This is the hardest post I've ever written.
You see, I recently became aware of Food Bloggers Against Hunger, an event aimed at combating hunger in the United States. One of the key objectives is to increase support for the federal SNAP (food stamp) program, which is at risk for significant cuts during the current sequester and budget negotiations. This cause is a little more personal to me than I care to admit.
I rarely mention it to anyone, but my family has been on food stamps.
Let me start at the beginning. After our son was born, I went from working full time to part time. My husband continued to work full time. He and I managed to arrange our schedules so that we worked opposite hours from each other in order to keep our incredibly vulnerable child out of day care. My paycheck wasn't great and we rarely had time together, but we managed.
Then, two years ago, my husband lost his job at the company where he had worked for more than twenty years. Despite his eagerness to start at any job that would hire him, we decided that it would be far better for us in the long term if he took advantage of one of the educational programs available to him. So began the long eighteen months where we subsisted on my meager paycheck, unemployment benefits, lots of help from our families and food stamps.
Despite my embarrassment and my efforts to discretely hold my EBT card so that the person behind me in checkout couldn't see it, despite the horrible self awareness of my weight, which has always been a problem for me, as I faced the cashier, despite my internal judgement of every item in my cart while it was being scanned ("Is it healthy? Is it cheap?"), I am incredibly grateful for food stamps.
Grocery shopping with food allergies is notoriously expensive. For example, peanut butter usually runs about $3 a jar. (I think.) We use Sunbutter, a sunflower seed spread that costs nearly $6 a jar. Similarly, all of the dairy substitutes are typically double the price of their counterparts. Coconut yogurt is $3 per 6 oz cup. Daiya vegan "cheese" shreds are $6 for an 8 oz bag. Thank goodness we don't need to shop in the gluten free aisle, too!
Being restricted to certain expensive brands also means that the most of the strategies used by the couponing evangelists simply don't work for food allergy families. There is one brand of regular, wheat pasta that is safe for my son. So when the Barilla right next to it is BOGO with matching store and manufacturer's coupons to stack on it, it doesn't do me a bit of good, though I do take advantage of coupons and deals as best I can.
The real tragedy of food allergies and food insecurity is that families may take risks with their children's well being. I'm not talking about filling up on cheap starches and junk food instead of healthier foods, either. I am absolutely horrified to admit that during that period I once broke down and bought a cheaper margarine than the vegan Earth Balance we usually use. I believe with sale and coupons it was $.39 a tub. So I double checked a label to make sure it didn't have any dairy in it and grabbed half a dozen tubs. Unfortunately, I also grabbed one of the varieties which did contain a milk product. A week or two later at breakfast my son started to eat a bagel with margarine on it and then complained "My mouth itches."
That's right, my efforts to save money grocery shopping caused my son to have an anaphylactic reaction. We were able to control it with Benadryl, but I can't even describe the guilt I still feel.
My usual creativity in the kitchen, already fully exercised to accommodate my kiddo's food allergies, was stretched to the breaking point. Plus planning for sale and coupon shopping, along with home cooking to maximize money and nutrition, is a massive black hole which can suck up every available minute.
By the way, the vast majority of adults receiving food stamps are employed, often at more than one job, but earn less than the federal poverty level. Most of them simply don't have the time to clip coupons and make their own stock.
Here's one of the meals I came up with during that period. Although I'm perfectly happy eating vegetarian, both my husband and son prefer to eat meat. The turkey bacon takes care of their carnivorous cravings, the spinach provides nutrition (and they go on sale regularly, this week both are buy one get one free) while the potatoes at $.99 a pound are cheap and filling.
Twice Baked Stuffed Potatoes
2 lbs baking potatoes (4 to 6 depending on size)
2 Tbs olive oil plus additional as needed
1 sweet onion, sliced
6 slices turkey bacon, cut crossways into quarter inch strips
9oz bag prewashed spinach
1/4 tsp ground mustard
1/4 tsp garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F. Scrub potatoes well, poke each a couple of times with a fork, and place directly on a middle rack in oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until done.
While potatoes are baking, heat olive oil over medium in a large skillet. Saute onions until soft. Add in the turkey bacon and stir regularly until cooked through. Add spinach a few handfuls at a time and stir in until all of it is wilted. Mix in mustard and garlic. Turn off burner and allow pan to sit until potatoes are done baking.
Once potatoes have been removed from the oven, reduce temperature to 425°F. When cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop out the middles into the pan. Use a potato masher to combine the potatoes and the spinach mixture, then add salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the skins on a foil lined baking pan. Divide the filling between the potatoes, smoothing if needed to make nice, round boats. Bake for 15 or 20 minutes, then serve.
If desired, top with sour cream or cheese, or non dairy substitutes.
Thank you for sticking with me through this incredibly personal post. I'd like to ask you to also please take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives the importance of continued funding for the SNAP and WIC programs. There is no reason why any child in this country should go hungry. Ever.
Update: The response to this post has been absolutely amazing and I am so grateful to all of you for your kind and encouraging words. I do feel, though, that I should probably clarify a few things that I left unsaid.
- We are fine now. After finishing his program, my husband was able to find a job in his field. It's entry level, so he's not making as much as before, but he's working at a fantastic, growing company.
- There was never any danger of us acually going hungry. Although I slashed every unnecesary item, from my diet soda to our Y membership, from our budget, things were never so tight that we faced a food shortage, and frankly, our wonderful, loving families would never have allowed it.
- The worst thing about that time was the uncertainty. When we made the decision to sign my husband up for classes, we knew we were locking ourselves into a period of lower income, but being a poor student is a whole lot different when you have a child and a mortgage payment. The period after his program when he was looking for a job and we were counting the weeks until his unemployment ran out was simply terrifying.
Finally, I did miss one important point about children with food allergies who qualify for public assistance. Although I'm sure that my son could have received free or subsidized meals at school, there is absolutely no way he could ever safely eat cafeteria food. That's a huge gap in the safety net for food allergic kids, who already may have difficulty getting all the nutrition they need just because of dietary restrictions.
Thank you all again. I talk all the time about how wonderful the food allergy community is, but for this, this overwhelming show of support, I don't even have words.