Changing the Question

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.



This afternoon (Day 6 of the Hunger Challenge), as I left the gym and contemplated the evening ahead, I realized there was very little I could do by way of socializing that would not involve blowing my food budget--which, truth be told, was already looking a bit threadbare, due to the luxury of a Larabar for lunch ($1.29). I couldn't have dinner with friends (at least not a dinner in which I could eat what they did), couldn't go out for drinks, couldn't have people over for drinks. Going to a movie might've been a possibility, provided I didn't eat or drink anything during the show. No thanks.

Then I looked back at the past few days and thought about the other socializing opportunities I'd had to sacrifice in the name of eating within a $4-per-day budget. I couldn't go to Cav on Monday to celebrate its 4th anniversary with a glass of champagne, because even though the champagne would have been free, everything else would've cost me. (Plus, technically, I suppose even the bubbly would have had to count.) On Wednesday, I begged out of the once-monthly social get-together I have with some of my fellow organizers here in SF because whether we went out or ate in somewhere, I'd have to stick with water. Last night: cheapest just to stay in. Tonight, I'm craving a drink and some company, but I have 27 cents left in the day's coffers.

It's funny (except that it's not): when I imagined how this project would go, I visualized collective dinners, an occasional glass of (very, very cheap) wine, and less impact on my ability to go out and have fun (or stay in and have fun, for that matter). And so we come to another thing I've always taken for granted: the ability to spend money on food and drink as a form of entertainment and communing with friends.

I'm ready for this week to end as much because I'll be able to actually be able to go out and engage in the sort of socializing I usually do (i.e., the sort that involves food and drink) as because I'm tired of eating each meal with a calculator at my side.


Time Slows, Annoyance Grows

It's Day 500--er, Day 5--of the Hunger Challenge, and the passage of time has all but ceased.

Today has been an in-the-office day for me, and typically on days like this, I'll look at the clock at, say, 10 a.m. and then discover, approximately five minutes later, that it's 1.30 p.m. Today, notsomuch. Regardless of the fact that I'm both getting a bunch of stuff done and obliterating a fair amount of time on Facebook and the like, the minutes have lengthened to hours. I had breakfast around 8.30--the same bowl of cereal that managed to do a decent job yesterday of filling me up for a few hours--and found myself hungry again less than an hour later. I promised myself I'd wait until noon for lunch, and that turned out to be a vow with painful repercussions, as it took about a day and a half for the numbers in the corner of my computer screen to creep to 12.00. And, of course, any feeling of satiety disappeared within the hour.

There doesn't really seem to be an escape from this lingering hunger. Exercising keeps it at bay temporarily, and then, of course, exacerbates it. Busying myself with work and chores gives me something to do but doesn't quiet my stomach. Even sleep can only do so much: this morning, though I would gladly have slept more to delay the need to eat, I got so hungry that I couldn't convince my body to go unconscious again. (There's a French phrase that keeps floating back to me: dormir c'est manger--to sleep is to eat. Evidently that only goes so far.)

I will acknowledge here again that there are things I could do to cut my food costs further in order to be able to eat more. I could go conventional and processed, could cut out coffee (or go the non-Fair Trade, non-sustainable route), could cut out fruits and veggies (second to coffee in terms of expense). But, of course, I'm too stubborn for that, and would (somewhat twistedly) rather deal with a few more days of hunger than give up the part of this Challenge that has let me realize just how vast the divide between Truly Good Food and Truly Affordable Food is.

Which brings us to the source of my annoyance. If you are a person of limited means who wants to avoid food grown with pesticides or trucked in from thousands of miles away, food that's overly processed or packaged, meat from animals that have been raised in cruelty, or stuff from Big Agra, you're kind of hosed.

With a few exceptions, food that's grown and produced in a way that's healthy and sustainable for the land from which it comes, that's cruelty-free for the animals behind (or in) it, that comes from the small, local farms and makers I think many of us would like to support if we could, and that's good for the people who grow, pick, process, package, and sell it--food like this does not come cheap. Some of it is laughably expensive: there's not a visit I make to Rainbow Grocery that does not have me stumbling across something that's so pricey it stops me in my tracks. And some of it is just expensive enough not to make sense if what you're truly concerned with is cost: if you're hungry and on a budget, why would you go for the organic plums at $3 a pound when the conventional ones cost a third of that?

There's a big, complex, difficult, frustrated argument to make here about how broken our whole system of growing, subsidizing, processing, packaging, and distributing food is. I, alas, am too spaced out this week to summon the brain power to even attempt to make that argument with any degree of eloquence or sense. (Besides, I think it's safe to say that many others have made it before me, to much greater impact.)

But I'll just say that that argument has played out for me this week in the form of the realization that when you're eating on a very limited food budget (and perhaps relying on the generosity of others to supplement it), you have to choose to either eat organically, locally, and sustainably or to eat enough. Were this more than a one-week experiment for me, I don't think that would be a particularly hard choice.


Temptation and Hiding Hunger

I was pleasantly surprised this morning when, despite having eaten breakfast earlier than normal (around 7.30) in order to make it to a meeting downtown at 8, I found myself still feeling pretty satisfied at 10 a.m., the start of a training session I sat in on at a client's office. 10.30 and I was still doing pretty well. At 11, things started to go downhill, and I could feel and hear my stomach start to rumble. I spent the next hour hoping it would stop, hoping no one else in the room would hear it.

There can be something overly intimate, something hard to handle and vaguely unseemly, about witnessing someone else's hunger (or someone else's gluttony, or any part of someone else's digestive process). We might be interested in hearing about others' meals or food preferences or adventures in cooking, but we're happy, I think, not knowing too much about what's behind them.

I've been fairly avidly watching the show "Hoarders" on A&E, both because it's relevant to my work and because it's pretty engrossing. One thing that struck me about this week's episode was how, from the outside of the two featured subjects' homes, it would be impossible to know that extreme clutter lie waiting inside. Hoarding was (check: is) a very private, very hidden issue for both of these people. Unless you happened to get a peek inside their houses, you'd never know about their struggles.

This got me thinking about the secrecy of hunger. If I were truly forced to eat on $4 a day (plus whatever supplemental foods I happened to get), and thus had to go hungry on a regular basis, I can confidently say that I'd do my best to hide it. Because isn't there a sense that if you don't have enough for food, something is amiss--and it's likely something that reflects negatively on you? Maybe people think your priorities are out of whack, or assume you're blowing your cash on something else, or deem something about you insufficient if you can't scrape together enough money to pay for decent meals, especially if you're working. (Factoid: 60% of the clients the San Francisco Food Bank served in 2008 were from working families.) If you keep your hunger a secret, you don't have to deal with anyone else's perceptions, no matter how flatly wrong they may be.

Evidently something like one in eight people in the U.S. does not regularly get enough to eat. One in eight. That's a ludicrously high figure for such a wealthy country, and it means, among other things, that somewhere in the sphere of people you know is likely at least one person going hungry. I'm willing to bet you probably couldn't pick that person out. I know I couldn't.

But here's something interesting: this week, people know I'm hungry (the attendees at this morning's meeting aside). And I can't begin to count how many offers I've had of free food. If the rules of the Hunger Challenge allowed for supplements to the $4 per day I'm allowed to spend, I would probably be able to eat at least one meal a day that was given to me or purchased for me by someone else.

I would have, for example, been able to join the Israeli tonight in enjoying a burrito from the Little Chihuahua. He offered to pay. I demurred, citing the rules. So he brought his burrito over and ate it while I opted for arugula salad (roughly 75 cents). I resisted again when he brought out two mugs to make tea ("That's, like, 20 cents," I said. "Over budget."), and gave in only when he rummaged in the snack drawer, brought out a Canadian Kit Kat, and said, "Come on, can't you at least have one piece?" I did. That was about 20 cents. Over budget, yes. But I couldn't resist.

I dream of a burrito, of a bowl of pasta AND some salad AND bread. I'm longing for a cupcake, a glass of wine, a cup of salted caramel ice cream from BiRite. I would love a bowl of yogurt drizzled with honey and sprinkled with almonds, would be so thrilled to cut off a big slice of the ricotta salata I bought on Sunday and pop the entire thing into my mouth. I just picked up my CSA box this afternoon and felt briefly on the verge of a breakdown as I washed the impossibly plump, impossibly beautiful bunch of grapes that came in it. I ate two. If I play my cards right, I can eat a small handful of them tomorrow.

I am so weary of being hungry, of calculating the cost of every meal, of having to resist not only actual temptations (cupcakes, ice cream, wine, the bottle of Woodford's Reserve sitting in wait on my bar) but also things that, in any other week, would not qualify as temptations: yogurt, grapes, big salads, second servings of pasta, a baguette from La Boulange, as much produce as I can possibly stand.

I remind myself that I need only survive three more days of this and then it's back to reality. I'm so (literally) achingly humbled to truly understand that, for a mind-boggling number of people in a nation that has so much, this is reality. How can that be?


Of Losing, Food Porn, and the Bottomless Pit

I stood on the scale at the gym today (Day 3 of the Hunger Challenge) and discovered that I've lost two pounds. Since Sunday. Yikes. I'm all for a little bodily rightsizing when appropriate, but a pound a day is not exactly the healthiest way to go about it. Oh, and also? Losing weight in this manner makes you an airheaded, loopy doofus. At least it does if you're me.

It's not an exaggeration to say that being more or less constantly hungry has made me markedly dumber, yesterday in particular. I reached a point last night at which my brain was so conking out on me and my stomach was growling so loudly (for real; it would have been comical were it not so depressing) that all I could do was sit in bed and read. Check that: try to read. I didn't get far before giving up and just going to sleep.

Here's what baffles me a bit: I know I'm eating less than I normally do, and probably have not had nearly enough fat over the past few days, but still, it's not like I'm eating nothing, or eating vapidly. Whole grains, fruit, veggies, protein: check, check, check, check. And yet every time I consume something, it seems to fall deep into the bottomless pit that has suddenly become my stomach. I had a hefty-ish bowl of oatmeal this morning, for example, which normally would be enough to fill me up for at least a few hours. But within 30 minutes I was ravenous again, as if my body had completely forgotten that I had just dosed it with food. Lunch was whole wheat pasta with onion, spinach, and white beans. Time spent feeling full after eating: just about 20 minutes, at which point I would have been delighted to have a second bowl. What gives? Shouldn't my metabolism be slowing down (at least as much as my brain has)?

This constant, nagging hunger and waning intelligence have conspired to convince me that the way to get through this week is to spend time browsing what can only be considered food porn: Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times (his soba salad this week looks so good I could weep); my friend Heather's blog, called Pestle Mortar (her specialties are desserts, which I miss achingly); the site for a new fancy-pants frozen yogurt place in the Fillmore. I read them, salivate, sigh. Meanwhile, my stomach begs with my eyes to just stop already.

I think it's safe to say by now that no, it's not especially possible to eat a filling, local, organic, produce-rich diet--especially not one that includes the blazing extravagance of a cup of Fair Trade coffee in the morning--on $4 a day. Were I thinking straight, I might throw in the towel here, call the experience done and the conclusion reached, and go to town on a block of cheese.

But my addled brain pushes me forward. If I can't prove that one can be truly Pollan-esque on this sort of budget, at least I can get a true visceral sense of what happens when you can't get enough to eat--of how physically uncomfortable it is to be hungry, of how much harder it is to function on a less-than-adequate supply of calories, of what it's like to go through your day in a vague mental fog.

Of course, come Sunday morning, I can go to Fraiche and gorge myself on a bowl of high-end frozen yogurt with organic fruit and some sort of stupendous baked good, then can follow that up with three full meals of whatever strikes my fancy.

This is for the 34 million people in the U.S. who can't.



It's Hunger Challenge day 2, and I'm hurting.

Having gone over budget yesterday by $2.50, I've got a bit of saving to do today and for the next few days if I hope to stay within the $28 limit by week's end. This cost-cutting makes for an underfed and not very happy me.

Had I any faith whatsoever in my ability to make it through this very busy day (including a 3-hour meeting with a new client) without coffee, I would've saved myself 78 cents by foregoing this morning's dose. But because yesterday's alternate caffeine experiment didn't go so well, I made that splurge today, and thus have had to give up 78 cents' worth of food as a result. It's a bit past 4 p.m., I've been up since 7.30 a.m., and I've eaten only a cup of multi-grain flakes with strawberries and an almond butter-and-jam sandwich on whole wheat. To say I'm hungry would be a serious understatement.

If I were smarter and/or less stubborn, I'd give up on the healthy, organic, and local thing and would switch at this point to the cheapest food I could get my hands on, ingredients and provenance be damned. But I'm sorry to say that I'm sort of That Person--the one who honestly loves whole-grain everything, can't handle many processed foods, and gets a little (OK, perhaps a lot) hung up sometime on where her food comes from and what's in it. I'm learning that while it doesn't necessarily take a huge food budget to be That Person, it does take more than $4 per day.

So what happens when you're forced to eat on a very restricted budget and you burn through it too quickly? You try to fill up on whatever food comes your way. (For the purposes of the Hunger Challenge, even food I don't purchase counts toward my daily tally, so this one does not, alas, apply.) You lower your standards, maybe, about what you eat--hunger, after all, is a powerful motivator.

Or, for a little while, you go hungry. Today's (unsurprising) lesson? That really, really sucks.


Numbers, Bulk Foods, and Real Caffeine

It's day 1 of my participation in the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, and I can already share my first lesson: no matter how much cheaper tea may be than coffee, attempting to substitute the former for the latter as my daily caffeine source is a huge mistake.

I woke up this morning to an empty coffee canister in the kitchen, and rather than make the journey to Peet's for some replacement beans--which, at roughly $13/pound for the Fair Trade Blend I usually get, would have neatly chipped away at my $4/day spending limit--I decided to have a nice cup of black tea instead.

Wrong. Wrong. I am just now, at 3 p.m., getting over the resultant grumpiness, and only because I have just returned from Rainbow with a pound of Jeremiah's pick and am writing this with a cup of same next to me.

Fueled as I now am by real caffeine (price per day: 78 cents), I can begin the mental gymnastics involved in calculating the price-per-serving of the bulk foods that will make up the, um, bulk of my eating this week. The bulk route is the one I normally take, but I'm hewing to it even more this week as I attempt to eat as few prepared and packaged foods as possible. All of this is wonderful for my body, the earth, and the purposes of this experiment, though hideously painful in terms of the math involved.

Today's breakfast, for example, consisted of the aforementioned cup of tea (with milk and a bit of honey); steel-cut oatmeal with strawberries, brown sugar, and milk; a glass of grapefruit juice; and a piece of toast with peanut butter. What did all of that cost? Join me, won't you, on the journey to figure that out.

First, the tea. The bag I chose was one in a box given to me as a gift, so I have zero idea how much it actually cost, but am willing to peg it somewhere around 20 cents. The honey, about a teaspoon from a 16-oz. jar that was $5, comes out, by my calculations, to $0.05. I'm too stubborn to measure or calculate the splash of milk I used, so we'll call it 5 cents as well, though it was probably more like 2 or 3. Grand total: 28 cents, plus mental fatigue.

The likelihood of my continuing this insanely detailed math for everything I eat, condiments and all, is slim. So here and now, I'm making a deal with myself that I will be allowed to guesstimate the costs of herbs, spices, sweeteners, condiments, and oil, lest I go completely mad.

Leaving out the details, I've come up with $1.57 as the costs of this morning's meal. Lunch--Israeli couscous with roasted zucchini and tofu--clocks in at $1.80. The cup of Ciao Bella blood orange gelato I was somehow powerless to resist at Rainbow? $1.09 (and worth every penny). My total for the day thus far: $5.25.


For 2/3 of a day's largely organic, largely local, very tasty eating and caffeinating, not bad. But still $1.25 over budget for the day, and dinner isn't even on the horizon. So much for thoughts of arugula salad with melon, almonds, and ricotta salata; since I'm already borrowing against tomorrow, bean and barley soup is going to be more like it.