“Mom, I’m hungry. Can I have your grapes?”
“Sure,” I replied—even though I’d been counting on that handful of grapes to carry me through the next few hours until dinner. It was Day 6 of my community’s Food Stamp Challenge, for which I’d committed to limit my food spending to the equivalent of “food stamp” benefits, $31.50 per person, for one week—and I was hungry. But I didn’t burden my nine-year old son with those details; I just handed him the grapes.
In my life, I’ve been very fortunate. I was born to college-educated white people in the U.S. That’s about as good as it gets, odds-wise, in terms of my chances for a prosperous life. I’ve never had to rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” in order to feed myself or my family. It’s true that when I was young, we didn’t have much money—but we had enough to make ends meet and put food on the table, even if it was just puffed rice cereal for breakfast, or lentils and rice for dinner.
I won’t begin to pretend that my one, optional, week of eating both more simply and less gave me an actual experience of hunger or want. Some people in my community questioned our participation in the Food Stamp Challenge exercise, accusing us of “playing at being poor.” I am sensitive to that charge. As with so many other endeavors, though, I think the value of this exercise is largely found in our intention—and in the action that hopefully emerges as a result of learning.
For those of us in the U.S. that have never experienced real poverty or hunger, that daily reality for millions of fellow-citizens—and billions of people around the world—can be completely invisible. We leave our single-family homes in the morning and drive to an office. If we go out to eat for lunch now and then, it won’t break the bank. We drive home in the evening and stop at any grocery store along the way to pick up most anything we need or want, without giving much thought to cost. We eat as much as we want and have dessert, and too often, let fresh produce and leftovers go to waste.
We’re encouraged by popular culture and all-pervasive advertising to consume and shop more, more, more—rather than to give, or sacrifice, or make do with less. We take so much for granted. It’s outrageous, really, that so few have so much—and so many have so little. I don’t think we’re supposed to live this way.
In the Torah, we are told again and again to care for the widow and the orphan—those most vulnerable members of society—and not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We are commanded to leave the corners of our fields for the needy to glean, to give charity (tzedakah) to the poor, and to forgive debts every seventh year. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!”—“Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deut. 16:20)
During our Food Stamp Challenge, my community began a conversation about hunger and poverty and justice. The conversation will continue; during the week after Thanksgiving, our rabbi is convening a “task force” to help determine next steps. I do not know yet what the outcome will be, but I do know that in order for our experience to have real value and not just have been a week-long adventure for the privileged to “play at being poor,” it is important that we act.
The good news is, there are lots of ways to do that. First, we should probably all give more to local and global charities that help feed the hungry. But our tradition demands, too, that we pursue justice—that we strive to create a more equitable community for all people, one in which there is less need for charity because fewer people are poor and hungry to begin with.
To that end, we can participate in and advocate for programs and policies that would help create a more just and equitable community. Some possibilities include:
- Advocating for passage of a just and environmentally sustainable Farm Bill.
- Supporting or planting community gardens, especially in urban areas and food deserts, to help provide people with access to fresh, local, and healthy food.
- In Texas, participating in the Summer Food Service Program to help ensure that children who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals during the school year have access to food during the summer, when school is not in session.
- Working for policies that cut some of the regulatory “red tape” and make it easier for people to produce local food.
Our intention in participating in the Challenge was to open ourselves to the reality of poverty and hunger in our midst. To at least a small degree, we’ve done that—but it is what we do with that learning that will really matter.
This is my second piece about the Food Stamp Challenge. Here’s my first post, in which I somewhat reluctantly decide to participate.
Photo by Liesl via Flickr Creative Commons.