WASHINGTON — The head of Catholic Charities in this archdiocese recently experienced the struggle of low-income families relying on food stamps, noting that Christian charity lends vital support to those in need.
“Most of us don’t have a real sense of what it’s like to be on food stamps,” said Father John Enzler, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
From Oct. 9-15, Father Enzler participated in D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Food Stamp Challenge, pledging to spend only $30 on food for one week, the average amount allotted to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
He told Catholic News Agency that the experience allowed him to stand in solidarity with those in need, while also increasing his awareness of the challenges that face families and individuals who are trying to survive on food stamps.
Throughout the week, he experienced the struggle to be well-fed and healthy on such a small budget. In particular, he said, it was “really difficult” to eat nutritious food.
For Father Enzler, a typical dinner often consists of a small piece of chicken or fish with some vegetables. But he discovered that this is “almost impossible” on about four dollars per day.
Maintaining a healthy diet is “what made it really hard for me,” he said.
And while he could have cut costs by eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or more canned food, it struck him that the situation would be much less manageable over a longer period of time.
“This is just one week for me,” he said, while food-stamp recipients must deal with these choices all year long.
The other big challenge for Father Enzler came over the weekend, when he was invited out to eat with some friends.
While he tried to limit his spending, it still pushed him over his allotted budget, and he ended up spending about $37 by the end of the week.
Many people don’t realize that food-stamp recipients often can’t go out to eat, he observed. In most states, food stamps cannot be used at restaurants, and even cheap restaurants are difficult to manage on such a tight budget.
While eating out is a common way to relax after a long day or enjoy time with friends, a single outing could easily cost nearly half of your weekly food budget, he noted.
“You can’t go to restaurants,” he said. "You can’t have a beer. You can’t go out with your friends.”
Father Enzler said that the challenge helped him to “get a sense of what it’s like” for those who struggle to stay well-nourished in the U.S.
He created a video blog of his experience, which he shared with his staff to help them understand some of the challenges facing the people they are working with on a regular basis.
There is a need for greater awareness of these struggles, Father Enzler said, explaining that while some people may be tempted to complain that federal-aid recipients are getting free food, the experience of relying upon such a limited budget is very difficult.
And while some of the individuals receiving food stamps can supplement that aid with other money, many cannot, he said. Although people know that food stamps exist as a safety net for those who need it, many do not realize how tough it is to live on them.
Filling the Gap
Nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities help to “fill that gap” between what the government provides and other existing needs or temporary challenges, Father Enzler explained.
Through its many initiatives in the Washington, D.C., area, Catholic Charities helps feed tens of thousands of people each year.
A recent two-year government contract allows Catholic Charities' Food Service Program to serve healthy meals to up to 800 elderly Washington residents every day. The SHARE food network offers fresh, nutritious food packages at a discounted price, while the Montgomery County Family Center offers nutrition and cooking classes.
It is good to realize that there are those in need in our own back yard, said Father Enzler, observing that hunger is often thought of as a problem facing those in Africa or some other far-off country.
“People don't understand that people in our nation are hungry,” he said.
There are many ways that the faithful can help to ease the hunger of those around them, Father Enzler noted. Christians have the opportunity to speak up in their parishes and communities, volunteer in soup kitchens or organize local food drives.
“Jesus said clearly, ‘Feed the hungry,’” he said. “This is our chance.”