An imam and a man who knows poverty up close and personal came together in understanding the other day.
It happened over a grocery cart.
Said the first, Tamim Saidi, 39, who came to Minnesota 20 years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan, “Let’s see what I remember from my college days’’ about shopping cheap.
Said the other, Dennis Boe: “For me, it’s daily life, so you’re just playing a game.’’
A Food Stamp Challenge grocery shopping trip Sunday brought together Boe, who lives on about $1,000 a month in disability payments and other income supports, and Saidi, vice president of the board of the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth, as well as 20 other religious leaders of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.
Their goal: buy a week’s worth of food for $31.50 per person, the weekly national average amount allocated to the poor through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program of the federal government, formerly called food stamps.
Then see how far that money goes.
“This is a tiny, tiny glimpse of what it’s like’’ to be poor, stressed Rabbi Amy Eilberg, one of the guiding hands behind the effort to raise public awareness of hunger and to engage religious leaders in a better understanding of poverty and food insecurity.
“What’s really important,’’ Eilberg tells the group before sending them out into biting-cold winds on a multi-block walk to a discount grocery store, “is where it goes after this,’’ whether participants work harder advocating for the poor and what action Congress and legislators take to help.
‘Is anyone here poor?’
At Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, where they meet before shopping, is Boe, who somehow has heard of their challenge and joined the group.
“Is anyone here poor?” he asks. No one answers.
“If you don’t’ live it day by day, you don’t know how to do it,’’ Boe says, holding up a cloth bag stuffed with ads from a variety of grocery stores.
There’s truth to that. Accustomed to middle-class incomes, some shoppers arrive having given little thought to the foods they’ll purchase. They soon realize they must settle for beans rather than meat, that grocery shopping on a tight budget is a balancing act between nutrition and filling foods.
But the Rev. Patricia Lull, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, one of the sponsors, comes armed with a shopping list neatly penned in blue ink and including wheat bread and peanut butter, canned red beans and oatmeal, carrots, coffee and chicken legs.
She shares her experience on Facebook: “Spent $26.67 in the Food Stamp Challenge. No dairy, few fruits and vegetables. Will look for a better place to spend the remaining $4.83,” she writes.
On the walk Boe attaches himself to Saidi to share his advice.
Courtesy of Foldes Consulting LLC
He tells Saidi about a food program where he accesses food coupons and a bakery where he buys discounted bread. He’s invested in a suitcase with wheels to carry his groceries from store to bus to apartment because his car is “dying.’’
A flyer listing sale food items in hand, the pair thread their way up and down grocery aisles at a Cub Foods on 26th Avenue South.
Saidi pauses at a bin of clearance food items, including cake mixes, but turns away. “This is luxury food,’’ he says.
Thoughtfully, he adds items to his cart, a bottle of vegetable oil, apples selling for 88 cents a pound, olives for “some protein,’’ and two cans of minestrone soup, choosing to buy for his entire family rather than a single person.
Boe suggests his money will go further if the soup is homemade. The soup returns to the shelf.
Other shoppers are just as careful.
Search for healthy food
Laurie Radovsky, from St. Paul, a member of Beth Jacob congregation in Mendota Heights, searches for healthy foods like organic peanut butter and foregoes pasta for more nutritious potatoes.
Kosher foods aren’t affordable in this budget, so Rabbi Eilberg stocks her cart with milk, bread, cottage cheese, hard cheese and eggs, four cucumbers, four peppers, a head of iceberg lettuce. If there’s money left over, she’ll buy granola or cookies, she says.
Meat, because of its higher price, is off their menus, but some shoppers buy a few cans of tuna. Many buy beans and rice. They worry about the shopping challenges of feeding children and the elderly.
“There are so many thing you walk by and can’t afford because of the budget they put us on,’’ says shopper Elliot Schochet, 13, accompanied by his father Wes Schochet. Both are members of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
The issue of hunger is very central to Islamic teachings, Zafar Siddiqur, director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Resource Group, tells me, and fasting is an important element of their religious observance.
“We understand what it is to be hungry,’’ Siddiqur says.
MinnPost photo by Cynthia Boyd
One of the reasons for fasting is to feel sympathy and empathy for the starving, says Saidi, who with some of the others has pledged to feed his family for a week on what he has purchased that day.
Shopping finished, participants talk about the commonalty in their faiths: the responsibility to feed the hungry and help the poor.
Judi Tennebaum, a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, says, “I really hate the idea we think this is working for poor people to eat this way.’’
“Nobody should have to buy the same food every week because they can’t afford to buy anything else, not in the richest country in the world,’’ says Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action.
As for Boe and Saidi?
“By the end I think [Boe] understood it was not a game for us,’’ Saidi says, and “he could tell me how hard it is for him.’’
A discussion on hunger
People interested in learning more about combating hunger in Minnesota can attend a discussion from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at First Baptist Church, 499 N. Wacouta St., St. Paul. For more information, contact Eilberg at email@example.com.