Two weeks ago, I was taking the SNAP Challenge: a charge from the Sojourners blog to live as if we were on food stamps. I did quite well on sticking to my 54ish dollars' worth of groceries. But I ended up eating out quite a bit, and it could be said that I did not keep to a SNAP-worthy budget. I attended a birthday party for a friend at a favorite local restaurant and ended up spending $25 on dinner. The next day, my husband insisted we go to the home of our friend, Calvin, for a barbeque. When I arrived, bunch of my friends from different parts of my life were assembled in the living room. In response to my look of confusion, they shouted, "Surprise!" It was a surprise birthday party for me! We had a feast, topped off with ice cream cake and much merrymaking. Technically, I'm supposed to count the cost of my share of the meal into the weekly total, even though it was given to me.
On Sunday, I headed out with the Harvard-Epworth UMC Young Adult Brunch Bunch. A generous donor from our congregation has given funds so that we can all go our to eat after church. We each put in $5, and the church covers the rest. It is so gracious and a hugely important social time for the grad students and young professionals of our church. $5 is definitely a more reasonable amount to pay when going out, but it was not the true cost of my meal. All in all, I spent nearly as much eating out in 3 days as I spent for the rest of the week's groceries.
One the one hand, I could feel guilty about spending so much on eating out, and chastise myself for not sticking to my own monthly budget, let along a SNAP-worthy budget. But on the other hand, I had had two downright rotten weeks at work and needed more than a little cheering up. Friends and food often go hand-in-hand, and I needed my friends more than ever that weekend. I can't allow myself to feel bad about going out, because I would have come out of that week much more demoralized without them. Our emotions and perceptions affect our qualify of life as much as the food we ingest.
Yet again, reflecting on my life circumstances reminds me that the features of socio-economic status and class-based privilege unfold like lettuce leaves, slices of privilege and lack thereof interlocking continuously. I qualify for food stamps and live on a shoestring budget, but I live in Cambridge, in proximity to friends my age and free arts programs. I have access to nutritious food, even if it costs a lot. I come from a genuinely middle-class background and live a mainly middle-class life here... barely.
I'm also reminded that while the privilege of wealth separates people of different classes and backgrounds, our needs are the same. Everyone goes out (or stays in) with friends when they need a little cheering up. Income simply dictates the venue. Perhaps if I were not from a middle-class background, I might have gone to a lower-priced bar and eaten cheaper food that Friday night. If I had been at a dive bar or a neighborhood bar, instead of a popular restaurant, my meal would almost certainly not have been as nutritious. We need relationships and good food as much as we need clothing and shelter. I have seen this on the street with Cambridge Outdoor Ministries. A social network exists on the street just as it does among housed people. We need one another, and God provides for us through one another. The gift of a birthday barbeque was a powerful one for me.
What does it mean to be a Christian and walk this economic tightrope? I'm still figuring it out. But I am reminded that I am not the only one. So many in this country need help to buy food for themselves, and the number of those receiving SNAP has grown steadily since the recession started. They are in our churches, in our workplaces, on our city buses, and they may even be us. God especially cares for those who need help to meet their basic need (theologians call this care God's "preferential option for the poor"). Likewise, we ought to care for their well-being and see that their needs are met. "They", "the poor", might just be us.