Because it was so fascinating (if very literally painful) last year, I signed on again to the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, entailing a week of attempting to eat for no more than $4 per day. (If you missed my posts from last year's challenge, start here and work your way through.) Today was Day 1 of the challenge, and already I have--completely consciously--blown my food budget.
First, a little background: $4 per day, or $28 per week, is the average amount a food stamp recipient in California gets. Trying to eat on this budget, as the hunger challenge suggests, gives you a starkly real sense of just how limiting it is, even if you opt for super-cheap foods like dried beans and inexpensive (read: probably conventionally grown) produce. Every bit of food and drink you consume (with the exception of tap water, salt, and pepper) counts toward this total, whether it's stuff you've paid for or stuff you've been given by others.
This year's challenge features a new wrinkle: participants can supplement their $4-per-day stash with food that represents what a family or individual in San Francisco would receive each week from one of the Food Bank's neighborhood grocery pantries. As an individual, here's what I'd get around this time of year:
Potatoes--1.2 Lbs per Person
Cucumbers--1.1 Lbs per Person
Pears--0.9 Lbs per Person
Carrots--0.7 Lbs per Person
Tomatoes--1.1 Lbs per Person
Stone Fruit--1 Lb per Person
Onion--1.1 Lbs per Person
Honeydew--4.5 Lbs per Person
Having done the challenge last year, I can appreciate (immensely) the difference a few pounds of produce can make in terms of stretching a week's food budget. In fact, I'm about to have a peach in an attempt to quell my rumbling stomach, and am very happy that peach won't make today's budget overage any worse.
Because here's the thing: one of the biggest bummers I discovered during last year's challenge was that there's not a whole lot you--or, more to the point, I--can do socially that doesn't somehow involve food or drink. Even with an event that's not food-centric--watching a movie at home, say--food so often comes into play: you make popcorn, or have a glass of wine, or go to Walgreens and buy gummy-somethings to eat during the film. Last year, because everything that passed my lips counted against my $28 for the week, I gave up several social outings, or whimpered through a few that were, sadly, just painful--viz. my friend Nir coming to my house with a burrito from the Little Chihuahua while I downed a salad and then watched longingly as he ate.
I can deal (if complainingly) with the hunger I know I'm bound to feel while trying to eat on $4 per day, and can deal with the required hyper-consciousness of the cost of every single thing I consume, along with the knowledge of everything I love eating that's off-limits this week because it's too expensive--most cheeses, the walnut baguette from La Boulange I want like crazy, a coffee and breakfast burrito at Arlequin....
But what I couldn't face for another year running was saying no to social events, or giving friends the brush-off for most of the week, or more salad-vs.-burrito showdowns. So I gave in and planned two outings, the first of which was today: a visit to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival with my friend Maria.
Insane as it sounds to go to a chocolate festival on day 1 of a hunger challenge, I had a coupon that gave us a big discount: two 15-taste passes for $10, working out to about 33¢ per taste. I had 8 tastes, for a total of $2.64. Not bad for fancy-ass chocolate, except that 1.) it did not exactly (or, really, at all, in any way, shape, or form) make a meal, and 2.) $2.64 is more than half of my daily budget. So even though breakfast worked out to a petite $1.18 and dinner to $1.37, I'm still over budget by $1.19.
Could be worse, but peach or no peach this evening, I'm going to go to bed hungry, because I haven't had enough protein or--chocolate samples notwithstanding--fat today. Neither of those, you'll note, is on the free-from-the-food-bank list for an individual, and I'm not going to exceed my budget any more than I already have.
It would be too facile to say that there's a necessary trade-off between socializing and eating on a strict budget; I could, of course, have had Maria over for something super-cheap at home and spent just as much time with her as I did waiting in line for toffee samples. Nonetheless, it's jarring to realize how much of my time with friends is spent out over food, and how much I love that combination, and how impossible it would be if a single burrito or a few pieces of chocolate truly did undo my eating budget for an entire day.