September 18, 2011

Day 7: Closing remarks

Well, here we are, folks – last day of the Challenge. It’s been radio silence on my end for the past few days while I spent some quality time with Coop celebrating our anniversary. Food’s a huge part of our recreation together, and we went out for a decadent meal at Bar Agricole. Incidentally, Jake Gyllenhaal was also eating there that night, and I got so stupidly star-struck that I could hardly finish my entree – which felt even more wasteful than usual. Plus Coop was totally upstaged.

I knew I’d definitely be cheating the Challenge for at least our anniversary, and had planned on compensating by going back on my diet of mostly PB&J’s and spaghetti this week. But I fell off the wagon. Hard. Not on Thursday – on Wednesday. I embarrassingly only made it half way.

First there was coffee. Then dinner at Pauline’s with a close friend I hadn’t seen in a while – lots of greens and all the garden-fresh produce I’d been forgoing. On Day 1 I was determined to stick it out, but stress had other plans for me. And after a rough week trying to cram everything on my to do list into 3 days, I could justify a little treat – acknowledging that my threshold for "rough week" is totally different than that of someone who actually has no fallback, no safety net, and faces an uphill battle to meet even their most basic needs. And granted, cheating ain’t an option when money’s tight. You can’t stress-eat or binge when you have just enough to last you through the week. But I was quick to fall into my usual habits after the initial sticker shock, spending nearly a whole day’s food stamp budget on espresso and a week’s budget on a meal.

Giving up coffee affected me more than I’d anticipated, and left me fatigued on top of being a bit overwhelmed at work. That latte (yea, I know, it *had* to be that) was consolation, and I savored it, being conscious to not take it for granted like I usually do. I’d forgotten how coffee suppressed my hunger, and I didn’t need to eat lunch until later in the afternoon, unlike Monday and Tuesday when my stomach had started growling at 11. It made me think about the connection between stimulants and hunger, and how cigarettes have the same effect and must be an even more potent drug for someone who’s not getting the nutrition they need.

Even after just 3 and a half days eating super processed foods and zero fruits and vegetables, my body was (and is) pissed at me. I’ve got rashes and a cold sore – a telltale sign that my resistance is low – and I’m barely staving off a sore throat. This diet has got to be hell for anyone with food sensitivities. And forget it if you want to try loading up on leafy greens and raw veggies to detox and calm an angry digestive system – unless you grow it, have some cheap source of bulk produce, or you’re getting it from pantries supplied by the Food Bank.

In some ways, I feel like my utter failure to live on this budget is a more effective personal lesson and message than if I’d passed with flying colors. It’s damn hard, and now I have some tiny sliver of experience and concrete proof of just *how* hard it is.

Without a doubt, I’m unbelievably privileged to have the option to spend such an absurd amount on the out-of-this-world food our city has to offer. 3 days off of the Challenge, I’m still blown away by the amazing food I have the luxury of affording and marveling at checks when I eat out or shop at a high-end grocery. I don't think the feeling will wear off right away. And my hope is still that that stark, vivid contrast of inequality will be a driving force that motivates me – along with anyone who took the Challenge or knew someone who took the Challenge – to do the long-term work to change the underlying causes of hunger in our community while making sure in the short run that hungry families have access to healthy food.

September 12, 2011

Day 2: More like Hanger Challenge

I’m fading fast at 11pm on Day 2, belly full of way too many salty refried beans – huevos rancheros hit the spot but left me in a lardy fog:

I probably wouldn’t be feeling so spacey and headachey I’d had more than a couple packets of oatmeal and a PB&J that COULD NOT be contained by two airy slices of lightweight 75 calorie Safeway brand Wonderbread:

I could’ve gone the more sensible labor-intensive lentil stew route, but my logic was go with fast and easy, minimal prep since that’s probably more authentic and representative of the experience of someone who has zero leisure time and little energy for cooking. The result has been that I’ve almost always needed to double suggested serving sizes. Especially last night. Behold, the spaghetti basket:

I made the mistake of leaving the house to go see a play last night without filling up first, and had to drool over a burrito Cooper ate for dinner, though I snuck a lick. Gross, yes. He also offered to buy me a beer before catching himself and realizing it was VERBOTEN).

I was a hot mess by 10pm, hangry and lashing out on the bus ride home. I don’t cope well with fluctuating blood sugar. By the time I got some pasta in my belly, I was remorseful for the 5 minutes before I was knocked out by the carbs coursing through my veins. It was the first time I’d been full all day.

Today was mercifully more mellow, with work to preoccupy me, plenty of oatmeal, and when afternoon rolled around and I toyed with sneaking a handful of pretzels from the office stash or buying a piece of candy off a coworker for a nickel with my fellow Hunger Challenger and boss, Madeline (though she doesn’t like to be call that, too much like “the man”), at least I had someone to strategize/commiserate with. Like when I was on an elimination diet trying to isolate a food allergy, this “diet” has been all I can talk about. It was dull then, but at least there’s a deeper purpose to this than treating eczema. Hot!

Some observations I made today – and really some of these feel so petty and na├»ve given that I’m certainly not *really* hungry, and this is such a pinhole view of how it actually feels to struggle with hunger all the time. But maybe there’s some broader truth to these experiences:

  • I was really cold all morning. I mean, sure, I’m always cold, but I just couldn’t warm up.
  • My sense of smell is super heightened. Like that one time I was hiking and hungry – stopped myself from saying starving there, feels especially hyperbolic – and half panicked because I thought we might not get to camp before dark and I somehow smelled a distant fire.
  • The people I’ve talked to about the Challenge (outside my office and the Food Bank) have for the most part fallen into two camps: 1) the folks that dismiss it as routine – “oh yea, I usually don’t spend anything on food.” and 2) those who have a personal connection with it – either because they’ve taken a similar challenge, or they themselves have been on food stamps or have experienced hunger.
My parents had the former reaction initially, but now that they’re taking the Challenge, they’ve had a different experience. I’ll see if I can post my mom’s diary here. A lot of people I’m close to – family included – have revealed their own experiences with hunger and struggling to get by on a fixed income, and I’m grateful that the campaign has helped open the door to conversations that otherwise probably wouldn't have happened.

You know I initially didn’t really like the Feeding America bus stop billboard ad campaign – “Hunger takes this bus too.” I guess I saw it in a new light with McDonald's as a backdrop, as I absent-mindedly did the math of buying 20 chicken McNuggets for $4.99 and somehow making them last 5 days. Yea. SAVING THEM. And sure, I'm still not convinced it’s the best way to frame their message. But I appreciate the sentiment that it’s this silent struggle that goes completely unnoticed unless we bring it out in the open and write about it and talk about it to try and remove the stigma.

September 11, 2011

Day 1: Privilege is a headache that you don't know that you don't have.

So after months of planning with the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks and hours of writing emails to convince people to sign up, I made the last-minute decision to put my money where my mouth is and take the Hunger Challenge this week. I'm going to try to stick to a food stamp budget -- only $4.72/day -- and revive my long-dead semi-embarrassing college-era blog to write about my small glimpse into what it's like to be hungry. And hopefully I’ll raise some awareness about hunger and the need for the Food Bank along the way.

I didn’t sign up because I wanted to prove that I could survive – that seems ignorant and self-indulgent – or because I'm contractually obligated as the Food Bank's online fundraising consultant to participate (kidding!). It's that I’ve never been hungry a day in my life, and this is so far from my daily reality that I felt like it was a responsibility to educate myself and gain a fuller understanding of the experience of 1 in 5 of my neighbors who don't know where their next meal is coming from.

I have the honor of working on this cause as part of my 9-5 – and I’m a long-time donor and true-believer, not shilling here – but I hope this experience will inspire me to do more outside of work. And beyond that, I hope it’ll inspire others to give to the Food Bank out of compassion for those who don’t have enough to eat and out of outrage at the injustice of living in a place so flush with gourmet food that's out of reach for 237,000 of our neighbors.

That’s what I’m doing here. If you’re here, and you want to take the Challenge too, there’s still time to join me – sign up here:

Now, for the interesting stuff: what food I’m buying, what I’m eating, and what’s been unexpected so far – with loads of pictures.