comfort. Comfort, thy name is chocolate.
We’re learning to replace the simple term “hunger” with a more complex concept of “food insecurity.” That’s a subtle but important difference. Long before the body feels any physical effects of calorie deprivation, the mind encounters a host of fears. Am I fitting in? Can I keep this up? Will I have enough tomorrow? Each question produces nervous flutters, felt in the stomach, quieted by food. Fear and insecurity dress up like hunger to get our attention.
I’m well aware that doing this for a week is akin to holding your breath for a minute. Not breathing for a little while is not the same as giving up breathing altogether. Whatever comforts and conveniences I’m giving up this week would feel different if I worried I might never get them back.
I think the better and greater challenge is to feel connected and aware of those around us, some of whom are less fortunate, but are otherwise no different.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.