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.


Anonymous said...

Really? You couldn't do something that thousands of Americans (including myself) have to do every week?

I just finished my dinner. Since the Hunger Challenge is all about sharing and support and stuff, maybe you could tell me what a good job I'm doing here.

I went shopping today, and splurged on some fresh fruit and fancy CoffeeMate creamer for me coffee, so I went $5 over my weekly budget of $50. Among other things, I got some cheap chicken thighs (the stuff that goes bad almost as soon as you tear the shrink-wrap off of it), cheapo bacon, some fresh cilantro, green onions, a couple small bags of pasta, some top ramen, some cheap cheese that's mostly filler and food coloring, and a bag of frozen mixed veggies.

In the refrigerator, I have some milk, butter, tortillas, a few eggs leftover from early this month (the local store sells boxes of 5 dozen) and some cream cheese leftover from last week, as well as the last of the fresh spinach that I need to cook before it goes bad. In my cupboard, I have some coffee, rice, two cans of condensed store-brand cream of mushroom soup, flour, and assorted spices that I've collected over time (some of which still have the large red stickers saying 99cents!).

I braised and shredded the chicken when I got home, so that it would be cooked and refrigerated before it went bad. Tonight the boyfriend made a wrap with some of the chicken and some of the spinach, and a bit of cheese.

I'm still battling pneumonia (I have an autoimmune disorder, and soy makes my medication less effective, but that's something that I have to live with) so I went for a bowl of ramen noodle soup with a bit of cilantro and chicken. That meal cost less than $2 for the both of us.

Today I also had some leftovers for lunch (pasta in a white sauce; consisting of: cooked pasta, butter, flour, milk, and spices), and for breakfast I had a scrambled egg with some spinach and a cup of coffee with sugar and milk.

I eat like this every day. Every meal I make (for two people) costs less than $2.

And do you know what the worst part is? I'm not on food stamps. I don't qualify, because in the system my part-time-minimum-wage job should be enough to support me, because they assume that I'm working 20 hours a week, when I'm only working 5, and only when they need the additional person. Sometimes I go for weeks without any hours at all.

Heather_B said...

(Must’ve missed this along with a batch of other unmoderated comments a couple months back…)

Really? You didn’t have the guts to sign your name to this snarky comment?

You seem like you've got a real axe to grind. I think you’re barking up the wrong blog.

Taking what you’ve said at face value -- setting aside the sarcasm -– you seem to have little trouble living on a tight budget. Good for you. But that’s not everyone’s experience, and I’d wager it’s not a walk in the park for folks with a family to feed.

And really, I couldn’t do it. But who cares if it was hard for me. It’s not ultimately about me or the other people that took the Challenge. The thing is, if you get people to walk in someone else’s shoes -- even for 3 days, even if they fail -- they’ll share that pinhole window of experience with someone who has no point of reference for what it’s like to be hungry. You get people who have the means to make an impact to take a personal stake in changing the status quo for millions -- not thousands -- of Americans who *are* struggling to stay on a budget.

In part, the solution is greater access to food stamps -- and I agree with you that rules which exempt part-time workers are part of the problem -- and it’s also about access to low- or no-cost healthy food.

You said yourself that the cheapest food is often the most processed and the least fresh – which is a key point the San Francisco Food Bank was making with the Challenge (and at the time – already fully disclosed – I was working for them). If you’re living on a budget, food stamp or otherwise, produce often isn’t an option, so that’s why the Food Bank is such an important resource to the community. They make sure local pantries are stocked with fresh produce, protein, staples, etc. You helped illustrate that.

Look, I’m incredibly fortunate, but I’m still far from the 1%. I’m not here because I wanted to do something noble or magnanimous. It’s not about condescension. It’s about an honest desire to raise consciousness about a problem that’s often overlooked by media and by more affluent Americans. It's about telling a personal story -- however trivial when compared with the reality of those in poverty -- that can nonetheless be eye-opening for those who can make a difference. And it doesn’t warrant this disrespect.