It’s not really a SNAP

J.J. Whitney

J.J. Whitney

Thoughts on taking the SNAP Challenge

By J.J. Whitney
Special Contributor

At the 2015 Annual Conference, I issued a SNAP Challenge to our Extended Cabinet, clergy and laity: Learn what it is like for those who are trying to feed their families on a tight budget. Prepare three nutritious meals a day on $5 a day for five days—the amount of benefits allotted to an individual who qualifies for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).

My first stop was the grocery store. I focused on oatmeal, beans and rice, cans of tuna, bread and peanut butter, milk, spaghetti and then a few fruits and vegetables. I wanted to buy more fruit, but I didn’t think I had enough money. I was right, as my receipt rang up as $24.43. On Labor Day, I began my SNAP Challenge week.

Realizations

Here are five realizations I had during the five days of the challenge:

1. Holidays add anxiety. My family and I always enjoy a day off from work and school. We look forward to fun activities, extra sleep and delicious meals. But Labor Day also means that kids who receive their breakfast and lunch at school won’t get it that day, so an already tight budget needs to stretch a little further on school holidays. When most of our culture looks forward to a three-day weekend, a family who struggles may view it as an extra hardship.

2. The abundance of inaccessible food. I found myself on a road trip during one of my SNAP Challenge days, and I had my prepared beans and rice dinner waiting at home. A major traffic jam delayed my planned dinner schedule. And although food was all around me in gas stations and fast food restaurants—with even some healthy options in some of those places—I had already spent my money on buying groceries. I would have to wait until I got home in order to eat. It was a long drive home.

3. Lack of concentration. Because I did not have the funds to buy much fruit, veggies or snacks, I only had money to focus on my three meals a day. Not being able to grab a handful of crackers or an apple in between meals left me unable to focus at times. I found that I was more tired and easily frustrated by day-to-day activities. I can’t imagine how long-term food insecurity affects work performance or overall mental health.

4. Outside the circle. I had to refuse a few invitations to lunch or coffee with folks around the office because I did not have the money to buy those meals (or that coffee!). I began to wonder about people in my work community who feel left out of social situations because they cannot pay. It is easier to say no to an invitation than it is to say you cannot afford to go. Sometimes eating lunch in my office left me feeling isolated from the community.

5. A time to cheat. Speaking of community, pastors have lots of “food engagements” during the course of a week. I’m a campus minister, and all of our programming offers food! During the challenge, I had to refuse all of the goodies that come with the privilege of working at an institution with those resources. As someone who relies on processed snacks to get through the long work day, I found it quite challenging to not give into temptation. I must confess, I cheated twice: during a lunch meeting with three other pastors that had been scheduled for quite a while, and in my role as the chef of our pancake supper for Mid-Youth at First UMC Conway. I didn’t want to “draw attention” to myself during the lunch meeting, and I felt that a meal at church is one that is available to all.

Hunger Logo - FINALIdeas for action

These five realizations inevitably led me to find five ways that our local churches can provide for families:

1. Have a community-wide meal through your church on Monday holidays. It could be an ecumenical gathering or a United Methodist Men’s barbeque. It would be great outreach to your community and a wonderful way to help families who are hungry. Children and youth could invite friends from school. School counselors could put a flier in backpacks that are being sent home over the weekend.

2. Start a food pantry. If you haven’t already begun a food pantry in your church, consider providing staples like tuna, beans and rice, canned veggies, spaghetti and peanut butter. A few of these grocery items can go a long way so families can have money to buy fresh fruits, veggies, milk and nutritious snacks.

3. Grow a garden. Fresh vegetables and fruits can be expensive, and when you are hungry, those are the last items to buy with the grocery budget. If you have a community garden (or better yet, partner with other churches to grow one), you can donate fresh items to your food pantry or a local pantry. And have some of your produce ready to give away at that Monday holiday community meal you are going to have.

4. Host weekly meals. Parents with small children or those who work different hours may not be able to attend night activities at church, so consider offering a skills class or a small group study where you provide lunch. Or, families may need a nightly meal (like a pancake supper) to make it through the week. Providing fellowship meals during the work week might be the kind of community that someone is searching for. Local school counselors can get information out to families about meals provided through your church.

5. Offer cooking classes. One of the best ways to make a food budget stretch is to cook tasty, low-cost food. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that turns to fast food or processed items. That practice has left many in my generation without cooking skills. Studies show that cooking classes go a long way to stabilize food security in a community.

For resources to begin these types of programs, visit http://200kReasons.arumc.org.

Although the SNAP Challenge cannot encapsulate the struggles of many Arkansas families who face hunger, the exercise did make me more aware, and I found myself praying for specific hunger needs throughout the five days. If being prompted to pray is just the start of what this challenge can do, I pray that you will take it up too.

The Rev. Whitney, interim chaplain at Hendrix College, serves as project director for the Arkansas Conference’s “200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger” initiative.