It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. You discover the extreme precariousness of your six francs a day. Mean disasters happen and rob you of food. You have spent your last eighty centimes on half a litre of milk, and are boiling it over the spirit lamp. While it boils a bug runs down your forearm; you give the bug a flick with your nail, and it falls, plop! straight into the milk. There is nothing for it but to throw the milk away and go foodless. You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. This — one could describe it further, but it is all in the same style — is life on six francs a day. It is the suburbs, as it were, of poverty.
–George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
Though nearly 80 years have passed since the author of Animal Farm and 1984 chronicled his own experiences with life at the margin, Orwell’s observations about poverty are no less true today than when he first set them down on paper. Those of us blessed with the freedom to fill our shopping carts from any supermarket shelf we choose aren’t likely to think about food stamps very much. It’s even more probable that we don’t realize the significant constraints placed on those for whom food stamps is the difference between eating and going hungry.
For five days Rabbi Olitzky, Hazzan Holzer and I opted to live on a food budget equivalent in cost to what we would have received were we eligible to receive food stamps. According to the guidelines of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) of the US Department of Agriculture, the governmental agency that oversees food stamps, a one person-household earning an annual net income of more than $10,896 would be ineligible to receive funding through SNAP! What would a person’s life be like if s/he netted, say, $11,000 per year? Yet as far as the Federal government is concerned, this individual would be deemed “too well off” to receive nutritional assistance . . .
As for those eligible for SNAP, assistance for a family of four translates into a maximum of $668 per month: $167 per person @ $5.56 per day, or $1.86 per meal. It is certainly possible to live on five dollars and change a day. One way of doing so is to frequent the fast food chains where over-processed, sodium-filled and fat-drenched dollar menus invite consumers to obesity, high blood pressure and dangerous levels of cholesterol. If you must live on just a few dollars a day for food, so-called “convenience food” is more than the occasional treat or lunch grabbed on the go. It is a way of life for those lacking the time, transportation and money to shop and cook for their families. It’s no coincidence that inner city neighborhoods are filled with fast food joints of every description.
If you’d prefer to shun the path of fast food, the full service supermarket is often an unattainable destination. Generally located as they are in more genteel zip codes, they require access to a car. For example, were you to live in the New Town neighborhood of Jacksonville and wanted to shop at a real supermarket without having a car at your disposal, you’d have to ride public transportation for an hour in each direction, changing buses at least once. As for toting your bags, you’d be limited to whatever you could shlep on and off the bus. Sadly, those who could most benefit from the competitive pricing and numerous choices of large food retailers are the ones who find them least accessible. Instead they are forced to shop at local bodegas, convenience stores where the options are always limited and the prices invariably higher. Ironically, buying inexpensive food costs more if you are poor!
Being able to shop at Publix on San Jose Boulevard I was fortunate enough to have more purchasing power. I split my money between dried beans, rice, barley and pasta, and opted to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. My good luck included a special on cantaloupes — two for three dollars, a pound of raw kale for a dollar, ten pounds of potatoes for five bucks. With no more than $28 for five days, however, fresh meat and fish were out of the question, as were snacks of all kinds. I was able to afford a package of hekhshered cheese, and yes, I splurged on instant coffee — my one indulgence. Forget about the organics I normally prefer to buy when possible . . . as for Kashrut, there was simply no way to afford the vast majority of hekhshered foods in the kosher aisle. A package of pareve cookies at $6 a pop was more than the equivalent of an entire day’s worth of food!
These are the questions I found myself asking throughout the challenge . . . What will it take to build supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods? Why should so many of the healthiest items be the ones least obtainable on a fixed income? How can we imbue food stamp programs with a deeper appreciation of what it is to nourish one’s body and soul? What things can the private sector do to supplement SNAP and add some variety, color and joy to the dinner tables of those who live at the periphery? How might we regularly include awareness of those who are needy on our own shopping lists? Why do I have to eat the same thing over and over?
The food stamp challenge was a humbling experience, one that made me ashamed of the abundance that I so often take for granted, the leftovers that get wasted in my home, the times when I peruse my overstocked pantry but don’t find anything I care to eat at that moment. I cannot begin to imagine what life would be like over the long-term if the decision to buy my child a cake for his birthday might require that I skip lunches for a week, or if I were compelled to rely on dried beans and rice day after day. Kashrut notwithstanding, faced with the grinding despair of near poverty over the long term, I, too, might eventually succumb to life in the fast-food lane. If I did, could you blame me?