A Place at the Table

As I wipe the smudge of ash from the back of my hand and prepare for bed, I am both excited and anxious about the fast I am beginning tomorrow. I know, I know – I’m a day late. Lent started today, Ash Wednesday, and so my fast should have started today. But I haven’t attempted to fast in quite some time and it’s taken me a little extra time to decide how I am going to approach this Lenten fast.

I will be leading a group at my church in a study of Chris Seay’s book, A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor.  In it, Seay suggests fasting not by abstaining from food but by adopting the diet of the poor.  The personal example he gives is that of following the basic diet of a child he was sponsoring in Uganda.  Rather than limit the amount of food he ate during that fast, he limited the kinds of food he allowed himself.  He tried to subsist off of the same food choices this child would have had to choose from.

I started out thinking along those same lines, but couldn’t decide what part of the world to “adopt.”  Then I got to thinking: what would it be like to be poor in America?  Specifically, what would it be like to be among the “working poor” in America – to bust your rump at a job day in and day out and still barely manage to scrape by?  Since the “Great Recession” of 2008, such a hand-to-mouth existence has become all too familiar to a growing number of people in the United States.

So, I set out to estimate what someone making minimum wage would have to spend on food each week.  I intend to fast by limiting myself to that same food allowance for two meals per day.  (Enjoying an evening meal is a customary way of breaking a daily fast. Plus, I want to preserve dinner time as family time and I don’t want the sparse amount of food on my plate to become the daily focus of conversation around the table). Here’s what I’ve come up with:

My Assumptions

I am earning minimum wage.  Currently the minimum wage in Maryland, where I live, is $7.25 per hour (equivalent to the federal minimum wage).

I am (for the moment) only working one job.

I am working close to full-time without being full-time.  This is based on my experience in a retail job five years ago, at which I happened to earn minimum wage ($6.80 at the time).  The company maintained few full-time employees to avoid paying benefits.  Most of my fellow workers and I were scheduled to work just under full-time (37 hrs, 38 hrs…) week after week.  My calculations are based on an average of 38 hours per week – which is generous.  Many workers do not get such a high number of hours consistently at one job without being full-time.

I work each week and I am paid each week.

I am working a job where FICA, Medicare, and state/federal/local taxes are withheld from my wages.

I have no other mouths to feed but my own.

I am able to devote 10% of my weekly income toward food – just to keep the math simple. (Recent USDA statistics show that in 2010 Americans spent an average of 9.4% of their income on food.

Since I probably would not have a car, based on my earnings, I will not buy more food at one time than I can carry while walking and I will not shop anywhere I could not walk (or take the bus) to from my home.(Somehow I don’t think the first half of this stipulation is going to be much of a problem).

Ergo …

$7.25 x 38 hrs = $275.50 per week (gross); $224.62 (net) after taxes. 10% of my take-home pay would be $22.46 (rounded to the nearest penny). That gives me $1.07 to spend per meal per day ($22.46 divided by 21 meals per week and rounded to the nearest penny).  I will have a mere $2.14 to spend per day on breakfast and lunch, or $14.98 per week – and in metro DC no less.

This is going to be very interesting.  I plan to post updates each day to share how I’m doing and what I’m learning.  Your prayers on this journey are much appreciated.

My Realization

As challenging as this is going to be, many people in this country and around the world face life with resources much scarcer than the ones I have allocated myself – both in terms of what they have to spend and where they have to spend it. Even with my self-imposed limits on food allowance and travel, I will have options for spending my money.  There are two grocery stores within 1.5 miles of my house.

My Conclusion

After prayerfully wrestling with all of this, I’m okay with being a day late starting this fast.  The much greater challenge will come in being a dollar (or twenty) short from now until Easter.

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