Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Challenge and a Budget...

So, for the past 6 months or so, I've been working in Social Services, and coming face to face with the very personal realities of poverty for a distressingly large portion of my county. I will spare you what are some stark realities for a lot of people, because I assume you'd like to sleep at night without particular images in your brain.

Homelessness is not nearly as uncommon as you might wish to believe. It goes without saying that lack of decent (or any) medical coverage is the norm for the vast majority of individuals. (I fully intend to rant about the insane income limits set for medical coverage at a later date.) Ongoing mental health issues, often coupled with drug use borne out of desperation, lack of options or any other myriad of reasons do NOT make daily living or traditional work structures easy or even achievable for many. These are enormous issues, extremely well addressed in learned articles, thick academic tomes, and accessible reads such as Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America".

As my academic background is not this area, I'm going to leave the hard research to those equipped to do so, and venture into an area in which I feel I have some personal knowledge. And that area is food. I've long since prided myself on being a frugal shopper and cook, who can turn out a damn good meal on a tight budget. But can I, truly?

According to the national Food Stamp program, the federal government allots an individual $7/day for groceries. And while the program is not intended to be the entire food budget for a family or individual, for many people it is. If it's not on their benefit card, it's not being put in the shopping cart or on the table. There is no extra money beyond what they receive in Food Stamps. And bear in mind that this is food only...paper goods, cleaning products, bath products and so on are not allowable on the Food Stamp program, and yet are most certainly essential needs.

What I'm kicking around as an idea is to see how I can do on the federally mandated food budget for a month or so. I'll allot myself $200/month (the maximum a single individual can receive in Food Stamps) for food, and stick to it. I'm hoping that this will give me a greater understanding of the challenges my clients face in food budgeting, and some of the obstacles to good nutrition that are faced. I by no means have a single illusion that I'll be walking in anyone's shoes but my own for this, and do not want anyone believing that my success or lack thereof means that I underestimate their challenges. I'm coming into this with extraordinary resources that many people do not have. I have a kitchen that is well equipped (if you're homeless and living in a hotel, I quite frankly don't know how you manage), and I've been an attentive cook for a long time. I'm also not trying to feed persnickety children, which, from hearing my friends tell it, adds a whole different layer of difficulty into getting dinner on the table.

I'm still ironing out the details of this, and would welcome input and suggestions that you might have. My only goal here is increased understanding, as my heart is broken almost daily by my clients. The better I understand, the more I can be of assistance. And in the end, shouldn't that be what my job is all about?

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