My weeklong experiment living on a food stamp budget of $4.50 a day ended with few hunger pangs and many revelations and insights about all the good folks trying to help the hungry in Colorado Springs.
I also enjoyed a happy homecoming of sorts at the Marian House, the area's largest soup kitchen. More on that in a minute.
First a recap. Last Sunday, I took a vow to live on the budget of someone receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as part of a challenge from Care and Share, the food bank of southern Colorado.
Care and Share is trying to highlight the difficulty our poor neighbors have on meager SNAP allotments. The food stamp exercise came as benefits are scheduled to drop Nov. 1 by $25 a month for a family of three.
The Food Assistance Challenge also came as a debate raged in Washington over a proposal to slash $39 billion more in food stamp benefits and some call for reform of what they claim is rampant fraud in the system.
As for me, I knew I'd have no problem staying fed on my $4.50 daily allowance. But day-after-day of cereal, peanut butter and jelly and spaghetti got old quickly. Granted, if poverty was a permanent condition I'd have shopped smarter and mixed up my meals with potatoes and rice and veggies.
But I found it difficult to get the kind of healthy foods I typically enjoy - designer breads, ground coffee, fruits and veggies and lean meats.
I really missed my morning hazelnut coffee and Fig Newtons. I missed my diet soda at lunch. And I really missed pizza and Laughing Lab at dinner.
Yes, I am spoiled.
One of my revelations was the realization I don't really need any of them. I drank a lot more water and will continue to do so and eliminate most soda from my diet.
And while it was difficult, I will continue to avoid the newsroom trough where bagels, doughnuts, pastries, pizza and candy magically appear.
I will, however, return to eating pizza and drinking microbrews.
A major revelation was how hard I'd have to work to shop and cook smart to make $4.50 stretch into three meals a day. I thought I could breeze into the store, pick up a few things and cruise through the week.
I was wrong. I had to borrow a calculator from Safeway and juggle things to stay on budget.
Readers were generous with their suggestions for meals and tips for shopping.
Hit the farmer's markets, many urged. Ask for day-old produce at a discount. Get rice and beans. Eat eggs, they are great value. Plant a garden. Take cooking classes and cook from scratch.
Reader Jennifer Moss told me to buy in bulk. Go to bakery outlets and bargain stores.
Reader Monica Staab, a former Army wife and mother of five, offered many suggestions including clipping coupons. Her family splurged once a month on an all-you-can eat buffet and a dollar movie outing.
Reader Linda Masden Vixie suggested shopping at Extreme Bargains on Palmer Park Boulevard. Another reader recommended Save A Lot Food Store on South Circle Drive.
There were many great suggestions including one from my wife, Cary, who urged me to make my daily food dollar go further by eating lunch at the Marian House Soup Kitchen. Hosted by Catholic Charities, the Marian House is a seven-day-a-week kitchen serving an average 650 meals a day to anyone who shows up, no questions asked. That's about 214,000 meals a year. On a food budget of just $45,000.
(I struggled to eat for a couple bucks per meal and they are serving hearty soups, salads, entrees and desserts for pennies a day. That's the beauty of a generous network of donors.)
It's the largest in the region at 14 W. Bijou St. in downtown Colorado Springs.
I have fond memories of the Marian House because it is where Cary and I met.
It was a little over 15 years ago and we were both working at The Gazette. But we had not met.
Cary organized a newsroom volunteer day at the soup kitchen - a common way the kitchen gets its daily staff - and I was the only person who showed up. We cut onions for soup and scrubbed tables and served meals together all that Sunday morning in the dilapidated, century-old Marian House. And, well, you know the rest.
So I made plans to have lunch there Wednesday and looked forward to touring the new facility, which opened in 2008, with Paul Konecny, director, and Sam Edwards, vice president of poverty reduction at Marian House.
I was joined by Stacy Poore, Care and Share client development officer, and Shannon Coker, communications director.
The soup kitchen is a major partner with Care and Share, buying 500 pounds of meat each week from the food bank at 19 cents a pound.
Beyond that, Konecny and Edwards have built an amazing network of donors who help them rescue from grocery stores and restaurants food destined for the landfill. And they draw impressive support from businesses and churches citywide that provide the 50 volunteers needed each day to staff the kitchen and fill its shelves with produce, pastas, breads, eggs and so much more.
In fact, the label "soup kitchen" hardly describes all the services provided within the walls of Marian House.
But the soup is what brought me Wednesday.
Stacy, Shannon and I got to peek behind the curtain at the inner-workings prior to the doors being opened at 10:30 a.m. for the first wave of hungry clients.
Gallons of milk sat on tables in the dining room. In the kitchen, volunteers bounced around as soup simmered in the 55-gallon kettle next to the massive "tilt skillet" where huge quantities of food are prepared and slid into serving containers.
I saw the loading dock where Marian House trucks unload donations after making their rounds. I saw huge walk-in coolers and storage rooms where food is carefully sorted and stored according to health codes and federal guidelines.
Finally, I made my way through the serving line and helped myself to an excellent beef and vegetable soup, shepherd's pie, sauteed veggies and fruit salad topped by homemade whipped cream.
In addition, I learned that Care and Share works with about 136 agencies around the community operating food pantries and soup kitchens. (Here's a link to the list on its website: http://careandshare.org/AboutUs/Partner%20Agencies.aspx)
One of those is Mercy's Gate, a collaboration of north-side churches who operate an emergency food pantry, help people with their rent, utilities, gas and more based on need.
"We are helping people living on the edge," said Jenny Kay, director of the program based at Rocky Mountain Calvary Church near Austin Bluffs Parkway and Academy Boulevard.
Folks can get packages of food three times a year from the pantry. On Thursday I watched recipients fill their shopping carts with soups, cereals, breads, diapers and much more.
"We estimate each person gets $85 worth of food from our pantry packages," said staffer Rita Watkin.
Perhaps the vast number of groups trying to help the hungry was the biggest revelation of the week for me.
I've always known this is a caring community. But until I really started to dig, I had no idea all that exists.
For example, Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 20th and West Pikes Peak Avenue hosts the Lord's Dinner each Sunday evening. It is sponsored by Westside CARES, which also has a food pantry, and the dinner is staffed by various churches, as I was reminded by reader Karin Agee.
I could go on. But there's too much for this space. I'm glad I was participating only in an experiment and I don't really need any of the help available. But it's a comfort to know help is out there.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Do you qualify for food stamps?
Of the estimated 55,000 El Paso County residents who fall below the poverty line, only about 31,600 are collecting their benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Care and Share will help you find out if you qualify for benefits. call 528-1247 ext. 4602 to schedule an appointment with SNAP Coordinator Donna Kolkman or e-mail SNAP@careandshare.org.
More information is also listed at http://careandshare.org/Programs/SNAPFoodStamps.aspx
Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets