Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Food Stamp Challenge Mirrors Reality

Reflections from a Former Food Stamp Recipient
Shandi Penrod
As I read others' posts for the week, and especially in the discussion following the screening of Food Stamped, I felt an uncomfortable connection to the participants in the SNAP Challenge as they each learned a little bit of what it's like to live on the budget of a SNAP recipient. I lived on food stamps in grade school and high school--perhaps before that too, I don't remember--and I lived on a food stamp budget for the next four years while in college, though technically courtesy of government loans rather than a government EBT card.
Grade School
In grade school I remember wondering how my friends could buy both lunch and an extra carton of milk. In junior high I would sometimes skip lunch and just drink milk so I could save $1.20 for some spending money, hoping perhaps a few weeks out I could see a movie with my friends. "Sample days" at Sam's Club were among my and my sister's favorite days, and my mom made a point to make a game out of eating enough samples to make a meal before we left.
In high school I would start my day with the choice of a glass of milk or a store-brand frosted Pop Tart. Our school didn't have a breakfast program, so that was never an option, but I remember begging my mother not to put me on the lunch program which required students to check in to an office every day to collect a green token and, worse, to pay for lunch with the token in front of hundreds of my peers. Back at home, a typical dinner was a $1.50 frozen meal--the other frozen meals were too expensive, my mom would say--or a bunch of tortilla chips and dip leftover from some relative's birthday party--because, of course, a meal didn't actually have to be balanced or nutritious as long as it was enough food to fill you up. I was tired every day and sick a lot, but I didn't know one of the main reasons for this was from the food I was eating.
In college, I was completely on my own without parental help. Though going to school for 16 to 18-hour sememsters didn't leave time for a full-time job, I did work part-time. Half my meals were spent in the fast-food-filled school cafeteria, because that's what my student loans covered. When I met my friends at Denny's I'd order water with lemon, squeeze the lemon and add a bit of sugar; my other "poor" friend and I joked about our "poor man's lemonade." I ate a lot of Ramen noodles and dollar-menu items. I usually skipped fast-food water because they often charged an extra 10-25 cents for the water cup.
I cried a lot.
A pet died because I couldn't afford to have her benign tumor removed and it became infected. I'm supposed to choose my own welfare over a pet, right? I still feel awful.
If I spilled something or accidentally left food in my car overnight, that meant I lost a meal. Similarly, losing and buying a new notebook (or worse, a calculator) would bring a fresh wave of tears, because that meant cutting from either my healthcare or food budget. I learned to clean my plate and accept every bit of free food I was offered. I literally rushed a sorority because they were having a free picnic outside my freshman dormitory. Restaurants only received my patronage because I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend who didn't mind paying for his girlfriend's dinner dates.
Instead of personal choice dictating my diet, circumstance did.
On the otherhand, I knew a lot of people were worse off than me. Therefore, I never considered taking food from a food pantry when that meant I might take that food away from someone who may have been starving; I was still scraping by somewhat okay. Well, pride in my perceived self-reliance may have played a part, too.
Life wasn't awful. I didn't starve. I just wasn't very healthy, and I spent a lot of energy in stress and tears over paying for food.
Flash forward to today.
Today I'm much more secure about my finances and my food, even during the hardest times, and I never rationally worry about from where my next meal will arrive.
Irrational worry is a different story.
I regularly spend time reminding myself that while it's not okay to negligently waste food, it is okay when I accidentally spill milk or find forgotten, spoiled food in my refrigerator; I don't have to clean my plate if I'm full; and I don't have to eat those free hydrogenated-oil-filled pastries at my relative's birthday party if that's not what I want. I try to ignore my worry that I consumed enough hormones, BPA, PCBs and other chemicals found in cheap American foods to leave a lasting health impact--something to which I'll never truly know the answer.
And now food is very personal to me in a completely different way. I eat a vegetarian diet, eat as organically as I can comfortable afford, and learned the nearly forgotten art and science of growing one's own food.
Maybe I used to need to, but today I don't have to cry over spilled milk.
And yet, millions of people still do. Will you do something to help ease their pain?
by Shandi Penrod
Here's a place to start: Jewish and Muslim Day of Service