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Sticker Shock

Guest post by Food Bank Grants Coordinator, Don McCall: I started the Hunger Challenge a couple of weeks after my doctor had put me on a new low-calorie, low-fat, low-salt diet due to some changes in my health. I had already become used to eating less, having fewer choices and not having all of the easy eating options I used to have, so I figured this would be ‘a piece of cake’ (not on my diet). I planned on not having to make very much of a change, maybe just drinking discount tea instead of Earl Grey and stopping the Diet Cokes. I did my shopping at Safeway as usual, got home and tallied up the damage. What a shock. I was lucky, as Shredded Wheat ‘n Bran was on sale for almost half price, but I was still over budget and hadn’t even added in the chicken, low-fat cheese and unsalted peanut butter I usually buy. I went to go to Trader Joe’s to do some repurchasing and was able to save several dollars on their apples and bananas, but this just brought me down to my spending limit – no chicken, cheese or peanut butter this week. Normally when I get hunger pangs I can snack on extra cereal, cheese and peanut butter. This week I have to suffer through it and just imagine having to live like this and realize that many children and their families aren’t able to say “I can’t wait until Saturday when I can start eating again”.

Arthur Drops Out and People Ate My Food

Guest post by Jess Bart-Williams: Well, this was a challenging day.  Arthur chose to discontinue his participation, which through me into the individual plan instead of the family plan.  So instead of the two of us living on $9.44 a day, now I am living on $4.46 a day.  Not too different, but an adjustment nonetheless.  My previous post explained my accounting error regarding toast, so there is an adjustment for $0.86.  Today I exceeded my daily allowance, but I’m being judged on the week, and I saved some money on Tuesday, so I still have a chance to make it to the end of the week with that beef with broccoli stir fry.
I had the opportunity to visit Joey’s pot luck Thursday get together.  We’re trying to start something similar here, so I really wanted to see how the kids got along and what the experience was like as a parent.  I can’t wait to start ours here in Hercules.  Hopefully I will have a healthier relationship to sharing food when I attend ours as well.  Socializing without money stinks.  Everybody knows that.  Now try going to a pot luck with your $2.00 dinner and a promise to not accept food from others and see if you can do better than I did.  I was chuckling at myself for all of the petty stuff going through my head. As people were eating my chips, I just kept thinking about Elmo and Telly on Sesame Street teaching my kids how balls are better when you share them.  Someone brought the best looking coconut almond fudge brownies that I could smell for four feet.  People did ask what was up, and I was able to share about the food challenge which made me happy.  They were surprised about the amount allotted and asked questions about eating organic.  I told them about trying to food shop today.
I was too hungry to figure out how to get enough vegetables to fill me up, so I opted to eat some meat to fend off the hunger.  I found cabbage for $0.72 a pound, so I decided to pair it with some sausage.  Unfortunately I can’t tolerate nitrates or nitrites, so I generally buy organic, preservative free sausage.  I’ve seen blogs about how organic isn’t any more expensive, but at the store I was at, I couldn’t afford it.  By that I mean, I could not afford to eat a single serving of sausage without blowing the day’s allowance.  I did buy a sausage without casing or preservatives, but it did contain lactose which can irritate me, but I made a choice.
Today I honor all the mothers and fathers out there working in the food industry feeding their children with SNAP.  To the people that are feeding their families, thank you for demonstrating the true grit most of us have never had to muster over the long haul.

Budget Update and Lesson Learned

Guest post by Jess Bart Williams: I didn’t realize all the people that would be affected by the challenge as I took it.  I have received lots of calls and emails from people truly concerned and in a bit of shock at times.  It has been a wonderful experience to talk to people about our food system and the challenges that our community seems to be silently suffering (silently from my perspective anyway).

I went through my logs again, since a lot of people had questions about the amounts, and though I was sure, I thought I’d better double-check.  The amount, $5.40 for formula for the baby is correct.  And no, I didn’t stop breastfeeding.  Though I eat a well-balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids, I don’t produce enough to satisfy my child’s hunger, so we have always supplemented her diet with formula (and now baby food as well).  Her formula, Similac Advance Infant Formula, sells at $1.35/ounce.  She drinks 4 oz per day (sometimes more, but lately she’s drinking 4 and eating more food) so that’s $5.40.
The baby food fluctuates, but I got a whole bunch on sale recently for $1.11 for 2, and she eats twice a day so it should have been $2.22 a day but I forgot to double it the first and second day.  I played catch up on the third day and didn’t tell y’all, and some of you caught it.  Her appetite varies, but generally she eats 4 containers a day which would equal $2.22 a day.
Toast has been confusing.  Toast is priced out at $0.23 a slice, which I may have rounded up on the first day.  I need to correct these errors, because they got compounded:
Monday said $0.50, it should have been $0.92
Tuesday said $1.00, it should have been $0.92
Wednesday said $0.40, it should have been $0.92.
There will be an adjustment for -$0.86 for toast.  This is why I no longer work in a grocery store.   And heads up, my toast today will only be $0.46, because I skipped breakfast today.
Ok, so I just have to say that this really sucks.  It isn’t that I made public mistakes or that I mismanaged my money, which is terrifying and embarrassing. It’s that it’s Thursday.  i was really looking forward to having stir fry broccoli with beef on Japanese white rice tomorrow, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to pull it off.  I’ll know better tonight, but I better start thinking of some alternatives.
I encourage everyone to become an advocate for SNAP funding.  This week it is being discussed in the FARM bill before Congress, and we need more, not less.  Call your legislators today and tell them you want SNAP protected.
You can also sign up for requests for advocacy from your food bank. You can sign up to receive Advocacy Alerts from the Food Bank Contra Costa and Solano here.
Or find your local food bank here.

The Hunger Challenge: Turning into a Ghost

Guest post by Emily Henry, Associate Local Patch Editor: I am sure there is a lesson to be learned in not being able to have what you want — but at times, that lesson seems cruel and pointless.

The third day of The Hunger Challenge, living on $4.46 a day, took me to a low point. My energy is depleted and my head is light; admittedly, I did not do a good job of preparing for a week of restricted eating. By the first day, I realized that my failure to plan ahead was going to lead me into trouble. And trouble has arrived.

Last night I tried to take my mind off my less-than-satisfied stomach by going for a run. I ran faster than I have ever run before, perhaps spurred on by the sudden rush of endorphins that had been so lacking these past few days. I took in the glow of Mount Diablo in the waning light, felt the beating of my heart and the pounding of my shoes on the pavement. For that hour, food never crossed my mind. I came home, red-faced but energized, sure that I had found a way to beat this challenge — by tricking myself into believing that distraction was the answer.

As it turns out, burning calories without the calories to burn is not such a good idea. I woke up a mere ghost of myself, and have continued feeling translucent all day.

Being deprived of something as basic as food — or, at least, a sufficient amount of it — has also made me keenly aware of deprivation in other parts of my life. All that is missing, taken away, or out of reach feels like it has a stronger hold. Loss permeates everything, even in places of abundance. Instead of looking at the fresh green grass sprouting on the lawn, I see the patches of dry dirt where life refuses to grow. I struggle to be optimistic and patient at work. The glass before me is not just half empty, but completely void.

This emotional weight is quite a common side effect, apparently, of an inadequate diet. The effects of consuming too few calories can include depression and irritability, as well as fatigue and poor concentration, according to LiveStrong.com. Women can start experiencing negative mental and physical side effects if they dip below 1,200 calories a day. I’m on about 800.

Now, envision that lack of morale, depression and tiredness affecting someone who also has the stress of being unemployed, or a single parent. How could they find the motivation to wash, peel, chop and cook their way to a measly meal? The quick-fixes and stomach fillers hold all the attraction. It becomes a choice between fast food and carb loading, both of which are cheap and offer instant gratification, but lead to health conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

So, what’s the solution? That’s the real challenge. The hunger is a symptom of a much bigger, cyclical problem that oscillates between deprivation of the good and indulgence in the bad — whether it’s a bad mood or a bad meal.

To follow along with my experience of The Hunger Challenge, read:

Monday: The Hunger Challenge: Fueling Up Without Breaking Down
Tuesday: The Hunger Challenge: Convenience Costs, Plan Ahead
Wednesday: The Hunger Challenge: How Powerful is a Rumbling Stomach?

Healthy School Lunches

Well it is day 4 and I still have energy (maybe not as much as normal, but I do). Yesterday was sort of a surprise for me. One of my co-workers was eating a sandwich that looked so good, I almost found myself taking a bite when they walked away from their desk. I am sure they wouldn’t miss the bite and I think I was actually drooling. But I didn’t do it. It reminds me of school lunches we had as children. We all ate the same lunch in the cafeteria (and hardly anyone brought a lunch) and we all enjoyed the same nutritious meal. Yes, today there are free lunches for children, but I have heard it is always a cheese sandwich and if other youth see you eating it, they know you are poor. So is it better to go hungry that day or to have someone make fun of you or not want you in their social circle because you can’t afford lunch? At my age I would say I don’t want that person as my friend if they are so concerned about my wealth. But as children, we want to be liked so I would bet that some children would rather not eat and be liked than eat and not be liked. Teens I know ask me if I were running for President what would be a main focus? I always say that all children/youth in school receive the same nutritious meal (just like I did many, many years ago). Hunger is not fun!

Low Hanging Fruit

Guest post by Jess Bart-Williams: As an economics buff, I have always had a passion for garbage.  We are constantly throwing out stuff that could be helpful to somebody else, but 9 times out of 10, we’re either too busy or we don’t have an easy way to get it to the right person.  It’s just another reminder that we aren’t talking to each other.  I am constantly surprised that people will do anything to keep from working together; then I remember I have 20 things to do and I’ve got to get them done because for heaven’s sake, can’t anyone do it right around here… but I digress.

We foreclosed on our home in Richmond a few years ago.  We lived off Park Central in Hilltop Green, and we had two pear trees and a pine tree in the backyard.  With a toddler, a newborn, and two brown thumbs, the fruit rotted on those trees every year.  Every Fall I would collect green cans full of pears promising that next year, things would be different.  My empty promises were joined by a chorus of neighbors street after street (except my next door neighbor who had the best garden I have ever seen).  People were racing to work and crawling back home day after day.  Those that could afford gardening service usually chose to hire someone, and the rest of us stepped over fruit in our backyards.  Sometimes the kids would rip off an orange and whip it down the street, but that was about as much action as those trees ever saw.
Back then I thought, “Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?”  And in spurts I would think about creating a program for kids and teens to get the fruit out of the backyards and drive it up to the Food Bank.  I thought the program could be financed somehow because there might be a tax write off that somehow could work as income for the donation that could pay back the investor after a year or so.  I never looked into the tax benefit, and to this day I have never been to the Food Bank.  I’ve just sat here thinking somebody should have been able to figure this out.
Today, as I spend 25% of my daily allowance on toast and tea, I am motivated to look at that idea again.  I had a banana last night before bed (it will be on today’s allowance sheet), and it was the first piece of fruit I’ve had in two days.  I’ll go to the grocery store today, but the advertised prices make it unlikely that I will see any within the next week.  And if this challenge were reality, I would be thinking that fruit is probably a non-essential luxury by now.
I’m putting this idea on the list too.  I would also love to meet or talk with Van Jones, since I think this could be incorporated with weatherproofing neighborhoods for pay.  Who knows?

The Hunger Challenge: How Powerful is a Rumbling Stomach?

Guest post by Emily Henry of the Pleasant Hill Patch: Hunger puts things into perspective. That’s the reason for taking this challenge — not for its novelty, or to mock those who live on a restricted food budget. I know that at the end of this week I will be able to escape and return to my more comfortable lifestyle — the thought is in my mind constantly. I am reminded at every turn of what I cannot have; it’s clear from the billboards, the restaurant windows and the passersby flaunting their afternoon treats. Even after two days, I am beginning to experience the power of a rumbling stomach.

A rumbling stomach makes it hard to concentrate. It makes you tired. It makes you think about food all the time.

A rumbling stomach is depressing. It makes you bitter about the food-oriented culture we live in, and the over-indulgence that has become part of normality.

A rumbling stomach makes an orange taste like it’s never tasted before. You savor every bite and experience the fullness of the flavor, knowing that there are no more in the fruit basket. It makes you chop vegetables to the very stem, striving to get as much as possible and waste nothing. It makes you afraid to wander into town with your bottle of tap water on a sizzling hot day and face all those people drinking smoothies that cost the same as your entire day’s budget for food.

As Lisa Sherrill from the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano describes in a recent blog post, hunger isn’t a game. Food is celebrated all around us — from the giant billboards depicting triple-stacked burgers and subway sandwiches the size of a forearm, to the plethora of restaurants serving portion sizes that could feed a family. The implication is that there is abundance for all, and yet millions of adults and children in California struggle with rumbling stomachs every day.

My own has taught me that I can live on less, and that food is not to be taken for granted — a thought I will continue to savor.

Below is a dinner recipe I came up with in desperation, after destroying two artichokes by burning them into a chewy mess.

Tofu and Eggplant Kebabs (Serves Two)

1/2 a pack of firm tofu, cut into large cubes
1/2 an eggplant, cut into large pieces
Pepper, ginger, garlic and soy sauce for marinade

  • Combine the pepper, ginger, garlic and soy sauce in a bowl
  • Add the tofu and eggplant cubes and pieces
  • Cover and leave to marinade for 30 minutes to 2 hours
  • Arrange the cubes on a kebab skewer
  • Place on a greased or oiled baking tray and grill, turning every 5 minutes
  • Serve

Read more of Emily’s posts during the Challenge on our blog or on the Pleasant Hill Patch site.

Hunger Pangs

On Monday I found that I drank a lot of water. Not because I was hot but because I was hungry. I hadn’t had time to go to the store so all I had most of the day was water. The water did fill me up and stop the hunger pangs but I kept thinking I am doing this for 5 days. But think about the people who have to drink water many days of the month because there isn’t enough food to last for the month. Especially the children in school. How do they focus, how do they learn? Of course on day one I still had lots of energy. But not so sure how the week will last. And when I did go shopping on Monday I found that I could hardly wait to get in the car and start eating – ANYTHING! Not a good practice but I am sure it mirrors others. I just hope my food lasts the 5 days. I feel a hunger pang – on to some water…

Grateful for the School Lunch Program

I am taking the Hunger Challenge with my 2 daughters ages 9 and 7.  I know I am participating, they do not.  I decided not to tell them for a couple of reasons.  1 – I’m curious to see if they will notice the change in buying habits from the kid standards of fruit snacks, whole wheat crackers, portable pouch yogurts and other favorites, to more conservative fare of items lacking the standard cartoon character that makes the food taste that much better (or at least that is what they seem to believe J).  And 2 – my thought would be that some families who encounter financially difficult situations may choose not to tell their children for a period of time that they are using other means to extend their food budgets.  So I will be trying to explain to my kids why there is a change in the food we are buying without telling them that what we can afford is less than 30% of what I would typically spend in a whole week for food for them.  For a family of 3 I’m using $47.60 as our budget for the whole week based on the national average SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) guidelines.

Day 1: Emotionally I am still feeling good with high energy.  The kids have not noticed anything yet except…

Today was “lunch on the field” day at my kids’ school. So I headed over to school and instead of the standard practice of spending $15.00 on 3- $5.00 foot longs at Subway, I told my children (to their dismay – since subway is a tradition for this type of event with our family) that they needed to use the school lunch today.  For those that qualify for CalFresh (also known as SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), most likely they are also qualified for Free/Reduced lunch at the public schools.  So, I took advantage of this and will for the rest of the week.

But here’s the kicker, what would have happened in the summer time when the Free and Reduced lunch program is not available.  There are ways of course – however on a $47.60 budget for the week, saving the extra $2.00 per day gives me one extra dinner at the end of the week.  So Kudos to all the School Districts that provide the Summer Food Supplemental Program to help offset the cost of food even in the summer for those that need food assistance.

Back tomorrow with a Day 2 update.

*Note: I will not deny my kids food for the sake of the challenge if they are hungry.

The Hunger Challenge: Fueling Up Without Breaking Down

Guest post by Emily Henry of the Pleasant Hill Patch: Monday is the start of The Hunger Challenge, a five-day “exercise in empathy” organized by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. Participants must live on a food budget of $4.46 per day — the amount provided to low-income individuals and families through the CalFresh food stamp program. The purpose? To discover just how challenging a nutritious lifestyle can be for the nearly 4 million Californians whose daily food allowance is about the same as the cost of a gallon of gas.

Bargain hunting is a must on The Hunger Challenge, which asks participants to eat on $4.46 per day — the food budget provided to low-income individuals and families through the CalFresh food stamp program. Credit Emily Henry

Fueling up every day on a handful of dollar bills and a stack of coupons would indeed be a feat, I thought. So I decided to embark on the journey and retrace my steps through a culinary past peppered with meals for deals.

After all, I was raised a bargain hunter. As soon as I was old enough to understand the concept of money — or rather, lack of it — and big enough to push a cart, I was scouring the shelves at the grocery store for the yellow signs reading, “buy one get one free.” I knew where the reduced-price meat section was, with its graying beef and watery chicken nearing expiration. I could locate the damaged-goods shelves stocked with bent soup cans and ripped cereal boxes. I developed a hawk’s eye for the bold stickers advertising mark-downs.

By the age of 11 or so, I was doing most of the grocery shopping for our family of three: my mother, my sister, and me. It was also around the time I started cooking the family meals, concocting great cauldrons of over-cooked pasta with tangy, tasteless tomato sauce. I was no Julia Child, but pasta was cheap and filling.

Living on a tight food budget when I was kid meant not having the things other kids had in their lunch boxes. It meant mustering a meal from two or three simple, low-cost ingredients, with frequently bland results. It also meant a deep psychological connection between food and security.

Fortunately, it’s been a while since I’ve had to ask the grocery store cashier to put items back on the shelves after seeing the final tally at the register.

Now, I not only eat to satiety three times a day, but I also have the luxury of stocking my cupboards with fresh fruit and vegetables, opting for organic and farm fresh and experimenting with nutritional super foods. I am healthier than I ever was as a child, and my choices are far less limited.

But what would happen if my food budget suddenly shrunk, and I was thrust back into a time of expired meat and bland pasta? Would I be able to maintain a nutritious diet? And more than that — would I want to?

Food is comfort. At least, it is to me. The Hunger Challenge comprises two words that are distinctly uncomfortable. Bare cupboards represent lack of choice, lack of control and lack in general. And being without can breed feelings of insecurity and unhappiness, which can lead to a search for abundance — even if that abundance is artificial or unhealthy like, say, a Big Mac and fries. Healthy eating is much more difficult on a budget of a few bucks a day when a cabbage costs the same as a fast-food cheeseburger.

Over the course of the week, I plan to share my experiences and recipes while participating in The Hunger Challenge. My goal is to stay satisfied and keep away from the quick-fixes. Do you have a recipe, advice or a food bargain to share? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of Emily’s posts during the Challenge on our blog or on the Pleasant Hill Patch site.