A week and a half ago, I wrote a snotty post ripping Gwyneth Paltrow a new one for bailing on the Food Bank NYC Challenge after four days. The point was to step into the shoes of someone who receives SNAP benefits and to live off the $29 per week the average recipient receives, something she touched on when she conceded the challenge, but failed to truly embrace. When the going got tough, she and her Goop staffers did what millions of people in this country who have issues affording food cannot do–they pulled out of the situation when trouble arose.
It was my anger at the notion that some would look at this challenge and see an escape route when the very idea was to live as someone who receives food stamp benefits and has no other options that made me put my own $29 where my trash talking mouth was. I pledged to take Gwyneth’s place.
I began my weeklong journey with a recon trip to the store. I figured if I planned well and counted every penny, I had a greater chance of not ending the week with an empty belly. Before the big shopping trip, I made meal plans and a final grocery list.
As well educated as I believed myself to be, when I went to the store, a small amount of panic struck. Some of the items I’d planned for were out of stock, causing me to improvise. I left two large items off my list entirely–a list I’d already whittled down to some bare-ish bones, as evidenced by the items crossed off on the sheet of paper in the lower right hand corner of the picture above. Normally an organized shopper, I found myself crossing the store back and forth, hemming and hawing over what to leave and what to take. Bunkassed scales in the produce department made me incredibly cautious of the amount of money I was spending on fresh items.
There was no small amount of stress (or wildly unattractive pit sweat) when I finally headed to the registers. I calculated my total over and over before picking a lane, not wanting to face the embarrassment of asking a cashier to take something off my bill because I couldn’t afford it.
My haul, as plentiful as it seemed in the bottom of a shopping cart, came in $5.49 under the $29 target. After rolling ideas of what to spend it on around and around in my head, I decided to sit on it in case I needed it later in the week.
The day began with a sinking feeling after realizing my eight-year-old had used four slices of the bread I’d purchased for the week to make sandwiches for himself and one of his brothers. It was a simple mistake, but it the realization sunk in that thoughtless roommates or stolen break room or school lunches could mean a skipped meal for someone who can’t replace what goes missing.
I spent the day battling a caffeine withdrawal headache from a lack of coffee that was swift, unrelenting and excruciating. I had decided to forgo any drinks aside from water in order to put my funds toward food, knowing my preferred mix of hazelnut coffee, Splenda and milk would eat up a huge part of my budget. My mood was less than stellar, partly because of the headache and partly because I had already begun to actively worry about whether or not I’d have enough food for the week.
Continuing caffeine headache or stress headache from actively worrying about the possibilities of the end of the week the majority of the day? I found myself holding off on between meal snacks and going over and over my meal plans in an attempt to convince my brain I wouldn’t find myself in dire straits if I ate half an apple, but my brain wasn’t having it.
I also made mental peace with the notion that if I hadn’t planned enough, I was emotionally prepared to take whatever the final days of the challenge had in store for me, even if it was an empty belly. There would be no hauling my ass back to a comfortable existence if I ran low. The whole point was to put myself in the shoes of someone without the safety net of privilege, not walk in them until my feet hurt and high tail it back to silk slippers (proverbially–we’re really talking a pair of Old Navy flip flops here.)
“Mom, I wish you were eating.”
That was my six-year-old as I sat at the dinner table with them as they ate and I didn’t. I was able to truthfully tell him. “Baby, I’m just waiting for Daddy to come home from his meeting. I’ll eat later.” But all I could think of was how many parents were saying those exact same words to their children without truth. How many were going without a meal at that very moment in order to ensure their children’s well-being and needs were put first. It wasn’t the first time during the week the millions of people in this country who struggle to afford food were in my heart and on my mind, and it wouldn’t be the last. But it was the first time I cried.
The third day also brought me to my knees to thank Spaghetti Jesus I hadn’t gone off half-cocked and spent the $5.49 reserve money earlier in the week. My original plan was to mix a can of tomato sauce with the seasoning from a Lipton soup packet and use it as pasta sauce. I could almost feel Gordon Ramsey’s spirit on the wind screaming, “YOU FUCKING DONKEY!” because it was a terrible idea. Some of the leftover funds went to a $0.99 jar of meat-flavored spaghetti sauce at Aldi’s and I don’t think I’ve savored a meal as much as I did dinner that night.
I also found myself walking around the store, looking at all the things I couldn’t afford to buy. Ground beef. Snack food. Nuts. Avocados. Berries. Soda. I may or may not have reached out and caressed a whole chicken–something I had hoped to include in my original purchases, but ultimately took off because it would have used up nearly 20% of my available money.
Oh, pasta leftovers. You magnificent beast. Not that multiple meals of cabbage soup weren’t appreciated, but my ribs threw you a little party as you stuck firmly to them.
Thursday night came with a giant exhale. I finally let go of the anxiety and constant fear that I’d run out of food–two things that had been at the forefront of my consciousness for days. I knew I’d still exercise caution and not take anything for granted going into the final 72 hours, but I was grateful for the emotional and mental reprieve. I was even able to convince my husband, who wouldn’t so much as taste the aforementioned soup to not take food out of my mouth, to have a bowl of the pasta because I was confident I’d make it.
Friday, Friday…everybody’s getting down for slightly past ripeness bananas on Fridayyyyyyy. *jazz hands*
My hesitation earlier in the week to chow down came back to bite me in the form of a banana spotted brown. I thought about heading out to the store to get a few more pieces of fruit, but decided against it after a few “what ifs.” What if I make the beans and rice I’m planning for the weekend dinners comes out wrong? What if I do something wildly stupid, like leave it out overnight? Even though I prefer my phallic fruit just past the point of green, that banana went down the hatch as it was.
While I was grateful for everything I was able to put on a plate this week, meal repetition was one of my least favorite parts of the challenge. In order to keep my costs down, I decided to make larger servings of meals that would last several days. Cabbage soup, I appreciate everything you did for me this week, but we’re going to have to see other people for a while.
Recent proposed legislation in one state would make “luxury” items such as steak and seafood unavailable to those on SNAP benefits. I fully support food stamp recipients being given the latitude to decide for themselves when a treat is in order–something I wholeheartedly believed, even before getting a small taste of what it feels like to only have the resources to cover needs and have to leave wants at the door. There are already so many stigmas associated with public assistance, but the notion that poverty somehow makes a person unworthy of splurges only serves to widen the divide between the haves and have-nots.
What do you do when you’re going balls-to-the-wall in a challenge and the mall food court is off-limits? You pack yourself a bag lunch.
The Monday after:
I have a fair amount of food left after seven days.
None of it will go to waste. I already have my eye on an egg sandwich and celery with peanut butter for lunch today. I ultimately spent $25.05 out of the $29 allotted for the week. It is not lost on me that food is much more affordable where I live in the Midwest than in other areas, including New York, and I was able to get a lot more bang for my buck than those who live in places where the affordability of nutritious food is a struggle.
Part of the challenge was to donate the difference between the $29 and what you normally spend on food in a week to the Food Bank for New York City. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t able to pinpoint an exact amount. I grew up in a household where the food budget was small and strict, although to my knowledge, public assistance never came into play. My late teens and early twenties saw minimum wage jobs and bank balances below $20 a week before payday. Dry cereal because milk was too expensive and stocking up on 10-cent hamburgers when McDonald’s did promotions were the way. In recent years, I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to account for every penny, so my donation to Food Bank NYC was for the amount of a Costco trip for our family of five.
I began the SNAP challenge angry with someone who couldn’t put aside her wealth and privilege in order to learn something. As the week progressed, I learned this was never about Gwyneth Paltrow. It was really never about me, either.
My week ended quietly with a bowl of beans and rice for dinner and not a small amount of heartache knowing my stress and uncertainty that came with limited resources were only a drop in the hat compared to what individuals and families on assistance go through. For me, this was an experience. For the nearly 3 million people in the five boroughs of New York and 47 million nationwide who struggle with access to nutritional food they can afford, it’s a lifestyle. One that is often steeped with shame and embarrassment and made all the more difficult by condescension, policing and contempt from the outside.
This challenge has given me a level of empathy I did not previously possess and the drive to work within my community with organizations that help combat hunger. I want to to thank my family and friends for their unwavering support. That includes the THS family who kept up with Facebook updates and the posts I wrote here. This has been an incredible and sobering experience for me and I’m grateful to have a platform on which to share my experience and to help bring attention to the continuing need for support and acceptance when it comes to making sure there is food on everyone’s table.