Staff and volunteers at the Food Bank are taking the Hunger Challenge September 12 – 16 as part of Hunger Action Month to bring awareness to the issue of hunger in the community. They are trying to live for the week on a food budget of $4.72 per day, the average amount a person receives in CalFresh (Food Stamp) benefits. It’s not too late to take part. Learn more: /events/hunger-action-month/hunger-challenge.html.
Read the experiences of the participants thus far.
Joan Tomasini, Food Drive Coordinator (second year taking the challenge): Shopping is about choices. Knowing I only had $23.60 makes it difficult to get everything you want and need. I enjoy milk and orange juice so those were selected first so there went $7. And I really wanted low-fat string cheese (there are 16 so I can have 3 a day – yes, I ate 3 in the car while driving and had a 4th late last night) but that was another $5. Now half of my money is gone. Since this is my second year (taking the Challenge), I decided to go more with fresh produce and eat what I like. So I was able to buy lettuce, coleslaw, tomatoes for my dinner. Tomatoes meant roma and not on the vine (cut the cost in half but also cut the taste in half).
Sharon Zeppegno, Manager of Volunteer Services: I am doing quite well with a few great buys from Grocery Outlet and find the fact that the condiments do not count to be great too.
Aaron Yuen, Volunteer: I spent a total of $4.48 and consumed by my own estimation 1810 calories. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of things. I had the groceries in the pantry so I simply prorated whatever portion that I ate. For example, 1/2 cup of uncooked old fashion oat meal cost 9 cents since I bought a 10 pounds box for $10 and it has 113 1/2 cups servings.
Caitlin Sly, Farm 2 Kids Coordinator (second year taking the challenge): Day one meant shopping and hunting for bargains. I decided to try and go a bit healthier this year since last year I carbo-loaded so I wouldn’t be hungry and ended up feeling pretty crappy. I have always thought of Trader Joe’s as a high-end expensive place, but I have now learned you just have to shop there strategically. Their produce, cereal, milk, and eggs are very reasonable sometimes verging on cheap. However their meat and prepared food products (very tempting) tend to be higher priced. I was happy that I found bananas for 19 cents each and ears of corn for 39 cents each. There will be some carbo-loading as 99 cents for a pound of pasta is too cheap to resist but I am going to try to find more vegetables this year. Wish me luck!
Rachel Braver, Visual Communications: I plan and shop for most of the meals in our household of 2 people, which often involves finding fun recipes I’d like to try online and loading our cart with fresh veggies, some fruit and the impulse bottle of wine. As I planned for our week on the Hunger Challenge, my shopping habits took on a whole new attitude. “This recipe calls for x y and z ingredients…” turned into “How can I get the most protein and fiber out of each meal and snack without going over budget?” I am grateful to be able to pool our two allowances as I saw even the cheap stuff adding up on the shopping list (available online here). Variety in our meals this week has been reduced and I am thinking of different ways to flavor meals without the many ingredients a lot of recipes have. The fresh veggie budget was severely cut. Frozen veg took the place of some, and eating seasonally helps bulk up the produce, so we will be having zucchini this week. I also tried to find ingredients that could change forms. For example, lentils can be eaten alone, top a salad, or get mixed into the eggs for a frittata.
Lauren Strouse, Office Assistant*: I am fortunate that I live within a couple of miles of five grocery stores, plus a bread outlet and several ethnic markets. Saturday I made a big circle beginning with the Orowheat bread store, Grocery Outlet, Food Max, and ending at Raleys. Steve also made a trip to a local produce stand for a few things. I did have to make a major change in my choice of breakfast food for the week. I usually have Bob’s Red Mill 8 Grain Cereal or a high-fiber cold cereal most days. I also like a brand of yogurt called Cascade I can only find in Raleys’ natural food department. All of these were too expensive for the budget, so there will be toast and peanut butter or toast and butter with a hardboiled egg, along with fresh fruit. I was able to find yogurt at the Grocery Outlet – 3 cartons for $1 of a flavor of Yoplait Steve will eat, and for me, 3 cartons of plain Greek yogurt for $1. (I don’t eat the yogurt plain, however, but mix it with a little honey and vanilla) The yogurts are an option for breakfast or a snack.
What they ate the first day
Joan: Yogurt, a banana and cheese sticks for lunch and 2 slices of bread for breakfast plus my OJ.
Sharon: Yesterday I had peanut butter, and apple, and several other things I like quite well.
Veronica Wimer, Purchasing Manager (second year taking the challenge): Boy did I choose the wrong Monday to start a spin class! I think I ate my whole daily allowance ($4.72) just for dinner, ok not really but I could have. All I had for dinner was two scrambled eggs with mushrooms and one piece of (dry) toast. I was definitely hungry this morning, looking forward to my apple, PB and Tea.
In an effort not to waste the two tablespoons of cooked wheat berries I had left in the fridge, for lunch I decided to add them to my tuna fish sandwich, yum. The wheat berries gave the tuna an extra crunch; it reminded me of adding chips to my sandwich when I was a kid.
Lauren: Breakfast day one for me was a piece of whole wheat toast with 1 TB peanut butter and 1 cup of fruit salad (strawberries, cantaloupe, grapes); Steve took yogurt and strawberries. Lunch will be an egg salad sandwich for both of us and I will also have a salad of Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes – not sure if Steve took veggies or additional fruit, will have to check this evening. It is 11am and I am already missing my usual mid-morning snack of almonds. Looking forward to lunch!
Plan for dinner – roast chicken stuffed with fresh herbs from our garden; steamed cauliflower with lemon (ours); salad of romaine lettuce, black grapes, slivered onion & homemade raspberry vinaigrette; brown rice pilaf (has onion, celery, carrot and frozen peas sautéed in small amount of olive oil and tossed with it). The vinaigrette is made with olive oil and vinegar I already have on hand; rice cooked in chicken broth made from a chicken base already on hand and vegetables are sautéed in olive oil I also have on hand. It is ultimately less expensive to buy olive oil (very cheap at the Grocery Outlet, Trader Joe’s and some ethnic markets) and vinegars, and make your own salad dressings, especially if you like variety and are making small amounts, but I did find a 16 oz. bottle of Kraft Light Balsamic dressing for $.99 at the Grocery Outlet which is an excellent buy.
How it went the first day
Joan: I did not eat on Monday until dinner time (of course I started eating in the car because I was hungry) because I did not have time this past weekend to go to the store. In real life it could have been that I was in between paychecks or hadn’t received my food stamp allotment.
Heidi Kleiner, AmeriCorps VISTA: I have discovered the importance of bringing enough food and snacks to work. I’m accustomed to thinking of nearby restaurants and the vending machine as fallback options for when I don’t have time to cook. But I’m making the time! I won’t let the vending machine win!!
Lauren: So – Day #1 is under way and I’m a little hungry because I only had one piece of toast and it isn’t as filling as a serving of high-fiber cereal. I forgot to bring yogurt so I don’t have a snack because my almonds are off limits. Oh, well, lunch is coming up soon and maybe I’ll lose weight this week!
Comments and observations
Joan: I traded in the canned tuna (from last year’s challenge menu) for the OJ but I will be happier with these selections. I may not be full but I like what I chose. Choice is important and I learned to give up something (such as my favorite vine tomatoes to get something else - roma tomatoes). And I love my cheese sticks.
Sharon: As my coworkers and some of our warehouse volunteers know I have a wooden sign over my desk that says “I Drink Coffee For Your Protection”. Coffee however, especially that non fat latté that I would really like to get on the way to work, is another thing. When you think about what our neighbors in the community give up every day my coffee is really not significant. I will be reminding myself of that all week.
Aaron: 2.99 Ranch Market at Park and Shop in Concord is a great place to shop if you are on a budget and still want fresh and top quailty food and produce. Buyer beware that it is predominantly an Asian grocery store but they do carry things you find in Safeway. I found some “Salmon scraps” for $1.99 pound. It certainly is not for everyone. It has bones, fins and skin and about 20% meat if you are lucky. I sauteed it with some garlic and it was tasty beyond expectations, not to mention the overabundance of omega 3 oil. I had salmon bones sticking out of my mouth. It was quite a sight. Seriously, many cultures don’t consume fish in the form of filet. We are simply too pampered here.
I had the luxury of prorating what I had in the pantry. If I started out with nothing but $4.72, I am sure it would have been tougher. Also, we all have items such as cooking oil, spices and dressings etc. that are not part of the budget of $4.72.
I love food and doing this is not naturally high on my priorities. On the bright side, one can think of this as joining Jenny Craig at no cost for a week! What a deal!
Rachel: Planning our shopping took a lot of extra thought. I carefully pre-shopped in the weeks before the Challenge, writing down the costs of various items I would otherwise just toss in the cart. The excitement of a sale was heightened. While Nelda and I (my Mom and Challenge partner) shopped Saturday for a party, she grabbed a box of mission figs ($3.99). As she went to put it in the cart I said, “If you aren’t going to eat those all tomorrow, we can’t afford it this week.” Our Monday- Friday budget had been planned with little wiggle room. The look of disappointment on her face was mixed with the realization of how serious food insecurity can be to a family. I imagined the way it must feel for a parent to tell their child no, even to something healthy, and worry about where their food would come from if the money ran out mid week. I am hungry and distracted as I write this, but I know it is over when I wake up Saturday. Living with daily hunger challenges is something no one should have to go through.
Lauren: I prepared for this week like I prepare for any other week – checking grocery store ads, making a tentative menu and grocery list. I say tentative menu because I am always open to a surprise bargain. Usually I develop a menu for the week based in part on the advertised specials and partly on what I already have on hand. I’m a frugal shopper. I buy staples on sale as well as meat that can go in the freezer. We eat seasonally and take advantage of lower prices when produce is at its’ peak. We also have a vegetable garden, grow fresh herbs, and have quite a few dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees (lemon, oranges, grapefruit, peach, apples). Planning this week was a little different, however, since I am not relying on anything I have in stock other than condiments, although I am supplementing our menu with garden produce, specifically – zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes – the wax and green beans aren’t cooperating.
Heidi: I am admittedly going into this challenge with a little bit of guilt– this is something I should be doing all the time anyway. I should be doing this anyway because I am an AmeriCorps VISTA and the way the VISTA program works is that instead of a salary, we get a living allowance (or stipend) which makes us eligible for CalFresh (food stamps) and other food assistance programs. Since AmeriCorps VISTA is a program that focuses on issues of poverty, the idea is that VISTA members should gain perspective from having to deal with some of the same issues of balancing tight budgets that our clients and communities struggle with daily.
I have applied for CalFresh, I have used food assistance from The Food Bank, and I have spent a lot of time thinking (and worrying) about what I can afford to eat…but sometimes I stray due to some of the same issues I feel many people have with eating affordably and healthfully, whether they are low-income or not.
Being healthy on a budget requires me to do a LOT of planning and cooking. Food often has to be purchased in bulk and meals have to be planned in advance since buying smaller amounts or prepared meals tend to be more expensive. It’s often hard to find the time and energy to approach food in this manner. It can be enticing to have that instant gratification of buying prepared food or going out to eat, which results in spending too much money, (even if it’s fast food!). Sometimes, excessive frugality and planning can start to make feeding myself feel more like a chore and a burden than a fun activity. The way I help fight this (and my approach to this week) is to not only plan meals in advance but also to make them in advance. Nothing is worse for me than the times I wait until my stomach is growling before I begin cooking a meal. Feeling impatient about how long the meal will take to cook, I turn to snacking and can end up eating more than I had originally intended by the time the meal is ready.
Although I’m tempted to buy Ramen, my goal is to use the spending restrictions this week as a way to also make me eat healthier, including organic and farmers’ market food when I can. What I am doing today is preparing several meals at once and storing them in Tupperware containers. This cuts down on some of the stress and unintended snacking and also helps me to ration out my food better so I don’t eat through it too quickly!
*Lauren’s husband Steve – also a Food Bank employee – is taking the challenge as well.