My colleagues like to suggest column ideas.
“Why don’t you take the SNAP challenge? Try living on a $4 worth of food, a day, for 4 days?”
I took the suggestion well.
“Are you telling me I need to lose weight?”
When we shop for groceries I’m the kind of person who tosses food in our cart like I won a sweepstakes contest.
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as “food stamps,” formerly known as “assistance,” formerly known as “going hungry.”
The challenge shouldn’t be too hard I thought. I have type 2 diabetes and eat a small-portions diet of twigs and leaves. I’m not proud of it. My wife tells me I talk in my sleep. Apparently I dream about Big Macs the size of pizzas. Next life.
I went shopping armed with a notepad, a magnifying lens for reading labels, and my late Aunt Edna’s tiny coin purse filled with 12 quarters and 10 dimes, just to irritate the cashier. Four dollars a day makes for a budget stretched tighter than a Speedo over Rush Limbaugh’s mouth.
Generic Cheerios, check. Milk, check. Four bananas for 83 cents! Check. Oooh! A can of tuna the size of a shirt button! I started to notice the other budget-conscious shoppers among us. I glanced down at the worn shoes. Their challenge wasn’t going to end in four days. I remembered what it was like to worry about money. The relentless fear of losing everything eats a hole in your gut. You’re jumping from one log to the next to keep from plunging over the waterfall. I needed comfort food.
Mac ’n’ cheese! Check.
Like a down-and-out gambler hoping for a winning hand from an indifferent blackjack dealer, I watch the cashier ring me up. She announced a number that wouldn’t buy a tub of popcorn at the movies. Had the single mom behind me been to a movie this century? Her oblivion didn’t feature Tom Cruise.
Day one. Menu? Chilled cereal with a dash of skim milk. Do you have any specials? For brunch we’re offering one tortilla with a petri dish of pinto beans. Would you like dinner reservations? Tonight our chef is planning a spectacular thimble of mac ’n’ cheese, with our catch of the day: canned tuna. For dessert? Try our fresh air served al fresco with a side of cravings for what you normally stuff in your cake hole. For a late-night treat we recommend eating crow for all the times you mocked the least among us.
My friend said, “So you’re a welfare queen now?”
His lack of proximity to the disenfranchised, coupled with an empathy deficit the size of a food-bank carton, made him one of those pudgy, big-mouth, heartless buzz heads who loves to sound tough. He’s the kind of guy who inspects other people’s grocery carts at the checkout line. Everyone’s a parasite.
“Did you see that? She was buying food! There’s perfectly good food in my kitchen trash at home. Doesn’t she have kitchen trash at her home to scrounge through?”
One in five Arizonans go to bed hungry each day. Over a million use SNAP.
This resident of the richest nation west of Andromeda said, “Hey, if you get hungry — chew gum. Drink water!“
I expected him to say, “Cut out pictures of food! Eat the paper. When I was growing up in our cave, we gnawed on dinosaur bones.”
I fantasized about cooking him up in a cauldron with fresh celery. Jackass soup sounded good by day four.
Living on a SNAP budget for four days didn’t begin to match the real-life struggle of the working poor, just like the experience of watching “Saving Private Ryan” in your living room never qualified you to preach about the horrors of war.
Try the challenge. Want to slim down fast? Give up eating out. Sweat off the pounds as you wonder if you have enough in your pantry to make it to the weekend. Here’s a fat buster: Saying “no” to your hungry kids! Melt the pounds away with shame and humiliation. Cut out between-meal snacking and get plenty of exercise working two part-time jobs, stalling your landlord and doing the best you can wrangling rug rats on your own.
I was reminded it’s hard to lift yourself up by your bootstraps if bootstraps look to you like they’d be delicious sautéed. It wasn’t easy to rein in my gluttony, eat well, or stop cursing cheap politicians with excess unsaturated fat between their heads. I happily pushed the sampler platter of poverty away.
With the challenge over it was time to prepare a feast for my nieces and their families who were coming to visit. I threw whatever food I wanted in my cart and without a care found myself grateful I didn’t have to entertain them with saltines and beans.