Of the Hunger Challenge, No Impact Man, and Logical Extremes

Having recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma and, as a result, spending more time than usual thinking about all things food, I was inspired a few weeks back to sign up for the San Francisco Food Bank's 2009 Hunger Challenge.

The Hunger Challenge, which officially starts this Sunday, is a week-long event in which participants agree to eat on $4 per person per day, or $28 per person per week--the amount the average food stamp recipient in California receives. The purpose of the challenge is to raise awareness of what it's like to try to eat healthfully on very limited funds, to highlight the work that the San Francisco Food Bank does, and to raise funds for the SFFB.

The official rules of the Hunger Challenge require that everything participants eat during the course of a day count toward the $4 limit, including food and drinks consumed outside the house. The only things for which we get a free pass are salt, pepper, and tap water. Everything else, including cooking oil, condiments, and other staples, must fall within the $4/day limit.

To add a slightly Pollan-esque spin to my own Hunger Challenge, I'm going to try to eat as locally and organically as possible while still staying within the $28/week limit, partly to see whether it can be done and partly to get a better sense of what, other than produce, is actually feasible to source from within the San Francisco Bay Area. And no, I'm not going to go hunt my own wild pig, leave a bowl of sourdough starter on my windowsill to catch wild yeast, or boil down part of the Bay to score locally sourced salt.

My thinking about and planning for the Hunger Challenge this morning has coincided with reading Elizabeth Kolbert's review in the New Yorker of Colin Beavan's No Impact Man, the story of one family's attempt to live for a year with zero carbon impact. (There's also a documentary of the same name, and Beavan blogs about both his year-long experiment and his ongoing work here.) It's safe to say that Kolbert--whose reportorial focus in her work for TNY is on climate change issues--doesn't put much stock in the power of "stunts" like Beavan's (or Henry David Thoreau's, or other I'm-off-the-grid-and-eating-locally authors) to impact meaningful change.

I'm torn here. Part of me finds Beavan's experiment somewhat ludicrous and insanely extreme: no toilet paper? No electricity at all? (Did he write his book longhand on the back of recycled scraps of paper or what?) Never being able to take a car, train, subway, or bus anywhere? Never taking the elevator to your 9th-floor apartment, even with a 2-year-old in tow? Trying to get your wife to swear off tampons, coffee, and the newspaper? Seriously? I understand the desire to take an idea to its logical extreme in order to make a point, but the danger of doing so is that you'll turn people off altogether: well, I'm not about to give up toilet paper, disposable feminine hygiene products, the sad "luxury" of taking the bus when it's snowing like hell outside, and the chance to actually hold a newspaper in my hand once a week, so forget it.

Another part, though, respects what he's done, and believes that, yes, in order to reverse the tide of global warming we do indeed need to convince politicians to step up (as Kolbert notes in her review), but we also need to be more mindful of what it's possible to do at a personal level to stop the suckage.

And so it's off to the library to prep for the week ahead by picking up a few cookbooks for inspiration and No Impact Man for some thought-provoking reading. (I cannot possibly be the first one to note the disconnect between Beavan's desire that people purchase his book and his proselytizing about consuming as little as possible.)

Tune in next week for dispatches from my attempt to eat cheap (and local-ish) and to read No Impact Man while resisting the urge to overnight Colin Beavan a case of TP.

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