Rabbis challenge: 1 week on a food-stamp budget

James Greene studied his menu plan for the week, knowing it would never make him the next Food Network star: A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Leftover pasta. Cup O’ Noodles. Potato chips. A banana.

Bon appetit.

That bill of fare was about as savory as it got during the Food Stamp Challenge, which Greene undertook during the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

The challenge required participants to eat for seven days on a budget totaling $31.50, the average weekly allotment under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh in California or, simply, food stamps. That comes to a buck fifty per meal, and not a Snickers bar more. No cookies from the break room, no meals paid for by friends, no previously purchased snack foods from the pantry.

Now in its fifth year, the Food Stamp Challenge is a program of the New York–based Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Over the years, the challenge has drawn participation from community leaders, clergy and elected officials. San Mateo Congresswoman Jackie Speier did it last year, and Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, N.J., just finished up this week.

This year, the JCPA appealed especially to rabbis and cantors to take up the challenge, hoping they would then spread awareness about hunger in America — and perhaps inspire people in their synagogue to take the challenge.

Some 150 rabbis and cantors across the country answered this year’s call — including Greene, a San Jose resident and a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

“Part of the Jewish obligation is not just to protect and care for the stranger, but go beyond that,” Greene said two days before starting. “Taking this challenge is a way to better understand the experience of those who are hungry and be a better advocate for the safety net.”

Married with two young daughters, 21 months and 4 years old, Greene serves as rabbi at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos. The Omaha native works with various departments at the JCC, overseeing Jewish content in arts, adult, teen and youth programming.

How his Food Stamp Challenge experience would play out, he did not know before he started. But first things first, and that meant a trip to Safeway with a grocery list carefully researched and priced out days ahead of time.

“It involved a lot of carbs,” he said. “Pasta and rice dishes, beans and tuna for protein. I learned that things like cereal and milk for breakfast — and peanut butter — are really expensive.”

Factored into Greene’s planning: He needed to spend half his seven-day challenge period in Philadelphia attending a conference of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Council. He packed all his food for those days in his suitcase.

Not only was the $31.50 budget a concern, so was getting maximum nutrition out of his meals. And since Greene keeps kosher, there were dilemmas: He couldn’t afford to buy expensive kosher meat, and inexpensive items (like packs of ramen noodles) were traif and off-limits.

He also couldn’t blow his budget on pricey fresh fruits and vegetables. Four bananas and a bag of frozen broccoli (on sale for 75 cents) would have to cover that layer of the food pyramid for seven days.

“I needed to think about a week with not eating a lot of protein that came from meat or fish,” Greene said. “In the end, the protein is from peanut butter and beans — and only one can of tuna for the entire week.”

One other essential was likely down the disposal: the sheer pleasure of eating.

“The thing most clear to me, besides the solitude of this lifestyle, is the lack of choice,” he said. “I’m eating what I purchased, and it doesn’t matter if I’m in the mood for that. This is what’s going to happen.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 15 percent of U.S. households experience food insecurity at some point during the year. And of the more than 40 million people who participate in SNAP, half are children.

Despite what detractors say about welfare queens and moochers, one has to be truly, deeply poor to qualify for food stamps.

Some of the foods that $31.50 a week can buy: white bread, American cheese and oatmeal

Households may not have more than $2,000 in countable resources (such as a bank account) and a family of four cannot exceed $1,921 in net monthly income. The average monthly food stamp allotment for that family would come to $668, depending on the state they live in.

Abby Leibman, president and CEO of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, has examined the stats and knows what they mean in real life.

“Fifty million people are food insecure in America,” she said. “That’s a wonky way of saying there are people in this country who do not know where their next meal is coming from. They can’t reliably know if they will have three meals a day.”

To drive home the point, she notes that 50 million is more than the population of Canada.

Mazon has been a co-sponsor of the Food Stamp Challenge since JCPA first launched it. Leibman has done the challenge before, and knows it gets harder as the week progresses.

“I was obsessed with food the whole week,” she recalled. “I was really sick of what I was eating by the end. The food was boring. It also constrained a lot of what I could do socially because a lot of our social lives are built around meals, and I couldn’t go out to eat. Sometimes the only thing that made it tolerable was knowing it was only [for] a week.”

On Greene’s first day of the challenge, he hadn’t experienced any of that rigor. Toast and coffee for breakfast. Peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary. But one thing went wrong. While packing for Philadelphia, he left behind a plastic bag containing items for one of his lunches.

Now what?

“What I’m going to have to do is find something for $1.50 or less,” he said. “I have that much left in my budget. The interesting thing is if someone is on SNAP or some other program, forgetting something isn’t an option because you can’t just go buy something.”

That’s true, according to Leibman, who says that for most SNAP recipients, the funds generally cover groceries for three weeks out of every month. “That last week is when they go to the pantry or soup kitchen,” she said. “They stretch to make do.”

Other than the lunch that got left behind — which forced him to spend the last pennies of his budget on a candy bar — Greene had no food insecurity problems while in Philadelphia.

However, the monotony of the diet did set in. Before the end of the conference, he’d already eaten his third peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the week. He even skipped breakfast one day.

One afternoon Greene made a cup of soup by heating up water in his hotel room coffee pot. Dinner that night was plain pasta with frozen vegetables. Leftovers from that repast served as lunch the next day.

“I looked at my toast this morning and thought, ‘Well, I’d prefer to have something else,’ ” he said in an interview halfway through the challenge. “Right now I’m still relatively satisfied with the foods I’m eating, but if I were doing this for more than a week it would feel drastically different. At some point I will be eager to end this, but the reality is I get to end it. It will be my choice.”

Not so for the tens of millions on food stamps.

Robin Rosenbaum, JCPA’s poverty campaign coordinator, helps organize the Food Stamp Challenge every year. She said the experience sharpens the focus of participants, who ideally go on to advocate for the nation’s hungry.

“We see each time that people have similar reactions to the [challenge],” Rosenbaum said. “It is meaningful to them personally, but it also promotes their commitment to anti-hunger work.”

To help participants manage the week, JCPA has a page on its website offering recipes, shopping tips and other strategies, which Greene happily took advantage of before beginning the challenge. The page also links to the Department of Agriculture, which has its own resources for SNAP recipients.

Rosenbaum has done the challenge more than once and found it, well, challenging. She said the starchy diet left her out of sorts by the end of the week.

“I’m someone who maintains a pretty healthy lifestyle,” she said. “You don’t have money left over, so even if I wanted to grab a smoothie, I couldn’t. After five or six days, I felt pretty exhausted — and also my mind wasn’t in a very good place.”

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco had difficulties of her own when she took the challenge four years ago and recruited her son, Gabe, then 7, to join her. With High Holy Days approaching, she thought the experience would help her better understand hunger from the inside.

Two incidents from that week stick out for her. One took place in a supermarket, when she intended to pay for her groceries with $9.16 in cash and found herself a few cents short.

“People behind me got so irate,” Mintz recalled.  “One guy was so disgruntled, he took a quarter out, flipped the coin [at me] and it landed on the conveyor belt.”

The other moment came when Gabe begged her for a bag of Doritos from a vending machine. At first Mintz said no, it was not in the budget. “He asked over and over, so I gave him a dollar and said ‘It’s dinner.’ ”

In her Yom Kippur sermon shortly thereafter, Mintz linked Jewish text with what she calls the Reform movement’s “prophetic ideology” — a Torah-based conviction that the Jewish people have a role as healers of the world.

“We have enough grain to feed the world two times over,” Mintz said, “yet millions are starving. My hope is that young people have a sense of simmering outrage about the kind of world they are inheriting. My hope is the Jewish mandate is still a formidable force to literally feed the hungry.”

Near the end of his challenge week, Greene sat with a friend. After declining his friend’s lunch invitation, the rabbi found himself feeling defensive when his friend joked about the challenge and offered to buy lunch — something forbidden in the Food Stamp Challenge.

The night before his last day on the challenge, Greene stared at his forlorn plate of pasta and felt he had hit the wall.

Rabbi James Greene surveys his food for the week. photo/scott lasky

“It was not what I wanted at all,” he remembered. “I got to this place of feeling that this was just about the perfunctory act of making sure I had enough calories in my system.”

More importantly, over the course of the week he realized he had lost something important: the Jewish concept of giving daily blessings over food.

“Food is sacred,” he added, “and a source for elevating the divine spark, and you do that by blessing. I wanted to be in that space and I couldn’t get myself there. I was really unhappy about [the last] dinner.”

On his final day, he attempted to be more mindful about what he ate, to slow down and concentrate on every bite, taste and texture. That helped make his homestretch on the challenge more tolerable.

The moment it ended, he headed for a Jamba Juice to down as much fresh fruit as he could cram into a smoothie.

The next night, he gathered with friends and family around the Thanksgiving dinner table, feeling a little extra thankful.

“This year we created a seder for the Thanksgiving meal,” Greene said. “We talked about how we all got here to the United States, and of all the things we were thankful for.”

With the Food Stamp Challenge behind him, Greene plans to incorporate the lessons he learned into future JCC programming, primarily in conjunction with the JCC’s work with Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley.

More than anything, he reported, the experience dramatically raised his own awareness of the people in SNAP (“They are in the shadows,” he said) and the hunger problem in America.

“We don’t personalize it enough,” he said. “We talk about [statistics], but we don’t really talk about the individual people. What I hope more than anything is this will personalize the issue of hunger in our community so we’re better able to respond. It will make me a stronger advocate.”

Greene said he might do the challenge again someday, perhaps when his daughters are older and can grasp the significance of the experience. Greene said he wants his children to “grow up in a country where we take care of one another.”

As a rabbi, he cannot help but put a Jewish spin on his brief taste of hunger.

“At one point, all of us were outsiders, strangers, people in need,” he said. “I hope with this experience I can discern God’s presence in how we take care of one another.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.