Back in college, Hannah Schell was a professor who’s zen-like knowledge could be, at times, a little overwhelming. When I received her assignment (Make an effort to see all creatures as suffering and desiring happiness), I sort of relegated it to the back of my mind & figured I would devote proper time & effort to it when the time came (not unlike how I handled most of Hannah’s class assignments). After toying with a number of ideas, I pressed for further instruction, hoping that maybe she would have something more specific &, well, less contrived than the few possibilities that I’d cooked up.

Hannah explained that there are “several Buddhist meditative practices that involve expanding one’s circle of compassion – moving out from people you know and care about, to include people you know and don’t much care for, to the neighborhood, state, country, world, universe, etc.” (her words, not mine). She suggested that I try imagining the collective suffering of the individuals around me – while stuck on a bus, perhaps, trapped in an airport, or otherwise surrounded by those who might be united by some sort of discomfort.

I was still thinking about Hannah’s suggestions when I stumbled upon a blog for The $25 Challenge, an effort in which the Illinois Food Bank Association challenged Illinoisians to sustain themselves for one week on just $25 – “the average weekly food stamp benefit an individual receives in Illinois”. I found this figure staggering, & decided to take on the challenge, with some slight NYC modifications, as an exercise in empathy.

I made my way over to the USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service website, which offers a handy little tool to help you estimate 1) if you’re eligible for food stamps & 2) if you are, how much aid you are eligible for on a monthly basis. After plugging in my vitals (assets, income, savings), I discovered that not only am I eligible for food stamps, but I am eligible for $191 OF FEDERAL AID PER MONTH.

An aside: it is when I write things like this that I am eternally grateful that my parents do not read my blog, nor are they, on the whole, particularly internet savvy, with the one noteworthy exception of the day that my father not only found his way onto Youtube but managed to navigate the site in order to find and email me this video.

Knowing that I was eligible for an approximate $47 per week (that’s $6.71 a day) in food stamps, I started the challenge last Wednesday, on the first of October. Now, I’ll tell you right now: I followed no rules here, & that made a huge difference in my “food stamp life” & the life of an individual truly living on “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance” (why are the PC terms always so much more complicated/annoying?). I made a number of purchases which one would not be able to make were they restricted to government dollars: I Icebreakers gum for $1.99. I bought tea for $1.50. I bought a PBR for FIVE FUCKING DOLLARS (!!!!). Caveat on the beer, though: In New York, city of dreams, shitty beer is accompanied by  ‘free’ pizza, & thus, beer = dinner.

What I’m saying is that, though I was budgeting, I was skirting the issue in a serious way. I depended on my employer to provide me with lunch, tea & biscuits (dear wonderful artist boss: I am sorry I ate all your biscuits). I milked fledgling relationships with baristas for free refills & day-old-muffins. It was a pretty pathetic scene, made more pathetic by the ephiphany that it was not so far removed from my normal life.

Again, eternally grateful that my parents do not read this blog.

The most shameful part of this is that now, having fulfilled my week of ‘food stamp living’, I am free to wipe my hands clean. I did this project as a lark – I didn’t commit to it as wholly as I could have, or experience the true difficulties faced by millions of families every day. I laughed my way through it, boasted, even, of what I was attempting, & I played around, all the while telling myself Well, I’m within my budget. This project taught me, above all things, how ignorant I truly am to real, true poverty, how lucky I’ve been all my life.

I am going to give the $47 Challenge another go beginning Wednesday, October 15th, abiding by the true limitations of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. I encourage you to try it as well.

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