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Living on a Limited Food Budget Takes Sacrifice

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: During Hunger Action Month every September the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano joins with people throughout the country to take action to end hunger.  We are working to create a movement that will no longer accept hunger in a society as rich as ours.  Part of this effort is helping people understand why their neighbors are hungry and what we can do to make a difference.  For someone who has been doing this work as long as I have, this is an opportunity to step back from what we do every day and look at why we do what we do.

As part of Hunger Action Month, I have spent this week living on food I bought with the average CalFresh (Food Stamp) allotment.  For this working week, I took my $22.50 ($4.50 per day) and bought what I needed to get by.  A box of store-brand Toasty O cereal was just over two dollars.  Enough yogurt for five lunches was a little over three dollars and I bought bananas to put in the yogurt (bananas are a lot cheaper than strawberries).  For dinner, spaghetti was on sale for 99 cents and pasta sauce was $2.99.  I also bought lettuce, cucumber and a pepper to make a salad my dinner.  I also bought six eggs for $1.75.  A couple ears of corn were pretty cheap, and I was set.

This effort reminded me that living on a low-cost diet can be done, but it takes planning and sacrifice.  I had to make compromises because I really would have preferred strawberries, but I had two pasta dinners with half an ear of corn and two salad dinners with corn as well.  Scrambled eggs were my fifth meal.  Even though my meal selection was deadly boring, I got through a week living on a CalFresh diet, getting a glimpse of what life is like for those who need assistance.  It helped me understand the situation faced by those who do not have the money they need to get the food they need.  Making difficult decisions about where your limited resources go becomes a constant concern for people with low incomes.

Emotionally, it was a strange feeling when the week came to an end.  Rather than feeling proud of myself, I felt as if I had been a bit condescending.  I had only “sampled” being poor, not lived that life.  I lived the CalFresh diet one week, not for months at a time.  I only had my food needs to worry about, not those of my children.  I didn’t have any car problems, medical issues or other problems pull money away from me.  I pretended to be poor in one small way for five days, and on Saturday, I could take my credit card and go out to a dinner at any restaurant I wanted.  Living on a very limited food budget for the long term is much more serious than boring meals. People make hard choices every day between buying food or paying the rent, utilities or putting gas in the car to get to work. These benefits and help from the Food Bank allow a little relief to those hard decisions.

To try the Hunger Challenge for yourself, visit www.foodbankccs.org/hungerchallenge.

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.