Executive Director Bill McCarthy Takes the Food Stamp Challenge
Bill's Final Thoughts
I have taken a few days to reflect on my experience with the food stamp supplement challenge that I participated in last week as well as the events surrounding the challenge, the comments, e-mails, and conversations I have had with so many about hunger, access to affordable, nutritious and safe food and other challenges that so many face each day.
To put things into perspective, 643,000 fellow Marylanders and 43 million Americans participate in the food stamp supplement program. While Maryland is considered by many metrics to be one of the wealthiest states in the country, 11 percent of its citizens must rely on food stamps and 130,000 more Marylanders are participating in the food stamp program this year. Only 30% of eligible senior citizens are accessing the food stamp supplement program.
When I reflect on meals programs in Baltimore City alone, which often are supplements to the food stamp program, I estimate that collectively these programs are serving 2,500 meals a day. That is 912,500 meals a year! This does not even account for the food pantry, virtual grocery, community garden and other food distribution programs in the community. While people are so generous and caring, it often seems so difficult to keep up with the ever increasing need.
In my case, the $30 food stamp supplement that I lived on afforded very limited choices in food selection and very little discretionary spending. My diet of rice, beans, milk, eggs, peanut butter, raw carrots and yogurt lacked fresh fruit, meat and variety. I received many comments on how creative and strategic people can be when resources are so limited. I was also struck and impacted by the loss of socialization in eating with my food sources and choices being so limited. Frankly, I missed this the most. Through out history, eating has been a social activity. With my scarce resources, brown bag lunches and limited choices in food, I lost the fellowship of eating. I had taken this for granted. I imagine many others lose this as well.
Access to food and shopping options are also things that are a challenge for many which I have taken for granted. On Sunday with my shopping list, calculator and $30 in hand, I got into my car and drove to Walmart to shop for groceries. I passed six grocery stores on my way to Walmart. Many communities do not have a single grocery store, limiting shopping choices to corner stores with limited inventory. Also, many people use public transportation to get to stores, further limiting choices to stores on or near public transportation.
I also reflected on the homeless and shelterless individuals who are on the food stamp supplement. These individuals have even more restrictive choices in grocery selection in that they lack the facilities to cook and warm food. Many of these individuals rely heavily on meals programs like Our Daily Bread, The Franciscan Center, and Beans and Bread.
As a result of my experience, I am even more committed and firmer in my resolve to do what is possible to assist vulnerable Marylanders. I am humbled by the resolve, ingenuity, faith, spirit, and determination of those members of our community who face the uncertainty and effects of poverty each day. I am encouraged and inspired by the generosity, commitment, and dedication of so many in our community to assist their neighbors in need. We are blessed and have the opportunity to enrich our lives through service to others.
Saturday, January 29
Friday started off like most days this week. Schools were closed because of lingering effects of the storm. Over 10,000 homes and businesses in the area were still without power, including our Villa Maria School in Timonium. Other programs operated as usual. I started my day like most days this week with an egg, 1 piece of toast with jelly and a glass of milk. I packed my lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwich, raw carrots and yogurt) and headed down to a breakfast meeting for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. at St. Ignatius Church. Coffee, juice and danish were served. I settled in with a large glass of ice water. I reflected on how in the past, I would have gone right for the danish. I really had no interest in it this morning. I was sticking to my plan.
After the meeting I headed to the office for a couple of appointments before the brown bag lunch in the conference room at noon. I wondered if people would come. Socialization during lunch was a possibility. Promptly at noon around 14 folks joined me in the 3rd floor conference room, brown bags in hand. The group was made up of Catholic Charities employees from various divisions and programs, Maryland Hunger Solutions staff, and other food stamp challenge participants.
There was a great dialogue on shared experiences, questions, the food stamp supplement program, hunger, food access, and Catholic Charities employees shared some client experiences. I was stunned to learn from an AARP staff member that only 30% of eligible seniors access the food stamp supplement program. The issues for people to access or avail themselves to the program are complex. Awareness is certainly one barrier. Others that I had not considered are the emotional and psychological barriers to accepting assistance.
Cathy Demeroto, Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, also shared video clips of interviews with Delegates Mary Washington and Ana Sol Gutierrez who undertook the challenge with us this week while in session. Taking the challenge during the session creates unique challenges. The Delegates insights and experience were extremely impactful and gave an additional dimension to our discussion. I left the lunch more informed, with additional perspective and a lot to reflect on.
After an afternoon of meetings I went home to have dinner with Ryan. Maria was out to dinner with Loyola 10th grade mothers. Ryan had lasagna and ice cream. I had tuna fish, raw carrots, and baked beans, much like the other dinners during the week.
My plan for Saturday was much like the plan for the other days of the past week. I started with my last egg for the week for breakfast along with my last slice of toast and last glass of milk. Lunch consisted of baked beans, raw carrots and yogurt and for dinner, the last of my baked beans, rice and raw carrots. Very little remained from my Sunday purchase. I had rice, peanut butter, jelly, a couple of carrots and one 6oz container of yogurt. For those on the food stamp supplement program, this would have been the end of one week and the beginning of another. For me, it was a week of learning and appreciation. I learned from the experience itself, conversations with and e-mails from many and the comments that so many of you posted to the site. Keep the comments coming! I have such great respect, admiration and appreciation for the resilience, creativity, ingenuity and spirit of those we assist and serve. I am humbled.
I plan to spend a few days thinking about what I’ve learned. I’ll put that into my last post, which will come next week. Thanks for sticking with me this week. I think it’s fair to say that all of us have learned something.
Friday, January 28
Yesterday (Thursday), we were all dealing with effects of the most challenging snowstorm of the year. Wednesday’s commute home was 9 to 12 hours for many; with commuters battling driving snow, abandoned cars, and unplowed roads.
My morning started with a scrambled egg, 1 slice of toast with peanut butter and a glass of milk. I packed my lunch and placed it on the counter as I ventured out to shovel. After completing shoveling and letting our dog Casey out to venture in a specially cleared area of lawn, I began communicating with the Agency’s leadership team. We had 2 Gallagher group homes in Anne Arundel County without power, the Villa Maria School in Timonium was without power, and Gallagher Services and St Vincent’s Villa were without water. Our staff was already working on these issues as well as our emergency preparedness plan for contingencies. I had spoken with our leaders at Our Daily Bread and My Sister’s Place to see how we were situated with staff and volunteers for the day. I learned that Our Daily Bread was in need of a few volunteers to serve in the dining room. I decided to head down to help out.
Shortly after leaving my neighborhood I realized that I had left my lunch on the kitchen counter. As difficult as it was to get out of the neighborhood in Maria’s four wheel drive Sequoia, I decided not to turn around to retrieve my lunch. Upon arrival at Our Daily Bread, our incredible staff, several of whom had spent the night, had things well organized.
The men of Christopher Place had already cleared the walks and parking lot. Several people had arrived to volunteer. This was truly inspiring. During challenging weather you can never be certain how many people will be able to come to serve or how many guests can come to eat lunch. We were ready! I was assigned to the “line” where the meals are plated before they are delivered to the guests. The meal of the day was meatballs, string beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy. As always, we also served a vegetarian option. My job was to plate mashed potatoes and pass the dish to my left for gravy. I did my best to keep up with my line mates on my right. We had a steady crowd from 10:30 to the end of lunch at 12:30. A total of 613 guests were served!
After serving the meal, I explained my lunch plight to my colleagues. I was reminded that the Dog House next door had hot dogs for $1.50. I still had money in my food budget for a hot dog and I needed to eat on the run because I had a leadership team meeting at 1 at the office, followed by a tour of St. Elizabeth’s at 3:30. Much to my disappointment, the Dog House was closed due to weather. Pressed for time, I skipped lunch and went on with the balance of my day. I arrived home for dinner, tired and hungry. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, raw carrots, and yogurt for dinner with a glass of milk.
Today I reflected on the hardships that weather and other obstacles cause people who are hungry and homeless, and the role that places like Our Daily Bread play in the battle against hunger. Meals programs like Our Daily Bread serve several purposes. For many, it is a primary source of food. You see many of the same guests come in day in and day out. They arrive, are welcomed and seated, served like any restaurant guest would be, eat and as they leave are invited to avail themselves of other services or to simply come back the next day for another warm meal. During their meal, they also receive a break from the harsh weather. Those who avail themselves of the other opportunities can ultimately find themselves housed, employed, and on a path to self-sufficiency. Other individuals use Our Daily Bread as a supplement to the Food Stamp supplement program. This is one reason why the number of guests served at the end of the month is significantly higher then those served at the beginning of the month. Our programs are food safety nets. More than 361,000 meals were served at Our Daily Bread and My Sister’s Place last year. That is nearly 1000 meals a day!
There are a whole host of other programs that supplement the Food Stamp supplement program. Some are dining programs like Our Daily Bread. Others are pantry programs or discounted grocery purchase programs like Angel Food Ministries, which actually accepts food stamps to purchase the heavily discounted groceries. What would the hungry do if these supplemental programs did not exist? I cannot imagine.
I would like to extend an invitation to each of you to join me in my office today, Friday, January 28, 2011 at 12:00 for a brown bag lunch to discuss the issues surrounding hunger in our community. My office is located at 320 Cathedral Street. In keeping with the Food Stamp Challenge, the “brown bag lunch” means that you supply your own brown bag with your lunch in it. We will provide the water.
Please check this site over the weekend. I’ll continue to post my thoughts during the last few more days as I complete the Food Stamp Challenge week. I am surely gaining an understanding—and an admiration—for those who deal with the challenges of affording good food for themselves and their families on $30 per person per week.
By the way, thanks to many of you for the insightful and encouraging comments to my posts. They mean a lot to me.
Thursday, January 27
Today (Wednesday), I awoke to an unexpected snowstorm. Schools were closed and business meetings cancelled and/or rescheduled! Obstacles like weather can change a meal plan. I started my day with scrambled eggs, 1 slice of toast with grape jelly and a glass of milk. It was 7:00 and I was preparing to go to my morning breakfast meeting, where, like Monday, I would purchase a cup of coffee. I received an e-mail suggesting that we reschedule our meeting. This was completely understandable but I had planned for and was counting on the cup of coffee. I was hoping to avoid a repeat of the caffeine withdraw headache that I experienced Tuesday. I got into the office around 7:40 and immediately went to David & Dad’s for a cup of coffee. After all I had both planned and budgeted for a cup of coffee. The coffee cost $1.75 bringing my food spend for the week to $22.79. Headache avoided!
My 9:30 Foundation board meeting was postponed but my 12:00 investment committee meeting at T Rowe Price was on. I arrived with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrots and yogurt. My fellow committee members enjoyed more interesting and inviting lunches. Prior to tackling a robust agenda, we had an engaging discussion about the Food Stamp supplement program, WIC, food choices, food access, and the Food Stamp Challenge. It was a perfect segue into our meeting. It reminded each of us of the purpose, mission and impact of our work. It was also the first time during the week that I did not eat lunch alone. Socialization returns! My 4:00 meeting was also cancelled allowing me to go home and have dinner with Maria and Ryan. My dinner consisted of tuna fish, carrots, baked beans and a glass of milk.
Today, I reflected on the work of the Agency. Regardless of the challenge or circumstance, Catholic Charities always answers the call to serve. Guided by the underlying principles of both recognizing and cherishing the Divine within each individual, our 2000 compassionate and dedicated employees and our 15,000 thoughtful and generous volunteers reach out to assist vulnerable Marylanders. We meet each individual where they are uniquely situated. We support, care for, and empower each person so that they might reach their God given potential. We help people heal emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Today marks 10,855 consecutive days of serving meals at Our Daily Bread. In spite of the weather, 679 people were fed in a respectful and compassionate way today. Individuals were served in a similar way at My Sister’s Place, Sarah’s House, Anna’s House, St Vincent’s Villa, Villa Maria School, Gallagher Homes, St Elizabeth’s, Caritas House and in our senior living communities to name a few. This happens everyday regardless of weather or other circumstances. I am blessed and privileged to be part of such an incredible organization.
I would like to extend an invitation to each of you to join me in my office on Friday, January 28, 2011, at 12:00 for a brown bag lunch to discuss the issues surrounding hunger in our community. In keeping with the Food Stamp Challenge, the “brown bag lunch” means that you supply your own brown bag with your lunch in it. We will provide the water. My office is located at 320 Cathedral Street.
Wednesday, January 26
Wednesday, January 26
Yesterday (Tuesday), was a typical workday beginning with a scheduled 7:30 a.m. meeting in the office. Before leaving the house around 6:00 am, I had a 6oz raspberry yogurt and a glass of milk. I packed my lunch, which was the same as Monday ‘s lunch …a peanut butter sandwich, raw carrots and a yogurt. At around 8:00 a.m. I came down with a severe headache. I was reminded that my new routine did not include my early morning visit to Starbucks for my daily venti bold. A caffeine withdraw headache no doubt. I did not experience this on Monday because I had coffee at my breakfast meeting. In any event , my headache was relieved a short time after I took 2 Tylenol. Like Monday, I ate lunch in my office alone. At dinner I had scrambled eggs and raw carrots, before heading off to the Loyola v. Mount St. Joe basketball game with more raw carrots!
In reflecting on my shopping experience on Sunday and reviewing my purchases and menu for the week I realized a few things. First, with a total spent for the week of $19.25, I could afford a jar of grape jelly to go with my peanut butter. At a cost of $1.79, my total spent on food for the week is now $21.04. Also, I did not purchase or include meat or poultry in my menu. I will assess my ability to afford meat or poultry at the end of the day Wednesday. My Wednesday schedule includes a breakfast meeting, 2 board meetings and an investment committee lunch. Like Monday, I will purchase a coffee at my breakfast meeting Wednesday.
When I shopped for my groceries on Sunday, in addition to my grocery list and my $30, I had a calculator so that I could keep a running total of the cost of my food. I have witnessed in the past and could imagine myself getting to the cashier after completing my shopping only to have to leave items behind because I did not have enough money to pay for my entire order. This would be both discouraging and humiliating. Many people experience this embarrassment all too often.
Also unlike so many, living in Lutherville I have countless choices of grocery stores to shop. With choice comes the opportunity to comparison shop for the best deals possible. Many of our neighborhoods have few or even no grocery stores. This creates additional challenges for people to obtain affordable fresh and healthy food.
Over the past 15 years, Catholic Charities has tried to recruit, cultivate, and entice grocery chains to come to Cherry Hill, a neighborhood we have supported by revitalizing their retail center. Several have opened markets, but none have been sustainable. This challenge is not unique to Cherry Hill, but is common in many neighborhoods and communities through out Maryland.
Again, I remain humbled by this challenge, recognizing that I am undertaking it for only one week, knowing that more than 643,000 Marylanders and millions of Americans face the same food challenges each and every day.
I would like to extend an invitation to each of you to join me for a brown bag lunch at my office this Friday, January 28, 2011 at noon to discuss the issues surrounding hunger in our community.
Yesterday (Monday) marked my first work day as part of the Maryland Hunger Solutions Food Stamp Challenge. In preparation for Monday, I made and packed a lunch consisting of a peanut butter sandwich, raw carrots and a 6 oz container of yogurt. I set my alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual so I would have time to prepare breakfast (scrambled egg, slice of toast with peanut butter, and glass of milk) before heading out to my breakfast meeting with a board member. I woke up hungry but my breakfast was filling. My plan for my breakfast meeting was to have a cup of coffee, which I did at a cost of $1.85. This brought my total food spending for groceries and coffee to $19.25, leaving a spending balance of $10.75 for the remainder of the week. I had several meetings in Baltimore County for the balance of the morning before heading to Cathedral Street around noon. I ate my lunch in my office, saving my yogurt for an afternoon snack. After an afternoon of meetings, I headed to two legislative receptions in Annapolis. I had a glass of water at each reception and headed home at around 8:30. I arrived home around 9:30, tired and hungry. I had the same dinner I had on Sunday . . . rice, baked beans and raw carrots.
Monday was a typical work day for me. The day started early and ended late. There were several differences however. First, I did not begin the day at Starbucks on Ridgley Road for a venti bold and fellowship. I am typically there at 6:10 a.m. My daily visits to Starbucks would have consumed about about two-thirds of my food stamp allotment for the week. I also brought my lunch to work and ate it alone in my office. During a routine work day I would dine out for lunch with colleagues or have lunch brought in for working lunches. I have lost the socialization of eating, or at least in the way I am used to it.
Aside for the loss of socialization, I have lost the discretion and freedom to vary my meal choices. For the most part, my breakfast, lunch, and dinner will look virtually the same most days this week.
It is important to remember, I have taken this challenge for a week. There are 643,000 Marylanders facing the difficult choices and challenges of living on the food stamp supplement, every day, and every week. This represents an increase of 130,000 Marylanders that were living on the food stamp supplement last year. A 22% increase! It is no coincidence that we have seen a similar increase in the number of meals served in our meals programs at Our Daily Bread and My Sister’s Place.
Monday, January 24
Last evening I am embarked on the Maryland Hunger Solutions Food Stamp Challenge. Participants in the Challenge are personally demonstrating what it is like for millions of poor Americans who live on the average Food Supplement benefit of $30 per week per person. As I have prepared for this challenge, I quickly recognized both the planning and socialization challenges that one faces trying to live on food stamps.
On Sunday afternoon, my wife Maria and I went to Walmart to do my food shopping for the week. My trip started with a significant amount of planning both in terms of mapping out my meals for the week and a shopping list. I know I have $30 to spend for the week but I also have breakfast meetings on Monday and Wednesday. I decided that I would purchase a cup of coffee at each breakfast meeting. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to let you know that I rescheduled 3 lunch meetings for the week. This ( along with my daily Starbucks visit) is part of the socialization challenge that I was referencing. Anyway, the following is the list of my purchases at WalMart:
• 4 cans pork-n-beans - 37 cents each $1.48
• 1 Jar (28ozs.) peanut butter 2.98
• 1 bag whole carrots 1.34
• 2 cans tuna fish 1.20
• 2lbs par boiled whole grain rice 1.64
• 8 6 oz containers of yogurt 3.00
• 1 gallon low fat milk 2.34
• 1 dozen extra large eggs 1.74
• 1 loaf white bread 1.68
A successful trip. I have a cushion in my allotment and a meal plan. For dinner tonight I will have a glass of milk, a 1/2 cup of rice, 1/2 can of pork and beans and a carrot. Tomorrow I will have 2 eggs, 1 piece of toast with peanut butter and small glass of milk before heading to breakfast meeting and coffee. For lunch I will have a peanut butter sandwich, 6oz container of yogurt, a carrot and water. Dinner will be late because of receptions in Annapolis at which I will only have water, but I am planning a repeat of Sunday's dinner.
You may ask why I’m doing this. First, I’m very humbled by the fact that so many members of our community live on $30 per person per week in order to feed themselves and their families. Second, the mission of Catholic Charities is to advocate, and to teach others, about the needs and circumstances of the people we serve. Poverty impacts the vast majority of people served in Catholic Charities programs and food is an important basic need that we provide in many programs, most notably at Our Daily Bread and My Sister’s Place Women’s Center. Together, these two programs alone provide over 350,000 hot meals per year. Participating in the Food Stamp Challenge and sharing my experience may well be an eye opener for me as well as those of you who will follow my daily messages this week.
The week-long Challenge began last evening, Sunday, January 23. Every day I plan to post an update here on our website.
I’d say wish me luck, but I’m only doing what 11% of all Marylanders do every day, week, month, and year.
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