On Sunday I gathered with some friends to watch the Superbowl. I took brownie bites to share. For most of the game, I perched on a stool next to J, a teacher at an inner-city school.J said, “Tomorrow’s going to be hard. We had a long weekend, so the kids are going to be really hungry.”“Your kids at school?””Yes,” she said. “We had a snow day on Friday, so the kids won’t have eaten all weekend.”Another friend asked, “The parents don’t feed the kids?””Nope. The kids will have breakfast in the morning at school, but they’ll be hungry when they get to my class.””How can they do that?” the other friend pressed. “Are the parents spending food money on drugs and alcohol?””Some of them, yes,” J answered. “And some just don’t have any money for food.”The friend stared, clearly troubled. J said she’d take in some cereal bars for the kids. We nodded. Someone murmured, “That’s good,” and then we turned back to the game, sipping our Sprite and picking at Chex Mix and brownie bites.I sat on my stool thinking about the kids—the hungry kids who wouldn’t have eaten since Friday’s [correction: Thursday’s] school lunch. I thought about the cereal bars J would pick up at Walmart on her way home. And I thought about LaVonne Neff’s essay in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, because I knew we would be discussing it the next day at TheHighCalling.org for our virtual book club.LaVonne embarked on a Food Stamp Fast during Lent one year. Her essay summarized that project with honesty and humility. The title alone told you where she was headed: “My (Self-Righteous) Food-Stamp Fast.”The inspiration for her Lenten experiment?”What would it be like,” LaVonne wondered, “to have to live with ‘food insecurity’–the current jargon for everything from insufficient food to almost no food at all?” (Fields 168).To discover or at least explore that question, she decided to try living on food stamps.She researched, set her budget, and made some menu plans. But before she even launched the experiment, she realized she had far more to work with than someone who actually needed to live off food stamps. She had time to cook from scratch, clip coupons and compare prices. She had an inexpensive grocery store nearby and access to kitchen appliances that made her work easier. Someone truly poor likely wouldn’t have those advantages or resources.But she did it anyway. For 39 days, LaVonne and her husband lived on $11 day, or $5.50 apiece.After 39 days, she felt like she didn’t really get a taste of what true poverty is like. She disliked eating the same boring foods day after day, but they didn’t suffer. In fact, they ate piles of vegetables and fruit bought for pennies at Aldi.Penny-pinching made her grumpy, she admitted, and she hankered for fine dining and fine wines during the fast. By the end, she realized how spoiled she is.That realization was driven home by a comment that someone left for LaVonne to consider:
I can get a big old can of ravioli for $2.89 and fill my family’s tummies in a matter of minutes. And for many, many families, this is the most the parent can manage at the end of the day. I know it’s not the healthful choice, but at the end of a day of shuttling kids and working for minimum wage and trying to figure out how to pay for the needed car repairs, this is about all we have left.Please, do not assume that the same quality and prices and time and energy required for food preparation are available to all people. Quite frankly, this group of articles has come off as self-righteous and lacking a genuine understanding of what life is like for those of us who search for affordable food 365 days per year because we have to, not just for forty days because we’re doing an experiment. Perhaps a little more compassion and spending some time with “the least of these” would be a good idea? (Fields 171)
LaVonne lived for five-and-a-half weeks on a food-stamp budget, but had emphasized all the wrong things. Instead, she realized she wanted to heed God’s warning through Isaiah to people who fast for all the wrong reasons:
Is not this the fast that I choose:to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry … ?Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:4, 6-7, 9)
The fast that the Lord chooses is a fast that loosens the bonds of injustice.It’s a fast that breaks every yoke and lets the oppressed go free.It’s a fast that shares bread with the hungry.What kind of fast can do that?Back in 2008, I read about Willow Creek Community Church taking a “Five-day Solidarity Challenge“:
In a poverty-stricken world, meal options are few. Portion sizes are much smaller than a typical American meal. One cup of food is considered a generous portion. Meat is a luxury and the average African consumes less than one ounce per day—approximately the size of a chicken nugget. Fresh fruit is rare, and available only if grown locally and in season.As an act of solidarity with brothers and sisters around the globe, the Willow congregation was encouraged to eat as half the world’s population eats every day. For five days in April 2008, people at Willow were challenged to eat:
• Plain oatmeal or Cream of Wheat• A tortilla, rice, and beans in one-cup servings• Small bits of fish or chicken and a vegetable.
Money normally spent on food was set aside for Celebration of Hope.
This solidarity challenge struck me. If our family ate rice and beans for every meal for a week, we’d get a taste—literally—of what much of the world lives on.I was excited. I was ready to try it. I thought we could do it.So I enthusiastically proposed the idea to my husband and kids: a solidarity challenge. How ’bout it? Any money we save can be given to a food pantry!I wish I’d snapped a picture of their faces.I needed buy-in, but nobody bought in.So we didn’t do the Solidarity Challenge. We didn’t try the Food Stamp Fast, either, which I also proposed when I heard about it.We just kept on eating like normal, without thinking much about the people who eat rice and beans for every meal…that is, if they have any food at all.I certainly don’t want to fall into the trap that LaVonne stumbled into, committing to a fast only to discover I had adopted a self-righteous attitude in the process. Maybe a fast from food isn’t needed to open our hearts to feel the struggles of those who are poor, but I keep thinking it could be a good thing. I long for our family to discover what it means to “share our bread with the hungry.” Experiencing hunger, at least a little bit, seems like one way to drive it home.The other day I was talking with my father-in-law. He’s working with Congolese people in DRC, helping them rebuild an area near Kinshasa to bring new life to the heart of Africa. The Congolese director of the program wrote him an email that said, “The people are crying because there is no food.”People in DRC are crying because there is no food. Children in the city are going to school hungry.What does this mean for me, for my family, living in a suburban house with a fridge full of leftovers:Is not this the fast that I choose…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry … ?I’m chewing on this as a result of this past week’s book club at TheHighCalling.org, “The School of Fasting.” I’m left with questions…and experiencing cravings that have nothing—and everything—to do with food._______________
Cheryl Smith says
Oh, Ann! This is so good. I often think of what it would be like for our family to truly experience fasting and poverty, but I think they’re not ready. Perhaps it begins with us, first?
The story your teacher shared is a very common occurrence in communities all across the country. In my area, a local businessman and a non-profit organization are working together to make a difference. Each Friday, students are given backpacks with enough food for the weekend. It might be something your community could do as well?
Thanks for the idea–there is an organization downtown that packs weekend food bags (just paper grocery bags, though; not as cool as backpacks!). We’ve helped with that, but not every week. This is a good, practical idea.
My friend J might be a good person to start with, too. Maybe we help supply her with snacks.
Hazel I. Moon says
I can almost see the “excitement” of your family as they dash your hopes of cooperation to experience how others do without food. I recognize your desire to contribute to others, by first understanding their hunger. Just a word of caution and that is to never allow someone to place a guilt trip on you by their exuberance in touting their cause. Find your own way to help others. For many years I contributed monthly to a large Food program until it came to my attention that there was discord among the family who hosted the organization. I make it a habit not to associate with discord if at all possible. I transferred my monthly support to a local food program. Feeding those in need where I live and not world wide.
Thank you, Hazel, for your thoughtful comment and caution! It’s a good reminder not to guilt trip my family, for sure, and to look for local organizations that are really doing the work.
Hazel I. Moon says
Check with your local church and ask if there is a service for local children that you can participate in.
You’re right. There are many ways to help, and starting with my church is a good place to start.
Ann, this is so good on so many levels. LaVonne’s article convicted me. There are a lot of children going hungry here in Appalachia too. I was one of them once. Thanks for sharing this story.
I want to share my bread better.
I’m glad you are full and fed in every way, Laura. You know how it feels to be hungry; you know how to nourish others.
Sheila Lagrand says
When my daughter was small she attended a school across town. We enrolled her there because her neighborhood school wasn’t a good fit for her. The program was available as part of a court-ordered integration program. (In California! In the 1980s!)
She left on the bus very early each morning. One day we were mortified to learn that at school, she went to the cafeteria for breakfast. This meal was provided for low-income families, and children entitled to it were enrolled. Elaine was not enrolled, we were not entitled–but the kind women working in the cafeteria didn’t bother much with asking hungry children for credentials.
We made a donation to the school’s food program and began sending breakfast with her, but what a lesson that was for me.
I had never before considered the nobility of a cafeteria worker at a public school.
That is so beautiful. You can tell a great story even right here in the comments. Thank you.
Compelling post. This is convicting indeed. I’m sometimes appalled by the amount of money we spend on groceries, and there’s just two of us. I guess the answer looks different for every person. Thanks for sharing your story, even though you don’t have all the answers yet.
I love the “backpacks of food” idea…our inner city church runs a school for 6th graders and high school age children.
I was once a welfare mom on foodstamps, and they gave me more than I needed. I cooked from scratch, didn’t squander it on candy and chips. I did know how to cook meatloaf, fix spaghetti, bought the boxed macaroni and cheese, which was just the right amount for two with some leftovers…
If you are careful and plan out your meals it can work. You just can’t purchase steak and ice cream the first week and expect it to last.
Bob Gorinski says
This is great for thought Ann.
Reading about your intentions and the response of your family really is kind of funny. I’m just thinking about how much this fasting business has to do with where we are individually in life…spiritually, chronologically, financially…the process and heart preparation, it’s so individual and nobody can do it for us.
Giving up food requires some discipline and effort, but that’s not really the hard part.
Rachel Olsen says
Love this, Ann. Might have wander over and check out the book club.
Interesting – our tendency to want to try to place ourselves (however, artifically) into the circumstances of the poor in order to feel moved enough to want to change their circumstances.
Brock S. Henning says
Ann, this is powerful. Reading LaVonne’s experiment had me considering the same, albeit less than 39 days. 🙂 Then I read your proposal to your family. I can already see the looks on my children’s faces. I think my wife would try it, but the kids would be crying for their chicken nuggets. All the reason for the experiment. 🙂
anne j. says
if i understand this correctly, food stamps provide $5.50 worth of food per person per day? my family of 9 would love that, it means we’d be spending 2.5 times more than we spend now. maybe the answer is education for the parent/caregiver on wisely spending the money? i’ve worked in shelters of major cities in the u.s. (years ago) and back then it was more a problem of getting people to “buy in” to spending their money wisely. so many chose the bottom basics for their kids and spent the rest on what my kids call “luxury” items (pre-packaged foods, ice cream, etc.). i’m not complaining, we eat well
love your writing.
You know, I had the same thought at some point–that would figure out to a LOT more than I spend on food for our family of six.
I saw a chart on this page that explained how it’s calculated based on income and number of people in family, etc:
Someone e-mailed me privately with many of the same thoughts as you, a.j.
Our local elementary school teamed up with a local food bank. They call it “The Back-Pack” Program. They send kids home with nutritional foods and snacks. Cereal, soup, juice & milk packs, peanut butter. The program was developed to answer the call of hungry kids when out of school. I also heard that summer vacation was also a problem for some families.