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.

The biggest challenge so far has been the mental work and stress around meal-planning and budgeting – it’s all-consuming and exhausting. I’ve had the luxury of getting preoccupied with choosing from too many food options every day – lunch in the Financial District, takeout of every cuisine imaginable, fresh produce from Alemany Farmer’s Market. There’s some decision fatigue that happens – ahem, first world problems – so I thought there might be some reprieve in having a proscribed menu. But clearly I take the convenience of pre-prepared foods and fresh ingredients for granted, since so far it’s only been nerve-racking. And I haven’t even eaten my fifth peanut butter and jelly in a row yet or had dizzying cravings.

I made my first failed attempt to spend the $33.04 at Good Life, my neighborhood grocery store on Cortland in Bernal Heights. It’s small but well-stocked, and I pay a premium for being able to walk to and from the market without scaling the hill. I made it this far before I hit the $26 mark and realized I was shit out of luck:

Instant espresso was the first luxury I sacrificed (though I know that’s not an option for a lot of my fellow habitual coffee drinkers). But those cage-free eggs – $2.99 for a dozen – turned out to be a steal, cheaper even than what I found at Safeway last night. Walgreens at Mission and 30th had lower quality eggs for $2.19, so I got lucky.

Safeway was my savior, especially with a Club Card – any shopper can get one for free.

The menu, plus some highlights:
  • BREAKFAST: Instant maple oatmeal, probably two packets at a time ($2.50 for a box with 10 packets)
  • LUNCH: It’s all about the PB&J – decent natural peanut butter with no additives for $3.49 and jelly for $3.89. Alternating that with grilled cheese, supplemented with tortillas and salsa to fill me up.
  • DINNER: I’m planning on alternating between huevos rancheros (using a dozen handmade tortillas for $2.99 from the mercado at Cortland and Mission, cheddar cheese for $2.50 and a can of salsa verde for $0.59) and spaghetti with marinara ($0.99 and $2.00).
  • A loaf of wheat bread without HFCS for $2.49 was a total score.
  • Who knew Smuckers’ “Orchard” line was also made with real sugar?
  • A mammoth can of Rosarita refried beans (9 servings) cost me only $3.09, and should be more than enough.

After ruining a couple poached eggs yesterday, I realized every morsel is going to be precious, I’m coveting every dab of egg yolk and sliver of butter – no screw-ups and nothing wasted. It’s all going straight into the munching cave.

In retrospect, the decision to gorge myself last night at Blue Plate was maybe not the greatest, since my stomach is now expecting that level of fullness. But here was my modest breakfast:

A tortilla tided me over for some heavy-lifting helping my friends move in the afternoon.

As with booze, the first casualty of low blood-sugar for me has been sound decision-making. Had I not been shaky after yoga and lifting furniture, I probably wouldn’t have run the two blocks for the bus, slipped on dog shit, and shattered my phone on the sidewalk. I’m sure it was a sight for anyone with the fortune to be walking on South Van Ness at the time. I’m fortunate enough to have a very loving supportive partner who grilled me a cheese and cleaned the poop off my shoe the minute I walked in the door, down-trodden and smelling like shit. The grilled cheese was my hero, crumbs and all, I ate it too fast to capture its glory on film, though I’m learning to savor.

I’m skeptical about this three meals a day thing.


Karen said...

I laughed out loud at your $26 basket of food. I'm participating the the challenge too and I'm sorry that you had such a rough first day. Tomorrow will be better I'm sure.

Heather_B said...

SO much better. Thanks Karen! Ugh, your cooking is totally drool-worthy. Nice work.

tpaperny said...

So glad you're doing this! Yes that Bernal grocery store is just obscene when you come to really compare prices. Reminds me of the time MZP foiled a whole box of eggs whilst attempting to poach them. I've had similarly shitty poaching luck recently.

Here's to your poaching future successes!

Anonymous said...

Preparing for The Hunger Challenge is making me think about our food spending habits. I was going to point out that a pound of dry pintos can be had for $1.50. But then you have to add some flavoring and, as you've said, spend a lot of time--chopping onions, garlic, etc. So maybe the can of beans is a better deal for the circumstances...surprising.

Odd that a pound of pinto beans in the Mexican food section of corporate grocery store costs less than a different brand on the bean row.

We did a big shopping trip just before the Food Challenge began and are working our way through the fresh items before starting the restricted diet, but we have had two low-budget meals per day and are gearing up to begin a week-long regimen of the real deal. - Fay