Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Challenging Times

I started this post several weeks ago so forgive me if it is disjointed...

Several veg bloggers and some locals have been blogging/Facebooking about a very special challenge.  Vegan Hope calls it the 21 Dollar Week Challenge. (Since I started this post, several local bloggers started talking about the SNAP Challenge.  Check out Jacqueline's blog and Kim's.  Natashia of The Voracious Vegan blogging fame, spotlights world hunger.  So many great bloggers talking about hunger local and global, please check them out.)

When I first heard of the 21 Dollar Week Challenge, I thought it was a great idea and I wanted to participate.  $21/week/person (if you just count us, my sister lives and eats here sometimes as well, but I won't include her) would be a food budget of $105/week.  This is about what we spend anyway, but we also have bulk orders through our buying club.  I don't place an order every month, but I do have a well stocked pantry most of the time. We own a Vita-mix, food processor, stand mixer, dehydrator, and other "big ticket" kitchen utensils which make our lives easier and for many on food stamps would not be an option.  I started to think what would I do differently if I stayed strictly to a $105/week food budget and only used our stove/oven (we haven't owned a microwave for over a decade and we don't have a dishwasher).  I then realized it would be hard to really emulate at this current time in our lives what that would feel like.  I was getting caught up in the "rules" of the challenge and I really didn't want that to be the point.  So I decided not to technically participate, but I've been reading many blogs of people who are and I appreciate them.  I decided instead to be more mindful.  To remember...

Growing up, we were a one income family with three children.  My mother didn't have a paying job, but she was busier than anyone else I knew or have met since.  She was involved in so many community organizations, I am not sure how she kept track.  I remember from a very young age being acutely aware of homelessness, poverty, hunger.  I have many memories of my family helping people out in need, sometimes in the middle of the night.  Even after my mother started working (for a non-profit which helped children in our state), she continued with her countless volunteer obligations.  I don't know how much money my parents gave to these organizations, but I assume it was a sizable amount of their income.  At times it made me feel guilty.  We were not rich by any means, but we weren't poor either.  I felt guilty for wanting more or asking for things when so many people had less.  Sometimes I resented the time and energy my mother spent on others, other families, other children...this resentment made me feel like a monster, but it was there, although my mother never neglected to do everything we needed.  As an adult and parent, this amazes me.  I could never do everything she did.  I can not even imagine the number of lives she touched.  At her funeral, it was overwhelming to hear the stories people had to tell.  Yet, I am not sure as a child if all this knowledge was a benefit.  This is one of the issues I struggle with as a parent.  I want my children to be aware and to be compassionate, but I also worry about putting the weight of the world on their young shoulders.

I have never been on food stamps, but I have known a time when I couldn't think much about healthy food.  There was a time years ago when my partner at the time, not Rob, and I lived in a Knight's Inn week to week.  I lived literally on jars of peanut butter and jelly mixed which I would just eat with a spoon and flavored Tums (one's digestion doesn't due well on just eating goobers).  Once I started receiving my paychecks (my partner and I were both employed) we were able to move into an apartment in a different state from my job so being car free, as we are now, was not an option.  Food options improved somewhat since we had a kitchen, but often lunch was soft pretzel sticks or Crazy Bread and dinner was almost always Taco Bell burritos.  It was all we could afford and I didn't know how to cook.  Not that either one of us felt like cooking after working all day and then driving the 40 miles home in south Chicago traffic.  When I would arrive home after closing, usually around 11pm, the last thing on my mind was cooking.  Sometimes we would have to search for enough change in the cushions of the couch or the backseat of the car to come up with gas money to get to work.  Thankfully, we didn't have anyone else to feed besides ourselves and our cats (who often ate better than we did).  My partner at the time and I both worked in retail and were managers of chain speciality stores.  Looking back, the pay was amazingly low, but we received large discounts on clothing and shoes so I bought new more then than I do now (the majority of our clothing is handed down from others, purchased at used clothing stores, or we've had for many years...I just recently "ragged" some clothes I still had from high school).  Money was definitely tight, even with both of us employed.  Yet, we knew many who were worse off.  A friend and co-worker lived on the south side of Chicago and slept with a knife under her pillow.  She heard gunshots from time to time and never felt safe.  She was often hungry and we would share what we had.  She had an infection laugh and taught me so much about life.  Being friends with her shaped my life forever.

Just a few short years after my goober and tums diet, I was living in the metro DC area making a six figure income with a partner, Rob, making the same.  Nothing had changed about my education, but opportunities came up, I had a little bit of luck, I worked hard, and I was able to drastically change my situation.  I realize most people who live on food stamps or go hungry don't have the same opportunities present themselves and even with luck, it can be close to impossible to dig out of the hole.  Hard work isn't enough, everyone I know who is on food stamps or living at or below poverty levels, works very hard.  I often wonder what happened to my co-worker friend with the knife under her pillow.  I don't even know where to begin to cover class and race issues in this country.

During our pre-child days of making money, we ate out all the time.  No longer living on Taco Bell, we took advantage of all the great vegan eats in the DC area.  We sometimes spend $1000/month on food for two people.  It is embarrassing when I think of it now.  Even then, we shopped at locally owned health foods stores like My Organic Market or the Bethesda co-op, but we also frequented Bread and Circus, Fresh Fields, Whole Foods, and the like.  We never spent money on cars and we lived in a very modest apartment in downtown Rockville, MD, but food is something we never cut corners on.  Rob would tease me about being an organic snob and not wanting to buy produce if all I could find was conventionally grown.  When I was pregnant with our first, we made the conscience decision to move to the Midwest so I could stay home for a couple years with our new baby (over a decade now).  We knew going down to one income and taking a large pay cut for that one existing paycheck would change things.  Living closer to my family for a while seemed like a good idea and was worth changing our spending habits.  In retrospect, it was probably the best thing we have ever done.  Sure, there are things I miss about our life of plenty, but I love the time I am able to spend with my family and would never give that up.  I know I am fortunate, oh so fortunate...

As I type, I have organic eggplant from our neighbor's garden roasting in the oven, organic tomatoes from our garden cooking into sauce on the stove, organic yams from the co-op steaming, and green tea brewing on the porch.   I have a full kitchen; packages of organic tempeh in the fridge/huge jars of organic nuts in the freezer/25 lb. bags of various organic dried beans and organic brown rice in the pantry from the buying club, and I could go on.  At times it feels almost obscene how much food we have in the house even when we are "low on food".  I want my family to understand how fortunate we are how many others in our community, friends of ours and strangers, go hungry.  Globally, things are even harder to understand.  I know I cried all time after seeing poverty in the Domincan Republic.

All of these thought and memories have been brewing in my head, especially over the last several weeks.      Many complex emotions and thoughts come to the surface, which I can't yet put into written words.  It makes me glad we are vegan.  Consuming plants can cut down on the amount of resources we use, but there is so much more we can do.

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