Shopping for groceries, even with a list, means a few extra items could end up in her shopping cart. If something looks appealing, into the cart it goes. Judi Longdin enjoys the freedom to purchase the groceries she and her husband need, and some of the extras they want.
But about 20 percent of Wisconsin households with children and about 12 percent of households without children struggle to provide enough food for their families, according to a 2009-2010 report on food hardship by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the leading national organization working for more effective public and private policies to eradicate domestic hunger and undernutrition.
Last fall, Longdin, director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Concerns for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a member of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, was challenged to live more like the struggling families when she participated in the weeklong “Food Stamp Challenge” that asked participants to live on the national average food stamp benefit of just $1.50 per meal, per person, per day – or $31.50 per week.
Part of Fighting Poverty with Faith – a nationwide, interfaith movement to cut domestic poverty in half by 2020 – the challenge gave Longdin a chance to participate as a board and executive committee member in a project that the Interfaith Conference, a local coalition partner, embraced and supported.
She also wanted to make people more aware of the issues of hunger in the Greater Milwaukee area, the difficulties of living on food stamps, and ways to support a better food delivery system and give people access to better food, she told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview last fall.
“I hope that the fact that we’re doing this gets people thinking about deeper questions about hunger and its causes and solutions,” Longdin said of the challenge that she also did because it “synced” well with the Just Faith program she participates in at her parish, St. Monica, Whitefish Bay.
“Just Faith is actually designed to get people to think more again about issues of justice in their community, and so I really felt this was an experience that synced up well with doing the Just Faith program, and it was an opportunity for me to really practice what Just Faith preaches and that’s compassion, and so it’s a helpful way for me to actually think about how to have compassion for people who are in more difficult situations than I am in terms of food and other social issues,” she said.
For the week of the challenge, Oct. 27 through Nov. 3, Longdin could spend a combined total of $63 on food and drinks for her husband and herself. As outlined in the participation guidelines, she was to eat only the food she purchased for that week, with the exception of spices and condiments; include in the total money spent on fast food and dining out; avoid accepting free food from friends and family while at work, receptions, meetings or briefings; and bring and eat food purchased for the challenge to any events where food was provided.
Longdin said the planning involved in purchasing nutritious food at an affordable cost was the biggest challenge.
“I already am pretty careful about where I shop, and I shop at a lot of different places, but I found this even more challenging,” she said.
After creating an outline of a menu of what she thought would work and checking prices in the ad circulars, Longdin shopped at Pick ‘N Save, Aldi, Big Lots and Outpost Natural Foods for items like cereal, beans, rice, potatoes, lentils, kale, ground turkey and canned tuna.
“The interesting thing is I found myself, even as I was doing that, thinking about, ‘Would somebody who was on food stamps or who was receiving assistance be able to do that?’ I mean, would they be able to travel to all of those … places?” Longdin said.
She saved money by purchasing a large container of juice, whole milk – which she planed to cut with water if they needed, since they usually drink 2 percent – and drinking a lot of water. Coffee also made the list.
“I struggled with that because it’s expensive, but I really thought neither one of us would be able to go for an entire week without coffee…,” Longdin said. “I would consider that one splurge.”
Longdin said eating within the challenge guidelines also required her to cook every night, eat the same meal more than once and give up spontaneity and the option of grabbing a prepared meal from the store on occasion if she worked late.
Longdin made it through the week by cooking dinners that doubled as lunches the next day, though her husband isn’t a fan of eating the same thing twice, and eating simple lunches like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when food wasn’t left over from dinner, though Longdin doesn’t eat much bread.
Tom Heinen, executive director of the Interfaith Conference, who also participated in the challenge with his wife, said that he ate much less during that week than he normally would.
“A good part of the time I was hungry, because I couldn’t snack between meals,” Heinen told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview last fall, noting that he had less energy at times. “I couldn’t get what I wanted, when I wanted, so I was thinking about food more, and then when someone would offer me something, it was really tempting. It’s like, ‘Boy, I’m kind of hungry, and I don’t know what I’m getting for dinner,’ and so food was much more on our minds.”
Heinen didn’t get second helpings or desserts, ate less bread and fruit and discussed with his wife whether he could trade a banana for coffee by calculating the cost in terms of coffee grounds.
“It kind of came down to that – where you’re really discussing and thinking about everything you put into your mouth, because it’s not limitless. It’s not just your self-control,” he said.
While Heinen made it through the week, he said, for example, someone with two crying kids, a part-time job and no car might struggle.
“I know that we had a lot going for us and that wouldn’t be the case for many other people, but it still wasn’t easy, and you still kind of breathe a sigh of relief (when it’s over). You say, ‘OK, wow, I can actually sit down and eat something.’”
When he and his wife attended a conference at Marquette during the week, they brought their bag lunches rather than eating the provided meal, and used them to educate others at their table.
Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, told Heinen one purpose of the Food Stamp Challenge is “to make people sensitive to it and realize that it isn’t easy street to be on food stamps,” he said. “The other thing, and, I thought, this was a great point, was that it’s healthy and even necessary for decision-makers who are going to be doing things that influence how other people live and eat, to experience hunger. If you’re going to be making decisions about the availability of food for other people, it’s healthy to have that fresh in your mind – what it’s like to be hungry – because then you have a little more empathy.”
Heinen and Longdin completed the challenge with some food left over, but hunger isn’t a part of their realities like it is for many others.
Participation in the challenge and altering their lifestyles for a week doesn’t alter the situation of hungry people in Milwaukee, Longdin said. “The way that that situation is altered,” she said, “and affected is by us being, first of all, aware of the situation and then also aware of what needs to be done to find solutions to hunger, and what needs to be done to ensure that the programs that are available continue to be available and where they need to be enhanced or supplemented or reconsidered or rethought that the work that needs to be done in order to do that gets done.”