Nichole Collins MacMillan

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Lunch and Learn: Day 2 of the SNAP Challenge

With the breakfast question settled with scrambled eggs and fruit, the next step of figuring out a SNAP budget for our family is lunch. With school lunch costs at our school beginning at $4.25/child/day, it is obvious we won’t be trying to fit school lunches into the SNAP budget. In fact, sometime last year, we decided that it wasn’t working for our children to eat school lunch on OUR budget. With accounts “full” of funds connected to my debit card, my growing boys were spending at least $5/day on lunch, often adding bottled drinks and extra cookies to the tally. There are multiple ways to solve this problem, but our family decided to go the lunchbox route. We can pack a generous and healthier lunch box – that actually includes a piece of fruit I’m pretty sure they will eat – for far less than $5/day. Now, if there is money in their school lunch account, it’s because they put it there – from their own pockets.


Over the past year, I have learned that I can fill a lunch box for less than $2.50/child. That’s too high for this experiment, so the boys and I talked about how to get that cost down. They would be happy to fill up on chips, but I am committed to making sure there is both fruit and protein in the box – and hopefully a piece of chocolate. Here is what we settled on.

Just a few more days and this ragged out lunch box is going in the trash.  Why do boys throw their lunch boxes around?

Just a few more days and this ragged out lunch box is going in the trash. Why do boys throw their lunch boxes around?

I’m not crazy about the ramen, but at $.25 a package it seems to be a big part of a SNAP diet (and my boys think of it as college food) so we are going to go with it for the week. The boys have access to microwaves in the lunchroom, but the lines are often long, so on Monday morning they decided to cook their ramen at home and put it in bowls in their lunch boxes. That was a bad idea. Hot ramen in glass bowls leads to melted string cheese and chocolate by lunch time. Lesson learned, but, remember, there’s no money in their lunch accounts to add to what is left in the lunch box. The boys were really hungry when they got home! Where are the snacks in this plan? (For today’s boxes we cooked the ramen last night and cooled it in the fridge. They are going to have to wait in line for the microwave but their cheese will still be solid and so will the little chocolate bar – $.42 in case you were wondering!)


Here’s the part of including children in a family SNAP challenge that doesn’t work like it does for families really living with the help of SNAP benefits: Children in families who have SNAP benefits likely also receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school. That means more of the daily SNAP budget can go towards dinner, glasses of milk, and healthy snacks – most weeks, but not always.


The truth is families who rely on SNAP along with free breakfasts and lunches at school have to solve this issue every weekend and every school break. For many, weekends and school breaks create a nutrition gap for children that leaves them tired and unprepared to learn on Monday morning. School teachers – and our children – will tells us about students who are always hungry, sleepy in class, and struggling to focus. They didn’t have enough to eat over the weekend.


To begin to address this issue, many faith communities – including ours -provide backpacks of simple, easy to eat foods to go home with the hungriest children in local schools. The cans of ravioli, cups of fruit, and granola bars are helpful for these kids, but in the end, they are nothing more than a small bandage over a huge problem.

Volunteers pack food boxes for our Backpack Buddies over Christmas break.

Volunteers pack food boxes for our Backpack Buddies over Christmas break.


According to the USDA 15.8 million children in America live in households where access to healthy food is inadequate. 45% of SNAP recipients are children under the age of 18, and 21.5 million children received free or reduced lunch at school in 2013. Only 2.5 million of those children were able to take advantage of summer lunch programs. As we are eating out, tailgating, and entertaining on the weekends and all summer long, I have to wonder, what are all of those children eating? What can we do to change the way things are?  What am I called to do to make a difference?


I don’t know the answers. I just know that I need to understand the problem from as many perspectives as possible. I need to know what it is like to try to feed growing, adolescent boys on $4.15 a day. They – and I – need to feel our stomachs rumble in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe then, over dinner, we can imagine new possibilities, grow in our compassion, and be moved to change something about our world.

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