One of the things I love about St. John’s, which I’ve probably mentioned a dozen times already, is its Vincentian traditions. I have learned a lot about social justice during my time here.
One program Campus Ministry hosts that I always thought was interesting is called “100 Hours of Poverty.” Each participant commits to living for 100 hours on $18.49, which is less than $0.19 an hour, or $4.44 per day. This is the budget of an individual currently receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. This year, I was the first to sign up to participate in what I thought would be an interesting challenge.
Here are five lessons that I learned:
1. It wasn’t convenient.
It was actually a terrible week to try this. I was overcommitted, I was away for the weekend and didn’t have time to pre-cook meals, and on and on. But experiencing real poverty is never convenient either, and so I stuck it out.
2. It was more difficult than I anticipated.
My family tends to very, very frugally–no haircuts, no pedicures, etc.–and I know how to cook very cheaply, so I was surprised at how difficult the challenge turned out to be. I was restricted by circumstances, and so are the majority of those who are using these benefits.
3. I failed on Thursday, and I was lucky.
One of the things with 3 or 4 a.m. production nights is that on Wednesday, I generally do fine. I have a long morning class and then a long block of work in the afternoon. But on Thursdays, when I have a 7:30 class and a fuller day, I tend to crash. During the week of the challenge, I crashed and burned in a major way on Thursday. I ended up in such a funk and so after class I grabbed a bagel (about $1.50, which wasn’t enough to put me overbudget by itself but combined with my other food it did), worked my last shift and then headed home to crash instead of going to my evening meetings. I think I ended up spending $6 or $7 on food that day.
I am fortunate: I have that extra $3 to spend if I need it. Going over my budget had no real consequences. If I was really experiencing poverty, that $3 might have meant no bus fare, or no heat, or no food the next day, or any number of other negative consequences.
4. Resources matter.
Being on a food-stamp budget if you know how to cook, are used to living frugally, have access to plenty of ingredients and a real kitchen and have time to cook from scratch is entirely different from living on this budget if you are out of the house 12 hours a day, or if you don’t know how to cook much, or if you don’t have a kitchen.
One of the things that struck me while working with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers for a week last year was that many of the people they serve tend to purchased fast food or processed food, not because they want to, but because they have no other option–for example, if they live in a shelter where if anything there is a microwave and maybe, maybe, a fridge. Or, they can’t get to the store to buy food regularly and have to purchase things that won’t spoil, like in my hometown where it’s unusual to live within walking distance of a store and there is no public transportation.
5. I can do better.
I know I can do better at eating well on a budget, and this challenge made that starkly apparent. I’ve tried to improve in many small ways over the last few weeks.
For example, I’m boiling eggs ahead of time so that I can just grab one in the morning. I bought a loaf of bread and have toast as a nice quick snack instead of coming home starving and eating Nutella out of the jar (TMI?). I’ve been more conscientious about cooking ahead and freezing meals to bring to school during the week. I’ve been adding canned veggies or tuna to pasta and rice dishes to stretch them and make sure I get protein and green things. I make a pot of coffee in the morning nearly every day so I don’t buy it at school. If I need coffee during the school day, I get a plain black coffee for less than half the price of my preferred cappuccino, and I save the cup to get a cheap or free refill.
All in all? 100 hours of poverty didn’t change my life in any big way. However, I’m glad I went through with it, and it’s been a great catalyst to remind me to pray for the poor (and volunteer when I can) and be more mindful of how I use my own resources.
Bonus: This cookbook is fantastic! Eating well on $4 a day.
Shoutout to Mama C., who is spending Tuesday assembling/distributing food baskets for Thanksgiving. Go MUMC!
The song on my mind while I was writing this.