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Karen O'Keefe of "On Second Glance"

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Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist... Read more

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Karen O'Keefe of "On Second Glance"

SNAP Challenge Day One: Action Almost Replaces Fear

Thank goodness, the SNAP Challenge has begun. For days, I have been dreading this week.

I have completed the first of five days on our $5-per-person food budget (my husband and I are doing this together so we had $50 to work with for today and the four days to come), my stomach is full and I am pretty calm. The dread is ebbing away.

I know that by raising my awareness about the struggles of working families to put food on their tables, I will be better able to actively work for change that will allow more people to live lives in which every waking moment is not played out against a backdrop of worry and fear about meeting basic necessities.

It is already working. Valerie Ervin, county council member and leader of the SNAP challenge, was joined by myriad other community leaders at a terrific news conference this morning, after shopping for groceries at Giant. I watched the news conference on Montgomery Community Media’s website and much that was said inspires me.

For one thing, I plan to do better when it comes to food I donate to MANNA and other places. A person at the press conference suggested that people might better enjoy eating food that I like to eat, as opposed to eating food I know I will never eat — like canned rutabagas — just to pick a random food I can’t imagine eating, but can imagine finding on my pantry shelves.

SNAP Challenge benefit: Upgrade future donated food. Done.

Why am I relieved the SNAP Challenge is now underway?

Even though I thought the SNAP Challenge was something I should do — once I agreed to do it, I spent several days whining (mostly to myself – I didn’t want others to know) and obsessing about how tough it is going to be for me to eat on $5.00 a day.

My first thought: Where does ice cream fit in?

I know I am spoiled.  I know I take the many blessings in my life for granted.

I proved it last week with my level of anxiety.

People tried to reassure me, to little effect. I got plenty of advice about meal planning and shopping venues, and I am grateful to have so many caring people in my life.

Nonetheless, I secretly thought if I heard the words, “brown rice,” one more time last week, I would have to pack up, leave my family, and move out of state to get out of the SNAP Challenge’s jurisdiction. I have never liked brown rice.

“Of course, you will want to buy some brown rice because it’s got the blah-blah nutritious germ thing, blah-blah, in it and is better for you, blah-blah, than white rice blah-blah.”

In my head, one thought was screaming at me. What if I can’t afford chicken broth to cook the brown rice in to give it a little flavor?

“Put some black beans in the rice and you’ll have a whole blah-blah meal…”

It didn’t help, either, when, in desperation, I looked at the recipes on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website as suggested in a missive from my leader-for-a-week,  chief SNAP Challenger Ervin. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture web site offers recipe tips on how to stretch a meager food budget.”

A casserole with potatoes that also uses a can of tomato soup? Five hundred ninety-four recipes, most of which have only been tried by three people? After I read a couple of recipes, I plummeted into despair.

This would be the worst week of my life. What if I had to eat peas?

I  had an epiphany. I am neurotic about food.

My husband and I discussed what we would be eating this week. This was a pleasant change and another SNAP Challenge benefit since, as the chief cook in our relationship (I have more time), I usually leave him out of meal planning and do whatever I want to do, often at the last minute, with little or no regard to cost. I now see some benefit in this collaboration-with-the-husband thing. It made us more of a team. We did some of the shopping together too. We had fun.

We decided to have cereal on hand for the SNAP days. I tried to keep a tremor from my voice, as I asked what kind of cereal he thought we should purchase.

“Oatmeal would be great,” he said agreeably. “It’s cheap too.”

More despairing, psychic plummeting.  I hate warm, mushy, gray food.

Secondarily, I felt a surge of annoyance. He knows I hate oatmeal, I thought. He eats it all the time and I never touch it. The world is against me and he is leading the charge.

Next, I started to feel guilty about being a fussy eater.  Here is this terrific husband, joining me on the SNAP Challenge, supporting me, caring about the plight of folks who struggle to put food on the table, and all he wants is to do something reasonable for breakfast cereal.

He looked at me with concern. “But you’re not that crazy about oatmeal. What kind of cereal would you like?”

A saint, I thought.  I married a saint.

“Cheerios or the generic?” I whispered weakly.

“Fine,” he said with a smile.

I had been rehearsing my next anxiety attack for days. It was about whether we would be able to afford the teeny-weeny miniscule teaspoon of sugar I like to put on Cheerios. Would I have to buy a five-pound bag of sugar to get the small amount necessary? Would Valerie Ervin think sugar was a condiment so I could use pre-existing sugar? Should I call Valerie?

A friend who lives on a stringent budget took me aside and explained I could buy a small amount of sugar at the dollar store.

I put the Cheerio thing on hold, and I actually purchased oatmeal.

However, I did go to a “dollar store” to check things out.

My question is this: Why do they call it a dollar store when everything costs more than a dollar?

To wrap up my Day One Blog:

This morning we had eggs and toast. For lunch, my husband brought to the office a bologna sandwich and coffee in his thermos. He brought Ramen noodles as well, but could not enjoy them. In his mind, he mixed them up with Cup-of-Soup and therefore, he did not bring a bowl to cook them in. Tuesday, we will send him to work with a bowl. I skipped lunch – a bad habit of mine.

Tonight we had brown rice with black beans and chicken. I used a large package of cheap chicken thighs, which I baked.

At first, it looked like it would be a lot of chicken. Yet, once I cut off the fat and excess skin, baked them, cut off the remaining skin and more fat, and took the meat off the bones, it was less than I expected.

You see, while sometimes I use thighs in cooking, I am accustomed to using breasts — which have a lot more meat.  I guess there was a reason these thighs were as inexpensive as they were. They had miniscule amounts of meat hiding behind big plump skins.

My husband said he liked dinner – and he seemed to. As if to prove it, he had more than one helping, which also stirred a tiny panic.  I had planned for us to eat this stuff all week.

To my shock, I liked it too.

I say my husband seemed to enjoy dinner because later I became convinced he hadn’t really tasted a thing. When dinner was over,considerately, he pointed out that I had a fragment of a “raisin” between my teeth.

“Couldn’t be a raisin,” I said. “It must be a black bean – that’s what we had for dinner.”

“Oh, those dark things in the rice were black beans?” he asked.

And so readers, I know you are cheering for us. Clearly, we aced Day One. Now that the SNAP Challenge is underway, I am increasingly hopeful I will get through the week without a nervous breakdown over things like oatmeal, or whether I can put sugar on Cheerios. Mood follows action.

Talk to you tomorrow.


Karen O'Keefe

About Karen O'Keefe

Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist for The Town Courier, an independent biweekly newspaper based in Gaithersburg. Her blog, “On Second Glance,” explores everyday life and current events with insight, grace and humor.


4 Responses to “SNAP Challenge Day One: Action Almost Replaces Fear”

  1. On February 5, 2013 at 11:08 am responded with... #

    This is awesome I felt like I took the snap challenge with you..your a great writer can’t wait to read day 2!

  2. On February 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm responded with... #

    Kudos to Karen and hubby (and to Valerie Ervin)! I am so impressed by the journey you’re embarking on and loved your blog. Thank you for sharing and for helping us to understand the SNAP program and struggles of its recipients. I too will change my food pantry donation habits! Waiting for the next day’s entry….

  3. On February 5, 2013 at 5:47 pm responded with... #

    Thoroughly enjoyed hearing of your experience with the “challenge”. We will be looking forward to the next four days!

  4. On February 7, 2013 at 2:24 pm responded with... #

    Karen, in your post, I read many tidbits of “food for thought”. You touched on gratitude, and anxiety over having enough food and yikes, maybe not having the food you most enjoy. You mentioned dislike for brown rice and oatmeal, but also were willing eventually to give both a try. I enjoyed your humor and reflecting on the small blessings of life…and the big ones, too, like a great supportive husband, collaborating on a common project, and most of the time have more than you need to survive!

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