17 March 2011

Is the SNAP Challenge Condescending?

I was working on this post, and wanted to think about it over night. Then one of my daily emails came with this THOUGHT FOR TODAY:

"Think of the poorest person you have ever seen and ask if your next act will be of any use to him."

-- Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

The topic of this post was suggested by a discussion I had last night. I was at my rabbi's birthday party, and met another person who is in the SNAP Challenge, and we were discussing whether we could partake of the pizza and ice-cream. As I've posted previously, one of the rules is that you can only accept free food if it's something available to the community. Technically, events such as this are open to the community, although realistically it's just the congregational community. (A different thing would be our post-services oneg. At my father's church, homeless persons often turn up on Sundays, more for the coffee hour treats than for the spiritual uplift.) My decision was no; his was that since it was his first day on the challenge, and since he hadn't bought his full pantry he wasn't planning to do it for a week all at once, he was going to have some pizza.

Then the rabbi came by and urged us to eat. The other participant explained that we're doing the SNAP Challenge, and apparently it's a sore point with our rabbi. He said he doesn't agree with Rabbi Berman, who hosts the event, because my rabbi feels that we should be doing things to help others, not to artificially deprive ourselves and possibly (in his view) harm our health. I pointed out the element that we were supposed to calculate the difference between what we would normally spend (my delta being roughly $2.5-4 per day, if I cook at home, more if I eat out) and donate that difference to Foodshare, Hands on Hartford, or the MANNA Food Pantry. My rabbi is more OK with this idea, but pointed out that people don't need to do the SNAP Challenge for it, you can just do the math and write a cheque.

The other participant noted that there had been a comment at the kick-off dinner that the SNAP Challenge is condescending. The person who said this pointed out that this is a fake exercise, for people who can stop at any time or simply reach into their pantries for more. The other participant said he thought it would be increasing empathy for persons who are food-challenged, but the speaker said that pretending to be poor is not kind. My rabbi agreed - he believes in getting out and helping people. His opinion is that if the SNAP Challenge were really to get food into the hands of the hungry, it would be a worthwhile exercise. But simply to eat on a minimal amount of money for a week is not beneficial to the partipant or to the poor.

So, point of discussion: Is something like this condescending? I am looking at it as an educational exercise for those who aren't doing it, to show exactly how one's meals are affected by such restrictions. It's more than just having to eat rice and lentils and beans and canned corn, it's also the extra time cooking, the repetition, and sometimes wondering if it's worth the effort to try and cook something different or special just to fight against the monotony of the severely limited pantry. It's recognizing that if I had not been lucky with finding things on sale, I would not have as extensive a pantry as I do. (The other participant commented that he was having trouble finding milk in a size and cost to fit the budget, and that he was contemplating eating a lot of carrots and tuna this week because they were on sale.) Increasing food costs, as I noted yesterday, also affect what one can buy. Lack of time can push me into quick, unhealthy meals (especially grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwiches), although I try to cook with an eye towards healthful contents of the meals as well as taste. As I'm coming to the end of my week's pantry, this is getting trickier.

I'll be interested to read your comments.


Rebecca said...

I just wrote a really long comment and blogger ate it. :( I will try to recreate it this weekend.

I did want to say, what about helping (and getting food from) Food Not Bombs?

MargoLynn said...

Rebecca, I didn't choose the organizations, and I don't know the logic behind the ones that were specified as beneficiaries of this event.

MargoLynn said...

I posted a link to this article on Facebook, and a couple of people offered comments that I want to share here. First, from Wendy: "I think it is useful to learn about some of the issues faced by individuals to essentially learn by doing, or walking a mile in someone's shoes. For example, your comment about money coming weekly and not monthly means you can't stock up at sales or buy larger sizes is instructive. It s especially valuable if you share these insights with others (as you have done)."

MargoLynn said...

Jim said: "Interesting question: is raising awareness of a problem itself a problem? I think it depends on motivation and how it is done - not like the SNAP Challenge is some glitzy, star-studded 'event' where people only participate in order to be seen doing the right thing.
"I don't think that in this case it is condescending. A lot of people who have never known what it means to be 'food insecure' have n...o idea how hard it is to get by on very limited resources in our country. Actually trying it - not just thinking about it in theoretical terms - forces people to confront the many different problems involved. There's a lot more to it than just deducting $3 a day from your usual food expenditure and sending off a check to a charity. And when you have to actually live within those limitations, it changes your perspective."

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