I'm staring down the end of the Hunger Challenge as I write this, and I have to admit to both a huge dollop of relief and a pang of loss. Believe me, I am so excited to be able to eat with fewer restrictions as soon as Sunday rolls around that I'm more than a bit tempted to watch the clock strike 12 and then celebrate with a hunk of cheese and a glass of bourbon. But there has been something grounding, and something extremely eye-opening, about this past week that will inevitably be lost when my food budget balloons past $4 a day once again.
The question I started with this week was, "Is it possible to eat on $4 a day?" (For those catching up, this is the average daily amount food stamp recipients in California get.) Then I changed that question slightly, to "Is it possible to eat more or less locally, organically, and very healthfully on $4 a day?"
When, early in the week, I realized that the answer to both permutations of that question would, for me, be a resounding "No," my challenge became to experience just how hungry it's possible to get if, in fact, you try to stick with the healthy, local, organic thing on $4 a day. The answer, in short: Very, very hungry. Literally painfully hungry. Hungry enough that you unwittingly shed pounds, lose the ability to focus and think clearly at times, get tired more quickly, and have to deal with a rumbling stomach with relatively alarming frequency.
[As an aside, I will say here that several other folks who took this year's Hunger Challenge (you can find a list of their blogs and Twitter feeds on the left side of the HC webpage) seem to have made it through within budget, and eating fairly well. Some admit to "cheating." Some took planned breaks from the Challenge. I recommend taking a peek at a few of the other participants' blogs--very interesting stuff.]
Having grown somewhat acclimated to that nagging hunger (though not nearly acclimated enough not to celebrate its coming demise), and fully acknowledging that this week has been an experiment from which I've always had an escape hatch--the ability to blow my budget if I wanted to, coupled with the knowledge that this is a project with a set end point, not my everyday reality--I want to change the question yet again, and this time to splinter it into several.
How, in a country as insanely rich as the U.S. (economic downturn notwithstanding), can so many people go so hungry? There were about 34 million food stamp recipients as of April 2009--up 20% over April 2008. And that's only the folks who qualify for food stamps. According to the San Francisco Food Bank, "In California, a single person is eligible to receive food stamps, only if their yearly gross income is $14,079 or less. A 2-person household is eligible only if they make $18,941 or less. And a family of 4 can't have more than $28,665 in income." This means that if you live in San Francisco and, as a one-person household, make $14,100, you're ineligible.
Will we ever be able to fix what's broken with our food system--farmers who grow crops they know will have to go to waste (but for which they'll be paid anyway, due to subsidies), factory farms that are disasters for animals, employees, and the environment alike, increasingly packaged and processed foods that often seem like the least expensive options? Will we reach a point at which it's possible for anyone who wants to commit to eating locally and organically to do so, regardless of their income level?
And, most pressingly, do I have the power here to change any of this?
Maybe not the big stuff: there's not a whole lot I alone can do to change California's food stamp policies (among the most convoluted and restrictive in the nation) or to make responsibly produced food cheaper or to even begin to have any impact whatsoever on national agricultural legislation.
But there's the small stuff. How many times do I pass the Food Bank collection bin in Rainbow without putting a few cans or boxes of food in it? Um, all the time. I vow to change that. When was the last time I volunteered to be on a food bank crew for a day? Uh, circa 1998, with Otis and DaveG. I think 11 years between shifts is more than long enough.
What the Food Bank needs the most, though, more than the occasional few cans of non-perishables and the occasional handful of volunteer hours (though both, I know, are greatly appreciated), is donations. They're able to exact an impressively high rate of return: for a $20 donation, they can provide $180 worth of groceries to San Franciscans who, unlike me, aren't just experimenting by eating on a budget.
So I'm wrapping up this fascinating, painful, engrossing week by making a $40 gift to the San Francisco Food Bank, in honor of this experience and in honor of my mom's upcoming birthday (October 7). I am amazingly fortunate to have grown up never knowing hunger, no matter how tight things sometimes got, and to have parents who have always fed and nourished me, both literally and figuratively. Mom, thank you, and I love you.
I don't need to tell you all (though, of course, I will anyway) that for the price of one meal out, or a halfway decent bottle of wine, or a few fancy ice cream cones, or a slab of high-quality cheese, or insert-your-own-indulgent-foodstuff-here--for the price of any of this, just once, you can do a lot to support a food bank that's working to battle hunger in your area. If you've been following my Hunger Challenge adventures this week, I truly hope you'll consider making a donation--no matter how great or modest--to a hunger-relief program in your community. (You can find one by using Feeding America's online directory.)
I hope you'll also consider trying the $4-per-person-per-day challenge at some point, even if only for a day or two. It's both jarring and immensely enlightening.
Oh, and my final tally for the week? $28.97, and a profound understanding of how fortunate I am to be able to call this just an experiment, and to call it done.