Sunday, November 7, 2010

What I've Learned

As my fifth and final day on the Hunger Awareness Challenge comes to a close, I've been reflecting on what I've learned. The obvious? Four dollars a day is not enough to eat full portions of healthy food. Yes, there are ways to stretch your dollar and I suppose people get better at it from mere necessity. But the bottom line is, it just isn't enough money. In this country, access to healthy food should not be a luxury. And yet, that is exactly what is has become for millions of Americans.

With so many people in need, we cannot look the other way on this issue. Our neighbors are food insecure--working families, children, seniors--people, just like you and me. Many don't know where their next meal is coming from--or when it is coming. This isn't a Democrat or Republican, left or right, issue. At least it shouldn't be; not with this many people impacted. This is a human rights issue, right here in our own country. Look no further than the 1 in 8 Americans on food stamps to see the need. It's real. It exists.

What do we do about it? For starters, we need to support our local food banks. This challenge demonstrated to me the crucial role food banks fulfill for a family in need. I thought I understood this role before the challenge, since I knew the stats and the need. But now, after a mere five days of finding fresh produce and protein essentially unaffordable, I truly see the absolute need for food banks. I urge folks to donate to the San Francisco Food Bank. For every dollar you donate to the SFFB, we distribute $6 worth of food. I've supported the SFFB for over 10 years, with my husband Steve. We believe strongly in the effectiveness of the SFFB. It is why I serve on the Board of Directors. I urge you to become involved, to give, to volunteer. To continue learning about the SFFB's work, follow the Food Bank on facebook and twitter.

I also strongly recommend writing your elected officials and letting them know that this issue is important to you and that you vote. Let them know that food stamp recipients aren't receiving enough in benefits. Use your voice for the millions of Americans in need.

These past five days have allowed me to walk in the shoes of others--albeit temporarily--and as I said the first day--I realize this challenge is a luxury to undertake, for tomorrow it is over for me. For millions it is not.

And yes, I'm hungry.

My Last Day

It is now Sunday morning, day 5. All I have left is a can of beans, oatmeal (but no milk), some pasta, an apple and a grapefruit. Last night I had a dream about ice cream and candy apples. I couldn't understand in my dream why I bought so many candy apples and two ice cream cones. I was worried it was all going to go to waste.

Yesterday I chatted with a friend who is a fitness professional. I was telling him what little energy I had, particularly when I tried to exercise. We figured it out and normally I eat between 1800 and 2000 calories a day. On the Hunger Awareness Challenge, I am only getting between 1000 and 1200 calories and also lack the health and diversity in my food I had before. These last few days I had to really cut back on portions to stretch my food budget. I ate little lean protein, not enough fruit and veggies and very little dairy (no yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese)--all the things I would normally eat.

As I face a rainy day in San Francisco with nothing pressing to do, the day ahead, with little in the way of food and little food choices, seems long and particularly daunting.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


After reading about my Hunger Awareness Challenge, a friend asked me, jokingly, whether my two cats were included in the $4 a day. He then asked seriously, what folks on food stamps and others in need do about feeding their pets. As an animal lover, I thought this was an excellent question.

It occurred to me on the first day of the challenge, as I opened a can of cat food, that I wouldn't be able to afford to feed my cats if I was on food stamps. On the second morning of the challenge, I decided my cats could forgo their can of food and just eat their dry food. A coup was practically staged--for those with cats you know what I mean. I caved and on day 3, and now 4, they have had their canned food.

But in all seriousness, what do folks in need of their own food do in regard to feeding their pets. Remember, there has been a huge increase in the amount of people receiving food stamps within the last 2 years. One in 8 Americans receive food stamps. Some states, like Nevada, have seen a 30% increase on folks receiving food stamps, just in the last year--easy to imagine when we read about the unemployment and foreclosure rates there. The state I grew up in, New Jersey, has seen an 27.5% increase this past year. It is difficult for me to even fathom those numbers. This means that people who a year ago could well afford to feed their pets are now suddenly in a position where they can't even properly feed themselves.

One cannot use food stamps to purchase pet food (nor can it be used for household items, soap, vitamins, medicine, tobacco, alcohol and a slew of other items). So, what happens to the animals? There are some nonprofits that give pet food to people in need (a google search can hopefully find ones in your area if you are in need, or call your local SPCA). What often occurs is that people share what little food they have with their pet. I can see this particularly with older populations who are already quite socially isolated and especially in need of their pet's companionship.

As for food banks distributing pet food, from a quick Internet search it seems to vary from food bank to food bank. Sadly, over the last few years, shelters throughout the country have seen a dramatic rise in people relinquishing their pets because they simply couldn't afford their care. Truly heartbreaking.

As the holidays roll around, we all likely know a family or friend struggling financially. I like to give a gift that truly keeps on giving--I give that family a gift card to their local supermarket and I also make my annual donation to The San Francisco Food Bank. A good addition this year seems to be adding in pet food if you know someone in need who also has a furry friend.


Last night (Friday, Day 3) I had dinner plans with my closest friend Caroline. Before I decided to take this challenge, we were planning on going to an Italian restaurant where an entree costs about $15. Obviously that was now out of the question. My first thought was to cancel and just stay home. Then I thought about having Caroline over for dinner, as I love to do and do countless times throughout the year. Then I started thinking about the limited amount of food I have and, well, quite frankly, I didn't want to share what little I had. If you had told me a week ago that I wouldn't want to invite Caroline over and share my food with her, I would have never believed it. Now I was doing just that.

It is easy to share and be generous when you have an abundance. However, as soon as you feel you can't meet your own needs, sharing feels out of the question. Now, I fully know that people with little are generous and share--in fact, people who make less money give proportionately more of their income to charity compared to high wealth individuals--I'm simply saying how I felt when faced with not enough food.

This made me realize how socially isolating one can become without enough food. It is so easy to turn inward. And with many of our social interactions centering around food, it feels almost necessary. I decided not to let this happen and suggested we go somewhere I could afford--McDonalds. Luckily Caroline is a good sport (and likes fast food!), so off we went.

I had $3.54 left from my 5 day total of $20 to spend. A coke, french fries and a cheeseburger cost $3.24. So right now, I have food in the house from Safeway yesterday and that must last through Sunday. I also 30 cents remaining.

So, how was McDonalds? Let me say, it's been probably about 10 years since I ate a McDonald's burger. I say this for the sole purpose of showing how quickly one must change their eating habits when faced with so little money. Did I have to go to McDonalds or eat fast food? No, but it is in fact what people in our country do, particularly folks in need, because the food is cheap and accessible. Ok, let me say, while eating, it tasted pretty good, it filled me up and it was the first time since I started the challenge that I felt I was having a "treat." After, I felt kind of gross--sorry, can't be more eloquent than that, because that is just how I felt.

The take away? I now fully understand why people without enough food and insufficient access to healthy food, turn to fast food. It tastes good while you are eating it, it is easy to get and it's cheap. Kids even get a toy out of it. I get it. Three days ago, I didn't get it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

$3.54 left

I just finished the last of my stew, so I went to Safeway to get food for the next few days. I figured pasta with beans and veggies would be best--inexpensive and relatively healthy. In searching for the cheapest pasta, and hoping to find a whole wheat one I could afford, I came across the Safeway brand called "Eating Right Kids.". The pasta is shaped like cartoon characters. It was 99 cents. The same brand for adults was $1.49. Hhmm. After comparing the labels, it turns out the kids' pasta has half the fiber. And yet, it has a big stamp on the box saying "good source of fiber.". The adult one, which is a far better source of fiber, doesn't have the stamp. I bought the cheaper one, despite wanting the other. Two cans of beans and a can of tomatoes rounded out the dry goods.

I've been craving broccoli. Usually, I crave chocolate and eat broccoli because I should! I suppose when your body isn't getting what it needs, it craves it. The broccoli was $1.25, more than the pasta and the same price as a can of beans The apples I bought the other day were on sale for 99 cents a pound. Today they were up to $1.49 so I only bought one. I bought another sweet potato and weighed it and thought it would be under $1. It turned out to be $1.33. By the time I noticed, the sale had gone through and I felt I couldn't say anything with a line of people behind me. The entire way home I thought about that damn sweet potato being so expensive and how I should have put it back.

I have two and a half days left, a bit of food in the house again and only $3.54 left.

I'm hungry. Like pit in my stomach hungry but I have to make this food last.

The Crack of Dawn on Day 3

Woke up famished--oatmeal soon...

Thanks for all the feedback so far. I want to say, I understand people do this (live on an average of $4 a day) everyday, around our country. It clearly can be done. Should it have to be endured though? The real issue is not can it be done. Rather, for people living this way day after day, year after year, are they receiving adequate nutrition? Are they feeling forced to turn to high calorie, low nutrition food? Are children getting enough food each day to go to school able to concentrate and learn? Based on just a couple of days of this and from all I've read over the years on the issue, I'd say--highly unlikely under the current food stamp structure.

Visiting a San Francisco Food Bank Pantry

A lack of food stamp benefits, or failure to qualify under the draconian system, coupled with a lack of access to healthy food is why people turn to the San Francisco Food Bank ("SFFB"). One of the Food Bank's pantries is just down the street from my house and is held every Friday afternoon. If I was truly on food stamps right now, I can tell you, I'd be looking forward to going to the pantry today to get additional food. Through the dedicated volunteers who staff the pantry, I found out what folks will be receiving today--what I would get if I truly needed it. Great stuff and an amazing amount: apples, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, squash, tomatoes, onions, corn and zucchini. And that's just the produce--I would also receive rice, bread, sardines, canned fruit, yogurt and bratwurst.

I know for the 600 people visiting just this one pantry today, this food will help make ends meet. How would I feel if I was going to a food pantry today? I don't know really. This is probably one that you can't even imagine until you are faced with it. There must be a lot of mixed feeling when you realize you need to go, particularly for the first time. And over the last two years we've seen many first timers--people who you could tell lost their job or lost hours at work; people who never thought they would be at a food pantry.

While I don't know how I would feel--I imagine the strongest feelings may be hopeful and relieved that I had extra food to bring home--I do know about how the SFFB feels about the food we give and the people who are our clients. One of the guiding principles of the SFFB is dignity. It is of the utmost important to everyone involved at the SFFB--from staff to volunteers to board members--that we treat our clients with dignity. Part of that means allowing clients to select their own food. Our 200 or so pantries throughout the City and in Marin are set up in a farmers' market style. People then "shop" for their food--selecting items they want and need. Each of these pantries truly has a sense of community. I highly encourage you to visit one of the pantries with us and also to come down to the SFFB and see our warehouse operation. You will have greater insight into hunger in our community.

Last year the SFFB distributed 40 Million pounds of food in San Francisco and Marin--over half was fresh produce. Perhaps as important as the number of pounds is the manner in which it is done. As I talked about yesterday, food is so much more than just the nourishment it contains. The SFFB knows this.

Today's Agenda

I have some challenges today...I was invited to a luncheon at a hotel for National Philanthropy Day. Truth be told, my first thought when I received the invitation the other day was, "good, now I'll get a free lunch on Friday, one less meal to worry about." It is amazing how quickly one begins to think like this--because you are forced to. It was quickly pointed out to me that a person on food stamps has a low wage job and generally wouldn't be invited to such a lunch. In fact, the food stamp recipient would probably have the job of cleaning up after the luncheon and maybe eating any leftovers that went untouched. So, in the spirit of walking in another's shoes, I plan on attending the luncheon and not eating. I know I'm going to be hungry, so even the thought of this stresses me out a bit.

I'll post more later to let you know how it felt to watch others eating when I couldn't (something many people must do daily) and also about some challenges I know I will have around dinner with a friend tonight.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Day 2--Lots of Thinking About Food

Food As More Than Just Nourishment

Food isn't only about nourishment, is it? We use food to meet our basic caloric needs to survive, and hopefully thrive. But we also use it for so much more--we celebrate with it; mourn with it; socialize over it; express our cultures through it. When forced to live on too little food (as $4 a day will force you to do--and let me be clear on this, $4 a day is the average that food stamp recipients receive--some must live on less, based on a variety of factors)food becomes simply about trying to get enough calories. I can tell you, given the all day, low grade headache, the listless feeling and lack of motivation, my basic caloric needs are not being met. Add in a lack of fresh produce and I suspect my blood sugar levels are also not where they should be. I ate today basically the same as yesterday but with a small sweet potato thrown in. The problem is that without enough money, the food has to be stretched so far that portions just aren't big enough to fill me up. I'm constantly hungry and thinking about food.

So food becomes then merely about calories. It isn't fun or interesting or tasty or an expression of anything. Think about how you use food in your own life and you'll see what I mean about how it truly is about so much more than survival.

Thinking about how we use food, and how it becomes something different when there isn't enough of it, made me think about my grandmother. My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression. For years, her family was hungry. There simply wasn't enough food. She vividly remembers crying because she craved meat so badly because it had been years since she had any. Her family made soup out of the dandelions growing in their backyard. To this day, at age 89, not a day goes by that she is not baking or cooking. Food is security and cooking for others is an expression of her love for them--for what greater gift is there than food. To her, who spent years without it--none. I can understand that; perhaps even a little more today than 2 days ago.

The Need Today

When I think of my grandmother's experience during the Depression, I think of how the social programs we have today largely grew out of that era. We realized as a nation that we couldn't allow folks to be in such dire situations. And here we are today--a record number of folks on food stamps and receiving food from the San Francisco Food Bank and similar programs throughout the country.

I think we often wonder, "who are these people?" Yesterday I said they were you and me. And they are--often when visiting a pantry I look into the faces of people and think, "but for the grace of God go I..." Let me expand on who receives food from the San Francisco Food Bank. A few years ago when volunteering at a pantry, a woman came in for groceries and she looked very familiar. After a few minutes I realized I had met her the previous week through my work with another nonprofit. Who was she? A Head Start teacher in the Mission. Yes, teaching our children. Why did this teacher need groceries? Well, I just looked up the salary of a Head Start teacher--approximately $21K a year.

According to the California Budget Project, it takes almost $60K a year in San Francisco for a family of four--with one parent working--to make ends meet. If both parents are working, it takes over $84K. In Marin County those numbers jump to $62K and $90K. But, a family of four is eligible for food stamps only if its gross annual income doesn't exceed $28,665. So that is why we see the Head Start teacher receiving food from the San Francisco Food Bank.

Or take the young father I saw at the pantry one day. He ran in with his 2 small children just after 5pm as we were getting ready to close. He wore a uniform from a national water delivery company. A working man, not able to make ends meet.

What You Can Do

Many folks have reached out after yesterday's posts to ask what they can do about ending hunger in our country. Here are a few suggestions: Take this Hunger Awareness Challenge. It is powerful to get some idea of the feelings (both physical and emotional) that those who are hungry experience; Support the San Francisco Food Bank ( For every dollar donated, we distribute $6 worth of food. It is a highly effective and efficient organization. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, simple understanding and compassion for the millions of Americans who face food insecurity everyday.

Stay tuned for tomorrow--as I have some interesting challenges facing me...