November 28, 2011

Food Stamp Philanthropy

The month of November is coming to close.  My family set out to see if it is possible to live on the $4.73 per person, per day that is provided to the poorest families of Georgia by the SNAP program.  This was a financial experiment to see if eating healthy on a food stamp budget is even possible or is eating healthy on food stamps a myth.

In our experiment, we followed a few guidelines:

1.  The $4.73 per person, per day would be our entire food budget, including eating out.
2.  We would shop at the local grocery stores.  We have two in walking distance about 1.5 miles away.
3.  If we finished under budget, we would donate any extra funds to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
4.  If it was sustainable for our family, we would continue to live on a food stamp budget.

In our experiment, we found some shopping and eating wisdom.

1.  Eat a plant-based diet.  Legumes, grains, vegetables and fruit are our staples and are also the best value at the market.  Meat, bread and packaged products seemed to be the worst value at the market.
2.  Cook your own food from scratch.  Eating out killed our budget, instantly and decisively.  For example, one serving of oats made at home cost me $.05.  Oatmeal at McDonald's cost $1.99.

It was 40x cheaper to make oatmeal at home than to buy it in a cheap restaurant!  

3.  Grow a garden.  Food stamp money can be used to purchase seeds for a garden.  Plant in pots or anywhere there is dirt.  If it dies, plant it again.  This is a free, renewable source of food.  You don't need to be Martha Stewart.  You don't even need to buy seeds, use the seeds from the pumpkin from Halloween or the tomato in your burger.  Those seeds will grow!
4.  Buy In-Season.  Vegetables that are in-season are cheapest.  That is also the time when organic prices are nearly equal to conventional.  By buying in season, we were able to buy almost all organic vegetables and fruits.

Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget or is it a myth?  Yes.  It is possible.  Because of our efforts this month, we are donating the amount of money we came under our food stamp budget.  How much?


What does this mean?  It means we can change the conversation away from "is it affordable" to more relevant issues like food deserts, the toxic food environment, basic education about cooking, growing and nutrition, and even more fundamental elements like owning a pot and pan, a hot plate and having time to cook when you are working two or three jobs.    

We are separating the wheat from the chaff.  What are the real barriers to health in America and what are the knee-jerk myths that are just excuses to our progress?

My family will continue to eat on a food stamp budget.  We already have our next month's plan in place.  It is going to be fun and (gulp) more of a challenge than November.    

November 26, 2011

Reflections on a Thanksgiving Fast

My Thanksgiving fast has come and gone.  It was a 24 hour, water-only fast that revealed some very interesting perspectives for me.

Living your values is far more fulfilling than the food on your plate.  

This was the most powerful thought that continued to resonate for me throughout the day.  I have to note that I was with family, none of whom were fasting.  I helped with cooking and food preparation of the full Thanksgiving meal.  I played with my kids and took walks.  Interestingly, even sitting down with the family as they ate some 20 hours into my fast, I was not particularly hungry nor did I have a strong desire to eat.

However, I am no superhero.  By end of the fast, I experienced bouts of weakness, nausea and the inability to focus.  While my hunger did not grow stronger, my body sent me other strong signals that it was time to eat.  Oddly, Thanksgiving dinner was not at all appetizing.  What my body craved was sugar, in as pure a form as I could find.  I pushed aside all the potatoes, gravy, greens, cranberries, and stuffing and started in on dessert.  Two and a half helpings later of apple cobbler with brown sugar sprinkled over the top and my craving stopped and I started feeling better.

For those who are less fortunate and experience extreme hunger daily, it is no wonder why one would choose foods that:

1.  Are high in sugar.
2.  Are cheap.
3.  Are available everywhere.              

Many of the body's organs run on glucose, a simple sugar.  My craving was not a "I have a taste for..." craving.  It was a primal, "get sugar in your body now!" craving.

Take the issue of food insecurity and add to it the toxic food environment we have created around us and it is no secret that hunger and obesity go hand-in-hand.  Where people are hungry, what is available everywhere for very little money is junk food.

So what do we do about this?  We must grow and support a new food system from the ground up so that those who are hungry get the real food they need before the life-sustaining cravings begin.

Gandhi said of fasting, "What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner."  I believe this is true.  I also believe that if our outer eyes do not see the human condition around us, there can be no amount of introspection that will reveal our true self.  We will only find what is self-like.  Self-ish.

True realization of self can only come through action; through service to others.  We are all connected in the interwoven fabric of existence.  Participate.  Donate your time.  Donate your money.  Open your eyes both outward and inward as an active participant in making the world a hunger-free, health-full and regret-less place.

November 22, 2011

Fasting on Thanksgiving

As we approach Thanksgiving, I have decided that it will be a day of fasting for me.  In a country where we can eat to excess every meal of every day, enjoying my own privilege and excess does not make me thankful.  It is the absence of abundance that evokes thankfulness for what I have.

On Thanksgiving, I will be surrounded by family, who are all healthy.  What greater abundance do I need?

In approaching a Thanksgiving fast, I came across two pieces of inspiration for me:

Martin Luther King's Thanksgiving Fast for Freedom
In 1964, students from 120 colleges and universities gave up a dinner during Thanksgiving week.  The funds they would have spent on food were donated to feed hungry and impoverished black families in the south.

The second piece of inspiration for me comes from Gandhi.  In 1932, he fasted in opposition to a separate electorate for the "untouchable" class in India.  Gandhi believed strongly in the inherent worth and dignity of all people and was instrumental in helping end the discrimination against the untouchables.  In beginning the fast, he stated:

"By the fast I want to throw the whole of my weight (such as it is) in the scales of justice pure and simple."  

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

November 17, 2011

What a Difference Bulk Makes!

So, my wife came home with a box of healthy cereal (pictured on the right).  One pound of Ezekiel cereal cost us $4.89.  For a second, let's set aside the fact that one pound of this cereal costs more than the SNAP daily $$ allotment for one person.

One box of cereal has eight half-cup servings in it.

$4.89/8 servings = $.61 per serving.

Now, most stores carry oatmeal for $.99/pound.  The two oats containers you see pictured are each 2.5 lbs.

For the same cost as one pound of cereal, I can get five pounds of oats which is 60 half-cup servings! 

$5/60 servings = $.08 per serving

And if I buy my oats in bulk, I get them for $.60 per pound.  That gives me 8.3 pounds of oats for five bucks!

That's 3.3 containers of oats or about 100 servings of oats.

$5/100 servings = $.05 per serving.  

What's the bottom line here?  The boxed cereal costs me 12 times as much as oats.

November 16, 2011

Unintended Consequences

I have to admit, eating on a food stamp budget has been very revealing.  Today is recycling day in my neighborhood.  In taking the recycling to the curb, I realized that I only had about half of the food containers I normally have.

Eating on a budget has made us purchase far fewer packaged items and far more fresh and bulk items.  Who knew you could eat better for your health and better for the planet all because of a food stamp budget? 

November 14, 2011

Entertaining on a Budget

This weekend, we invited some friends and family over for dinner.  We remained committed to staying within our SNAP budget.  We did not spend extra because we had additional people coming over.  In total we had seven adults and five kids.  The menu was veggie chili, brown rice, corn bread and boiled peanuts.

We were comfortably within budget and even with the overages from last week, this week we came in under budget and will be donating $30 to the Atlanta Food Bank from our savings.


How To Lead

Leadership is not about finding a parade and walking in front of it.  Leadership is a collective action of many people within a community toward a positive good.  

Leadership for a Healthier World does not believe that we should keep secret the principles of how to lead.  Below is the leadership framework I use to teach others how to lead:

Leadership for a Healthier World (LHW) teaches five basic principles of Transformational Leadership, a term coined by leadership scholar James McGregor Burns.  “[Transformational Leadership] occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality… it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.” 

Classic examples of transformational leaders are Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  LHW teaches this philosophy with the specific intent to create transforming, positive social change in the context of the health crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. 

“I’m here and ready to learn.”
This is the beginning mindset of successful leadership.  Half of leadership is just showing up.  The other element is a willingness to learn.  As Burns notes, Transformational Leadership is a reciprocal relationship between the leader and follower.  Leaders must be willing to be shaped and influenced by followers and the changing environment related to the goal.

Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers.
In his landmark text, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard researcher Ron Heifetz, says that when, “No clear expertise can be found, no single sage has general credibility, no established procedure will suffice… these are the times for leadership.”  In the context of the health crisis, there are no clear pathways for success.  As such, teaching and empowering leadership is essential to creating a new path forward.

Leadership is an action.
Another principle from Heifetz is that leadership is an action.  “Rather than define leadership either as a position of authority in a social structure or as a personal set of characteristics, we [define] leadership as an activity…. the activity of a citizen from any walk of life mobilizing people to do something.”  Defining leadership as an action empowers every community member to be part of the solution.

Values are the language of leadership.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial saying, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”  He does not mention civil rights legislation.  He speaks of freedom and justice.  That is the language of leadership.  Connecting higher values to the end goal of health-improvement is critical to success. Values provide us the reason why we must change and community members are best able to identify which shared community values will provide the greatest motivation for that change.  Values guide decisions, and decisions become actions.

Leadership is a process of community.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists… [and] when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’” –Lao Tzu

The act of service to others is inherently an effort of community that is also self-sustaining.  When leadership is defined as an action, our paradigm shifts from the question of identifying “who is the leader?” to the more sustainable, “who is leading next?” Each LHW project that is launched is a short-term effort to create a transformational health-improvement environment.  When one project is followed by another project and followed by another, a community can create a much larger, sustainable movement made up of small individual efforts.  Many hands make for light work.   

November 9, 2011

Over Budget!

The first week came to a close with an unexpected twist.  We went over budget the equivalent of two full days worth of food for the whole family.

What put us over?  An unexpected trip out of town to see family and the need to eat out on occasion.  These were not fancy restaurants.  Meals were $5 - $8 each, but add in tax and tip for the family and suddenly you are tipping one family member's entire day's worth of food stamp money. $4.73.

While this experiment is not perfect, any person could be called to make a weekend trip away for family matters.  Eating out with any regularity would easily blow up any person's budget.  You don't stand a chance at success, even eating the cheapest fast food.

So what do we plan to do?  Stop eating out if we can avoid it at all.  It is the only hope for success.    

November 8, 2011

Just Like The Rest of the World

I had to share this exchange I had with a friend about our experience with eating on a food stamp budget.  After telling her about our plan, I said we would be eating a lot of beans and rice.  To which she responded, "just like the rest of the world."


Just like the rest of the world...

November 4, 2011

One Day of Food from the Farmer's Market

The picture above is what I was able to purchase with one day worth of SNAP money for a family of four with the assistance of Wholesome Wave Georgia, doubling my SNAP benefits at participating farmer's markets.  While this benefit is not available at every farmer's market in Georgia, they have partnerships with 13 locations, including the one in my town.

The total cost of this food was $37.  Thanks to Wholesome Wave, the cost to a family on food stamps would be $18.50... approximately one-day worth of SNAP money for my family.

When I cooked it, it provided approximately 12 family meals worth of greens and veggies.  Wholesome Wave benefits made the difference between what felt expensive and what was a deal.

The surprise for me was that I was not familiar with probably a third of the veggies and greens at the market.  Many Asian varieties were offered that I had never seen or heard of.  It begs the question:

Even if it is cheap, even if it is organic, if people don't know what it is or what to do with it, will they buy it?  A humble farmer's market became an intimidating experience very quickly.

As well, more than half the market was not farmers but start-up food entrepreneurs selling baked goods, pies, salsas, cookies, doggie treats and more.  Is it helpful to the health effort when pre-made goods are sold at the farmer's market?  Not sure we can answer that one yet.

The complexities of our food system are revealing themselves...


November 2, 2011


$4.73 is the Georgia SNAP allotment per person, per day for the poorest families in Georgia.  In preparing for this month, my focus has profoundly changed around any purchase I make.  Suddenly, everything I buy, I think about it in terms of this number.

A $4 latte at the coffee shop suddenly comes into sharp focus as your entire food budget for a day.  $8 to park your car becomes two days worth of food in exchange for parking.  $50 to fill your gas tank?  10 days worth of food.

Public transportation seems much more attractive than it used to be.  Walking is even more attractive than public transport.

In Georgia, food stamps count double at select farmer's markets.  Thanks Wholesome Wave Georgia!  With private funding, they make my $4.73 become $9.46.  Truly an oasis for many living in a food desert, if you can get to a farmer's market.

November 1, 2011

Unto This Last

I am announcing today that my family is going onto food stamps for the entire month of November... financially and symbolically.  The SNAP program provides food assistance to poor Americans.  We will make any and all food purchases within the SNAP allotment for the poorest families of Georgia - $4.73 per person, per day.  This allotment includes eating out.  My wife and I are uncomfortable with the immense privilege we have while so many go without.  It is time for us to make the changes that align our lives with our values.

As you know, I have been extensively reading and studying Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the influences on their lives.  Gandhi took a voluntary vow of poverty saying to the world that he did not want to have anything that those who have the least could not have.  In struggles for housing justice in Chicago, Martin Luther King moved his family to the poorest area of the city.

It is in this spirit that we take this step.  I will also be blogging about our efforts.  However, I want to be clear that this is not a publicity stunt nor a flight of fancy.  It is part of our journey to get our lives in alignment with our values.  Our hope is to continue it beyond November.  Countless Americans do not have a choice to go on or off food stamps and we want to understand better the realities Americans face every day in relation to food, money and health.

We are hopeful that we can actually live below this amount and donate any surplus money to the Atlanta Food Bank.

Please pass along the word to those who you think may be interested in our journey.  While our reasons are personal, our learning will be public and we hope to serve as an inspiration to others as we work to create a healthier and more just world.

"There is no wealth but life.  Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.  That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that [person] is richest, who, having perfected the functions of [their] own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others."
- John Ruskin, Unto This Last