The food stamp challenge and the faces of the hungry in Madison

I participated in a press event organized by Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. They are encouraging faith communities to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge. I was invited because Grace Church has had a pantry since 1979.

Here’s what I had to say:

In 1979, visionary members of Grace responded to the growing need in our community by starting a food pantry. Those founders aren’t around anymore but I’ll bet if they were, they would tell me that they had no idea that the pantry they founded would still be in operation nearly 35 years later.

I see them every afternoon lining up before our pantry opens its doors. White, African-American, Hispanic, Asian; old and young, parents or grandparents with children, occasionally even college students. I see the diversity that is twenty-first century America, the diversity that is hunger and poverty in our great nation on display within sight of the State Capitol. Their stories are as diverse as their ages and the color of their skin—the elderly or disabled on fixed incomes who are trying to scrape by until the next check comes, unemployed or underemployed people trying to supplement the pay from a job that doesn’t provide a living wage; college students who can’t afford to pay tuition, room and board; homeless people, too. On Saturday mornings, our guests are mostly employed, but their low-pay jobs don’t pay them enough to make ends meet. I’ve handed food out to people who had absolutely nothing to feed their children that afternoon; I’ve given formula to a grandmother whose baby grandchild had been abandoned by her mother and she had come to us in desperation.

These are the faces of the hungry in America. The SNAP program, what we used to call food stamps is intended to supplement, not provide, food for people who have nowhere else to turn except to food pantries and meal programs, people who are supposed to be able to feed themselves. And the amount that’s provided is barely enough to ensure adequate nutrition—the equivalent of $29 and change every week per person.

Those of us with homes, jobs, adequate clothing, and adequate food have no idea what it’s like to live without those things. As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen in our country, and we’ve learned that the US has the greatest income disparity of any of the world’s developed nations, the gap of comprehension of what it’s like to live without is growing as well. Most of us never see those lines waiting outside the pantry, or later in the evening, the line of men waiting to enter the Men’s Shelter at Grace. If by chance we encounter it, we avert our eyes or cross to the other side of the street. To experience that world, the world of want and deprivation is a greater shock than traveling to another country. To experience it, even in something so simple as the Food Stamp Challenge, is to begin to comprehend the struggles faced by so many in our society, struggles faced day after day, year after year.

As we approach the Christian season of Lent, traditionally a season of fasting and repentance in preparation for the remembrance of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, it’s appropriate for us to imitate the one who we believe became like us, by walking in the footsteps of our brothers and sisters who live in poverty and want.


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