1 in 2 American children will receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at some point during their lives.
Currently, 1 in 5 American children struggle with hunger.
I’ve spent a good portion of the past week reading about, researching, and thinking about hunger in America and these are the two statistics that I can’t seem to get out of my head. I live in one of the wealthiest nations on this planet, yet half of my country’s children will lack a basic human necessity for some part of their lives. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this.
I have been so fortunate thus far in my life to have always had my basic needs met many times over. I’ve lived on the east coast and the west coast, in the suburbs, the city, and the country and no matter where I settled I have always had access to nutritious food at a cost that was affordable to me. This is not the case for far too many of my fellow Americans; just shy of 50 million, to be exact. Even more upsetting is the fact that right now our Congress is proposing $135 billion cuts to the SNAP program (formerly known as the food stamp program), the very program that is helping the men, women, and children in these food insecure households. These cuts could eliminate between 9 and 13 million individuals from the program.
How have we gotten here? Well, there are a lot of factors at play: an unlivable minimum wage, unemployment, and agricultural subsidies that result in processed food costing less than fresh, wholesome food to name a few. But from my point of view, a large part of the problem is that there just aren’t enough of us who care anymore. Back in 1968, the film Hunger in America exposed the reality of children dying of starvation right here in our very own country. The resulting shock and outrage of the American people led to the creation and strengthening of the very same assistance programs so many people rely on today, and virtually wiped out hunger in this country. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the outrage Americans felt over seeing extreme poverty and starvation in this wealthy nation turned to outrage against the hungry themselves for daring to use the government assistance programs that are funded by our tax dollars.
There are so many myths about SNAP and other assistance programs that I see being perpetuated through social media and simply by word of mouth. Myths about lazy people preferring to live off of the government rather than get a job while eating gourmet food for dinner every night, all on the tax payers’ dime. These myths are just that: myths. They are untrue, damaging statements that are ultimately turning us against our very own citizens. Here’s the truth:
Federal minimum wage is currently $7.25/hour. Working a 40 hour week with no time off for vacation, sick leave, family emergencies, etc., you would be earning $15,000/year, which works out to $1,256/month. This income is well within the eligibility for SNAP, and it is the employment situation for many in America. Lazy? I think not.
In 2012, the average benefit received from SNAP was $133.41 per month, which works out to around $1.48 per meal. Hardly enough to be eating king crab and prime rib every night….or ever.
So what can we do? For one, we can educate ourselves and spread the truth. Learn the facts about hunger and don’t be afraid to speak up when you hear people spreading misinformation about SNAP and other social programs. They may have no idea that their words are untrue. Check out the heart-wrenching documentary A Place at the Table to learn more about the facts and to see what hunger in this country really looks like. You can watch the trailer below, then catch it in the theatre or download it from iTunes or Amazon.
Write to Congress to let them know that you care about this important issue, and demand that they take steps to solve the hunger problem in our country. You can quickly and easily send a letter through Share Our Strength.
Visit The Giving Table, a fantastic site devoted to “doing good with food”, founded by Nicole Gulotta who also happens to be the incredibly compassionate and motivated person responsible for organizing Food Bloggers Against Hunger.
Finally, see what it’s like for yourself and take the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge. Try living for a week or more spending only what the average SNAP recipient receives (less than $1.50/meal for each person). If this seems impossible (I know it does to me), just try putting together one meal on this budget. I took the one meal challenge and came up with the riff on mujaddara that you see below.
Using barley and lentils for the bulk of the dish gave me a nutritious, filling base to work with at a very low cost. The caramelized onions supply huge flavor for very little money. Spinach shows up as the always important green veggie, and just a touch of cumin brings it all together into something much more exciting than your usual grain, green, and bean bowl. The cost of the entire meal worked out to just over $3 and we got four good-sized servings out of it, so mission accomplished! Of course, I only accounted for the amount of each ingredient that I actually used in the recipe when calculating the cost. If I had had to purchase everything just for this recipe and didn’t plan to use any of it for the rest of the week, I would have completely blown my budget. Planning is definitely key here, and I expect planning for a whole week or month on this tiny budget would be incredibly time-consuming and frustrating.
Please enjoy the recipe, watch the film, and take some action to help make hunger in America a thing of the past.
Barley Mujaddara with Spinach
Frozen spinach is definitely the more frugal option for most of the year, but during the growing season you may be able to find fresh spinach for a good price at farmer’s markets. Resist the urge to continually stir the onions while they are caramelizing. If you keep stirring them, they’ll take forever to brown. Every 5 or 10 minutes should be plenty at the beginning, then maybe every few minutes as they get closer to caramelized.
3 T olive oil (or other cooking oil), divided
3-4 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tsp salt, divided
1 c barley
1/2 c brown lentils
5 oz spinach (steamed fresh or thawed from frozen)
1/2 tsp cumin
Heat 2 T of the olive oil, the onions, and 1/2 tsp of salt in a dutch oven or large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir to evenly distribute the ingredients and cover until the onions begin to soften. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are dark brown and caramelized. This will take between 30 and 45 minutes. Once the onions have caramelized, remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, squeeze as much moisture as possible from the spinach. Chop finely and set aside.
In a saucepan, cover the barley with 2 c water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes until the water is absorbed and the barley is tender. Fluff with a fork and set aside.
In another saucepan, cover the lentils with 1 c water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes until the lentils are tender. Drain and set aside.
Add the remaining 1 T olive oil to the onion pan and heat over medium until the onions begin to sizzle again. Add the cumin and cook for 30 seconds or so until the cumin is fragrant. Transfer the barley, lentils, spinach, and remaining 1 tsp of salt to the pan and stir to combine. Cook until the mixture is hot throughout. Remove from heat, cover the pan, and let sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to marry before serving.