The Mid-County Regional Service Center (RSC) serves a population of approximately 220,000 individuals and businesses in an area that extends from the Beltway to Howard County and includes such communities as Ashton, Aspen Hill, Brookeville, Capital View, Derwood, Forest Glen, Glenmont, Kemp Mill, Kensington, Layhill, Norbeck, Olney, Sandy Spring, Upper Rock Creek, and Wheaton.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Well folks, I’m wrapping up the SNAP the Silence challenge today.  I almost made it to the end of the week keeping true to the challenge but I admit that I broke down last night after a rough day.  I suspect many of us break our budgets, diets, or commitments when dealing with difficult situations.  And that’s ok.  What matters is what we do afterwards, either picking up where we left of or maybe starting over.  For me, it’s important to share how grateful I am for the opportunity to participate in this challenge and to share what I learned along the way.  Here’s my summary:

  1. Planning your meals is key when living on a budget: I don’t just mean that Monday night is taco night and Tuesday is spaghetti night.  The budgeting I’m describing includes what I can make with the limited money I have every day or week.  This may result in every night being soup night or rice and beans night as whatever I make has to last several days. 
  1. Luxuries are truly luxuries: I never would have thought of a brownie as such but that is what did not make it into my budget.  Though most of us could use the help in weaning ourselves of sweets, it would be a choice.  Families with limited food budgets don’t have those same choices, making me realize the vast privileges I do have. 
  1. Healthy options are not always possible:  I did not get to blog about this topic this week but it was one that struck me from the moment that I made my purchases for food on Monday.  I was able to grab some healthy options that made my week not as bad as I originally expected but I certainly was not able to buy fresh vegetables either.  Jenna Umbriac nutrition coordinator for Manna Food drove this home for me at the press conference Monday morning.  She mentioned that they rarely get donations for fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone healthy donations of food.  She then asked us to consider what we like to eat and feed our families with when making donations to a food pantry.     
  1. Lastly, education is crucial: I realize that most of us do not always come across people in need of assistance.  We may hear about cases of need from the local paper or nonprofit but may not always get to experience the reality of it firsthand.  I urge you to learn more, ask questions and find out what you can do to make a difference in your own community.  
Thank you for joining me on this challenge as a reader and maybe even a participant.  I hope you too can take the lessons I’ve shared to SNAP the Silence on poverty here in Montgomery County, MD.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The last two days, I've been met with mixed reactions as I explain why I'm doing the SNAP the Silence challenge.  Some are excited to hear that we are trying to raise awareness about the challenges of low-income families in Montgomery County.  Others seem to think that its disingenuous emphasizing that people don't live on $5/day.  They have stressed that the program is a Supplemental program, which is what the S in SNAP represents. So I've decided to do some investigation to demystify the word.

To qualify for the SNAP program, a family of 4 needs to earn $30,000 gross according to the federal standards.  In return, they will receive $668/month to buy food for their family-which is approximately $20/day for the family or $5/day per person.  They may be able to utilize the rest of their income to buy food, but remember they still have to pay for housing, utilities, transportation, clothing, medical expenses, child care, toilet paper, etc.    

So I suspect the word Supplemental means it’s not supplementing their food budget but rather, their income to ensure that they can eat. 

We have a lot to learn about how our low-income families are living around us. Each day that I participate in this challenge, I’m forced to do more than just eat off $5/day.  I'm learning to research and explore what it really means to live with minimal means, leaving me face to face with numbers and stories that are uncomfortable to ignore.  And by doing so, I'm no longer the same.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

At the press conference yesterday to kick-off the SNAP the Silence Challenge, Montgomery County Media caught this picture of me shopping for food. I certainly was feeling a bit overwhelmed at buying food as I had not really planned out my meals for the week.  Had I done so, I believe I would have been much more successful at ensuring I had balanced meals all 5 days of the SNAP challenge.  

Luckily for me, I have an advantage in this challenge-I'm Puerto Rican. Traditionally, we eat a lot of rice and beans as the base of our meals.  Hence, this challenge has brought me back to my roots and enjoying some of my favorite foods.  For example, last night I took most of my roaster chicken and made a big pot of Puerto Rican chicken soup with rice, frozen butternut squash and spinach.  I think I made enough to last me the week and I still have not even touched my beans. So I think I should fare well the rest of the week assuming I don't grow too tired of leftovers.

That said, there is one thing I overlooked while shopping-my sweettooth. I did buy some clementines and raisins for my oatmeal in the morning, but of course today I got a serious craving for a brownie.  In that moment, nothing else could satisfy me.  I got frustrated at myself for not planning better because had I done so, I may have been able to fit in some luxuries in my $25 food budget for the week.
But maybe this is the point of this challenge.  There are no luxuries.  You have enough to sustain yourself without the extras that many of us take for granted. And we should all be grateful for what we can have.

Monday, February 4, 2013

SNAP the Silence

Councilmember Ervin has organized what is called the SNAP the Silence challenge. Starting today, anyone interested can try to experience life on public nutrition assistance by eating $5 per day for five days.  I along with many others, have decided to take the challenge not to bring attention to myself but rather, to raise awareness of the struggle many low-income families face right here in our community.  

According to the most recent Census, 12.4% of Wheatonites are living below the federal level of poverty.  The Census also states that the median household income for Wheaton is $74,000.  That might seem like a lot of money but the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard for Montgomery County states that a family of 4 needs a minimum of $70,000 to pay all of their bills--which turns out to be approximately $16.75/hour/adult.  So you can see where many families earning between $24,000 (the federal measure of poverty) and $70,000 might actually need help in getting all of their basic needs met.  

This really hit home for me as I purchased my food this morning for the week.  I bought some oatmeal for breakfast, a chicken roaster along with some milk, clementines and frozen vegetables.  I had to leave out bread from my purchase to meet the $25 spending limit.  I don't have time to cook food tonight so I plan to eat a can of tuna with some clementines as I wait for my evening meetings.  

Do you want to join the challenge?  You still have time.  My hope is that if you do, you too can begin understanding what your neighbor, colleague or closest friend might be experiencing.  And if you do, maybe together we can try to find solutions to this problem.

Follow me on twitter at @anavanbalen as I talk through what I learn in this challenge.