After realizing that our 12-year-old son didn’t know what food stamps were, my husband and I set out to educate our children — ages 12, 9, and 5, all boys — about the nature of poverty in our little part of affluent New England. Yes, Virginia, there is poverty in Wellesley! At least two of my friends have needed food stamps at some point during our friendship.
A few years ago, to teach them about both money management and caring for others, we gave an allowance to each of the kids and had them divide their money between three jars labeled Spend, Save, and Charity. My children didn’t understand why they had to give their money away to someone they didn’t know. That little attempt at philanthropy backfired irreparably when the oldest boy took the Charity jar, bought a bunch of candy bars, and then claimed his brother had stolen the money. “That’s all right; it was only an experiment,” I consoled myself, knowing that at the same age I had used my allowance to buy weekly lottery tickets and bribe a kid to be my best friend.
For our latest attempt at imparting values, we decided to focus on something our children really knew and cared about: snacks, and food in general. Why not teach them how all their food gets to our table and what it takes to feed a family of five? In the process, we hoped we would help them become more aware of the significant challenges facing those who didn’t have the luck to be born into the upper-middle class. (For those of you who don’t know suburban Boston, Wellesley’s nickname is Swellesley.) Given the overall wealth of the populace, we figured our kids had no idea that some people were struggling to make ends meet. This assumption was confirmed by our middle child’s insistence that “everyone in my class goes away for winter break.” (He’s wrong.)
To put the challenge into perspective, we assigned the children a basic calculation: In a family like ours, with three children spaced three-and-a-half years apart, each living at home until the age of 18, the parents would be responsible for making sure that the kids had more than 27,000 meals over the course of 25 years. At an average of $5 a meal (a low estimate, but it made the math easier), that is approximately $135,000 worth of food, assuming that the family never set foot in a restaurant. That, we realized, is the cost of 275 Xbox 360s. “Picture 275 Xboxes scattered around our house,” I said. The kids’ ears perked up.
With a little research, we discovered that a number of families, and a few politicians and reporters, have tried living for a month or more on the typical budget of a family that receives food-stamp benefits (now distributed nationally by debit card and called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We crafted a project to test whether, for 40 days, we could shop at our local grocery store and procure mostly organic — or at least healthy — foods for $85 per week — about the food-stamps allowance for a family of five living somewhat above the poverty line.
This project was going to be a significant challenge. Our family usually spends $200 to $300 on food per week. In the past, we had made resolutions at New Year’s (that date had come and gone) and at Lent. However, Lenten asceticism always had been an afterthought; we’d eat the traditional pancake supper at church, give up something minor like chocolate, and then, with a shrug, forget or cheat 10 days into it. This time, perhaps we’d landed on something more meaningful than chocolate privation.
We tried to walk in the shoes of our neighbors. Two hundred families qualify to use the Wellesley food pantry. Because they are a distinct minority of the town’s 25,000 residents, many of these families go unnoticed and underserved. One friend who had used food stamps after failing to receive child support often shopped just as the local store was closing. She would try to select a line with a friendly checkout person, a kind woman who would put up her “closed” sign to spare my friend the embarrassment of pulling out her SNAP card in front of an audience.
At home, we were heartened when the kids eagerly joined in the discussion of what we would be eating: Legumes and starches loomed large. They knew we valued organics and avoided genetically modified foods. Even the 5-year-old participated meaningfully in a conversation about why we normally had access to foods without pesticides, but our poorer neighbors had no choice but to ingest them regularly. The children made some great suggestions, like using organic bacon to create the sense of filling up on meat, “ ’cause you don’t have to eat very much bacon to feel like a meal.” Together we created enhanced recipes, like pancake batter with an extra egg for protein. How about watering down whole organic milk to double the content and make our own organic skim? Our oldest son even carried home 30 pounds of fish carcasses from our local fishmonger, because when I had ordered “white fish bones” for a fish stock and sent him to retrieve it, I didn’t understand the heft of a cod!
Because children who qualify for food stamps often participate in the free school-lunch program, we invited our middle son to eat the public school’s cafeteria food during the entire project and participate periodically in the blog we were writing. In the course of the experiment his feelings have ranged from elation (French toast sticks and pizza) to disgust (soggy green beans and rubbery ravioli).
The local paper covered our experiment on the front page, and a community cable channel has been taping discussions we’ve had with our children, the shopping trips that we take, and the cooking that we do. All this has led to interesting interactions with friends — we’ve had conversations about food justice, we’ve explained why we’ve not limited our alcohol consumption and gift purchases (liquor is not covered by SNAP), and we’ve heard from many that their kids and spouses would have balked if this project were proposed in their homes. One Princeton classmate who had worked on The Tightwad Gazette, Tip Stevens Walker ’86, gave us her homemade faux maple-syrup recipe: brown sugar, water, maple extract. Another friend, Rachel Kaganoff Stern ’86, began posting reduced-cost recipes on her food blog, www.insidethekaganoffkitchen.com.
How’s it going? One thing is clear — we’ve made the budget work by eating quite a bit less food. Don’t feel too bad for us; perhaps I will fit into my 1980s jeans for my 25th reunion this May (not that any fashion statement from the ’80s should be resurrected). Homemade oatmeal, popcorn, bacon hash browns, fried eggs, corn bread, pancakes, carrots, cabbage, kale, chili, salmon burgers from canned salmon, and pea soup are all mainstays of our diet.
My youngest child, a picky eater, actually has started to eat what’s put in front of him — a huge side benefit of this project that I was not expecting. He is truly hungry at meals and realizes that there isn’t a smorgasbord of snacks awaiting him if his mealtime eating stalls. My middle child is the grumpiest. I think he is genuinely hungry on many days, so I occasionally give him the only piece of remaining cheese or leftover Valentine’s chocolates that I have secreted away. My oldest son and my husband are stoic. Both have shared that they are lucky they like rice and beans, because otherwise a project like this would be impossible. Still, the meat deficit has been especially difficult, as have the cuts we’ve had to make in fresh organic bread. We got so desperate for additional protein one weekend that we cooked up some free organic calf’s liver buried in our freezer. After liberal application of salt, pepper, flour, and bacon grease, we all surprised ourselves by wolfing down this food — which had been intended as a gift for our dog.
One of the nicest surprises has been the reaction from families who use food stamps not because they’re trying to teach their kids a lesson, but because the assistance is a necessity of life. Several families who use food stamps, in Texas and Michigan, post encouragement and ideas on our blog. And that brings me to the biggest plus of our experiment: finding community among the five of us, in our town, and around the country on a topic that we truly care about.
Julia Hicks de Peyster ’86 is an executive-search professional living with her husband, Nick de Peyster ’88, and their three boys in Wellesley, Mass.
To follow the project: Blog: http://viridianblues.blogspot.com; Facebook page: Food Stamps Budget Project; Twitter: @sherpamommy