My sermon regarding my experience with the SNAP Challenge a couple weeks ago…
“Light to Those Who Sit in Darkness”
November 24, 2013
GOSPEL LUKE 1:68-79
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Today’s gospel lesson is the Song of Zechariah. As you may recall, Zechariah was a priest. One day the Angel Gabriel came to him and told him that his aged, childless wife was going to have a baby boy. Zechariah made the itty bitty mistake of asking “How will I know that this is so?” and Gabriel struck him mute until the birth of the baby. (Note to self: if an angel ever gives you a message DO NOT question the veracity of the message. They don’t like that.)
So Zechariah is mute. His wife, Elizabeth indeed becomes pregnant. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary also gets a visit from Gabriel and you know how that turned out. Pregnant Mary comes to visit pregnant Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, leaps for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Then Mary sings a beautiful song beginning with how she is blessed by God but mostly focusing on God’s mercy and justice: God bringing down the powerful and lifting the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty, keeping God’s promises to the descendants of Abraham.
Next, John is born, Zechariah gets his voice back and he sings this song continuing with Mary’s theme of justice, God’s mercy, God’s covenant with the people. In the song he declares John as the prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way for the Lord. The song ends, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I just finished the SNAP Challenge. Sounds fun right? Sounds like Jets vs Sharks in Westside Story. (“here come the Jets…”) Or maybe some competition for elementary students. But… SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps. Presbyterians throughout the country were encouraged to join our national leadership in “choosing for one week to live on the average amount of food stamp support in [our] state. This means spending only the average allowance, per person, on everything that [we] eat, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, seasonings and drinks.”[i] According to the most recent statistics I was able to find, the average per person, per week benefit in the state of Washington was $29.56. But, as you probably know, funding for SNAP was recently cut meaning approximately $2 less per person, per week.
Before I continue I want to be clear: I am not a hero. I am not preaching about my participation in the SNAP Challenge to show everyone how morally superior/devout/dedicated and/or disciplined I am. While I am all those things (just kidding—I am none of those things) the real reason I am preaching about this I because I don’t want my experience to end with me. Part of the SNAP challenge is a commitment to education and advocacy. It’s important to me that the SNAP Challenge have meaning and value beyond my personal experience.
The challenge started last Sunday, November 17. As the day approached, I planned my menu in my head, what I thought I could get by with on $27.56 for the week. Fortunately, since I eat a mostly vegan diet, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to afford meat or dairy. I would have to give up organic produce. What little fruit and vegetables I could afford would not be organic. I had to give up coffee, too (except for the Sunday leftovers in the church refrigerator which I rationed out to last the whole week. Thank goodness there was a full carafe in there…) Let that sink in: I had to give up decent coffee. (On second thought, maybe I am a hero…) And there was a protein problem. I usually have smoothies for breakfast, fortified with protein powder. But protein powder was definitely out. As was pretty much anything else that goes into my smoothies. I wouldn’t be able to afford nuts or quinoa, my other customary sources of protein. At least brown rice has some protein, but not a lot. (Brown rice: $0.99 for a one pound/11 serving bag at Grocery Outlet.)
In my initial shopping excursion the day before the challenge began I was able to buy ingredients for all the meals I’d planned: oatmeal, lentils, beans, rice and a bag of apples. As I shopped, I found myself longing for organic produce. Already I felt deprived and I hadn’t even begun the actual challenge yet. I had $12.60 left over so the next day I went on a second shopping trip and got a bag of oranges, a bag of spinach, and some carrots.
I did my shopping, first Grocery Outlet then Winco for the remaining items. (For those unfamiliar with “Grocery Outlet bargain market”, I’m not sure exactly how to describe it… It’s basically were extras end up, so some of the food may be close to expiration, the produce is slightly past its prime, and you never know exactly what will be available. Winco is a giant big-box grocery store jam-packed with processed food, conventionally grown produce and, the only reason I typically shop there, a big bulk food selection.) But here’s the problem: as I shopped I felt like I was playing a game. And it really bothered me that what is everyday reality for so many, was a game for me. I worried, was my participation in this challenge simply a modern form of “slumming”? Granted, I had not entered into the challenge seeking to be entertained by pretending to be on food stamps, and yet… and yet…
I wondered, what was the purpose? I first signed up to do the SNAP Challenge without really even thinking about it. A link came across Facebook and I thought, “Sure. Why not?” If pressed for my reason, I probably would have come up with something about solidarity with those for whom food stamps—and the recent cuts to food stamps—are everyday reality. But how much solidarity is it really? I mean, is solidarity really solidarity if those with whom you intend to be in solidarity don’t even know it? It’s not like SNAP recipients are getting a notice saying “Meghan Davis is voluntarily living off the equivalent of your benefit this week.” And even if they did, would that really make a difference in their lives? What would their response be? I would think something along the lines of, Whoopdie doo!
As it turns out, I have actually gotten some positive response from people who do receive SNAP benefits and that encourages me that it is a worthwhile endeavor but still… I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that the SNAP challenge is a fruitless exercise to alleviate the guilt of privilege.
I suppose the primary purpose is to raise awareness. But does my awareness really need to be raised? I mean, it’s not like I’ve advocated for the cuts to the benefits. I already support all our social safety nets. I already think we should be doing more, not less to help those in need in our country. I already consider the rates of homelessness, poverty, hunger and malnutrition in this—the wealthiest of countries—to be a shameful scandal. It’s not my awareness that needed to be raised. It’s the members of Congress whose awareness needs to be raised. They should be taking the SNAP Challenge. It’s the 1% whose awareness needs to be raised, particularly those who spend thousands, even millions of dollars in the political realm to fight tooth and nail to make sure they can pay the fewest taxes possible. They, the 1%, the ½%, they are the ones who should be taking the SNAP Challenge. I don’t need to have my awareness raised. And even if I did need my awareness raised, I don’t have the power to make the difference.
But I accepted the challenge, without knowing exactly why. I planned my monotonous menu for the week. Same thing every day: oatmeal for breakfast, lentils and rice for lunch, beans and rice on a bed of spinach for dinner. Maybe a couple carrots. An orange and an apple for snack. And I can tell you, I was hungry. I was hungry all week. I would eat a meal and I was still hungry. I ate every grain of rice out of the dish. Literally. Every grain. And I was still hungry. I lost 4.5 pounds. (I’m not sure I recommend this as a diet—too low calorie, too low protein and unsustainable—and who wants to eat the exact same thing every day? Who wants to live off beans and rice?) Actually, I was only hungry until Friday night. I still had $5.13 left to spend so I went to Winco and bought some quinoa in bulk—I was out of rice and quinoa is a higher protein, though more expensive, alternative to rice. And, the most exciting thing: I bought some popcorn (also bulk) and a small bottle of vegetable oil. (Popcorn is actually one of my favorite foods. If I had to choose just one food that would be the only food I would eat for the rest of my life, I would choose popcorn.) That night I had a batch of popcorn and for the first time all week, I didn’t feel hungry.
I was thinking about food all week: When do I get to eat next? What will I eat next? I’m hungry… How do people live this way?
Can you imagine trying to work, trying to take care of everyday life, trying to be a productive member of society when you can barely get your mind off your stomach? Can you imagine trying to concentrate on your school work if the growling of your tummy is drowning out your teacher’s voice? Can you imagine being a parent and having to worry about where your child’s next meal is coming from or whether it will be enough or having to send your child to school hungry? Rebecca is a friend[ii] of mine who also participated in the challenge and kept a daily blog. Rebecca has children. For the challenge, she figured if she were on food stamps her kids would be getting free lunches so she let them continue to buy their lunches during the week. But she realized the added burden school vacations place on families who rely on free school lunches. What do they do during breaks? Spend much of their days in lines at food banks? Spend much of their days hungry? Can you imagine?
I have a pretty good imagination. Yet, I cannot imagine these things. After one week living on a food stamp budget, I still can’t imagine it. Because it was all by choice. I chose to eat less than $27.56 worth of food last week. And while it certainly wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pleasant, while I grew tired of the same food day in and day out, while I longed for some delicious organic produce, while I heard the siren call of junk food that normally doesn’t hold any appeal for me—it was all by choice. I knew it was only for a week. I knew that if I blew it, if for any reason I chose to throw in the towel, I could go to Fred Meyer and go crazy. I could fill my cart with organic produce, protein powder, nuts, quinoa, vegan frozen pizza and other expensive, yummy vegan food. (Yes, there is such thing as yummy vegan food.) If I wanted to buy more than I could technically afford, I could just put it on my credit card. I can have whatever my little heart—or more to the point, my little taste buds—desire.
As a sidebar, I’d like to address what some people might be wondering: why are obesity and poverty so closely linked? After all, I lost weight on the SNAP Challenge. Of course, I’m not an expert but here are a few thoughts. For one, I lost weight because I was determined to eat as healthily as I possibly could. This meant being hungry. This meant eating the same thing every day. But more importantly, I was able to stick to a healthy diet because I have the time, energy, knowledge and passion to do so. If I were working two minimum wage jobs and raising kids, I doubt I would have had the mental or physical energy required to make and execute a healthy menu for the week. Also, I had access to Grocery Outlet and Winco—two very low cost stores. Not everyone has access to stores like these. Many live in “food deserts” with the closest grocery store many miles away. Often times the closest stores have poor selection and high prices. Many do not have transportation to go to these stores easily, if at all. Finally, I was able to eat healthy on the limited budget for one week. But after several weeks, months, or years, mac & cheese, ramen, and other unhealthy, processed but filling, satisfying and easy options would begin to look pretty appealing.
Recently, Linda Tirado, a woman who self-identifies as poor wrote an essay “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense”. The piece is brutally honest, more than a little disheartening but extremely enlightening. While the entire essay is worth reading (if you do read it, beware there is a smattering of profanity), here just a little of what Tirado explains about food choices:
“When I got pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel. I had a minifridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2. Had I had a stove, I couldn’t have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I needed the meat, I was pregnant.”
Later she writes:
“I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn’t. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That’s not great, but it’s true. And if you [mess] it up, you could make your family sick…. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.[iii]
Back to my initial question: what’s the point? Why do the SNAP Challenge?
Because the SNAP Challenge got me thinking about it. It got me talking about it. I’m talking about it to you now, sharing my gleanings (and you get to learn what I learned without actually having to do the challenge!) And I’m going to keep talking about it, with God’s help. And I will be in solidarity, not just in my thoughts, not just in my heart, but in my life.
Because I realized that it’s not true that I’m not the one whose awareness needs to be raised. It’s not true that I’m not the one with the power to make a difference. I do have the power. We all have the power and when we use that power and work for change we partner with God in the in-breaking of the Reign of Christ. We are to partner with Christ in giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. We are to follow Christ’s light as it guides our feet into the way of peace. We are help to make Christ’s Reign a reality here and now. Because the Reign of Christ isn’t just a spiritual realm. It isn’t some pie in the sky by and by when we die. It is here. It is now. But I cannot enter the Reign of Christ unless you do. We cannot enter the Reign of Christ unless everyone does. We cannot fully realize the Reign of Christ spiritually until the basic physical, human needs are met for all. God Incarnate came to Earth, took on the flesh of a human being showing us that our human flesh, our bodies, our entire beings mean something. They are important. They have value. They are not separate from or inferior to our spiritual selves. We cannot fully realize the Reign of Christ until all God’s children have access to the good things of Christ’s Reign—nourishing food, adequate housing, meaningful work, living wage, medical care, safety, peace, wholeness, the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth, the gifts of God that God desires and yearns for us all, all God’s beloved children. For you, for me, for each one of us lovingly created in God’s own image. This is my prayer. May it be so.
[i] Read the more about the PC(USA) SNAP Challenge at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/apps/hunger/food-stamp-challenge/
[ii] You can read Rebecca Barnes’s blog here: http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/eco-journey/2013/11/21/advent-hunger/
SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge: some links for how you can help and learn more
Send a letter to your Senators and Representative and/or sign the letter through the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness found here:
Read the more about the PC(USA) SNAP Challenge:
Read Rebecca Barnes’s blog about her SNAP Challenge experience here:
Read Linda Tirado’s essay “Why Poor People’s Bad Desciions Make Perfect Sense” here: (If you do read the article, and I hope you will, be warned there is a smattering of profanity.)
Here’s a blog from a woman taking the challenge for six months with her family, vowing to eat only “real” food.
Just for fun, try the yummy recipe for lentils I ate all week (it really is yummy): http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/lentil-chili
I skipped the red bell pepper (they’re pretty pricey and I don’t think necessary for the recipe, I couldn’t tell the difference without).
I also skipped the cilantro which is nice and all, but again, I don’t think it’s “make or break” for the recipe. (FYI if you do buy cilantro– I used to always end up throwing most of my cilantro away because it goes bad after about a day but then I discovered you can prolong the “life” by cutting off the bottoms of the stems and keeping it in a cup of water in the fridge. It lasts for weeks, but you should probably change the water periodically…)
You can use any broth and it would probably save even more money to use bouillon instead of broth (which for some reason I didn’t think of until after the fact).
I was able to find chipotle tomatoes at Grocery Outlet (in the organic/natural section) so I didn’t have to bother with the chili powder the recipe calls for.
The recipe makes about 16 one-cup servings or 8 two-cup servings. I eat it on brown rice. I got most of the ingredients at Grocery Outlet and figured with 1 cup servings + rice it came out to less than 50 cents/serving. Pretty good deal! And, as I mentioned, I think it’s really yummy…
Hope you like it!