Archive for April, 2011

still hungry

There are 37.5 million people in America who live below the poverty line. $22,350 is the poverty threshold for a family of four in 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

At the same time, the government also classifies 38 million people as “food insecure, which refers to not having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy life.

A big part of food insecurity relates to the uncertainties of daily life. People go hungry because of unexpected events, such as paying for an emergency visit to the hospital, a car repair, or the loss of a job. So you can be just above the poverty line, and any one of those circumstances can push you over the edge.

When a family is living that close to the edge, the bottom line is that cuts will be made in their food budgets.  If you don’t have a credit card, then you have to pay cash for food.  If you don’t have the cash in hand, then you don’t buy food that day.

Even those who get three meals a day may be malnourished. Americans increasingly eat cheap, sugary foods whose production benefits government subsidies for the corn, soy and dairy industries. As the New York Times reported, the USDA promotes better eating habits while also working with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese. Something feels wrong here…

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, one in four American children – close to 17 million – live in food-insecure homes. A kid who is hungry cannot learn. A kid who can’t learn drops out of school. A kid without an education can’t get a job and help America compete in a global economy. A kid without a job may turn to crime and drugs, get arrested and cost taxpayers $40,000 a year to sit in prison.

According to the Feeding America website, the person most likely to be hungry is a single, working mother. Federal programs ensure that low-income children can get free meals at school, but their mothers – many of whom are single and work low-paying jobs in the service sector – often have to make tough choices between food, rent, gas for the car, health care or new shoes for their kids. Millions of American women who face this predicament will feed their children and go without meals themselves.

My mother and I were on food stamps throughout my childhood, over 20 years ago.  She was a single mom and worked as a waitress.  I grew up in an inner city housing project and had a supermarket within walking distance, so we were fortunate.  I remember getting government cheese, this huge block of neon orange stuff that never melted, no matter how long you cooked it.  My mother was vegetarian so we didn’t have meat in the house.  Unfortunately, because of food stamps, we also didn’t have any fresh veggies either.  I honestly didn’t know that many of the things I ate, like corn and peas, could be bought fresh; I thought everyone ate them from a can and that was the only way they came.  When I moved to California, I was amazed at the amount of fruits and vegetables I had never seen before.  It’s hard to believe now, but I didn’t know what  avocados or artichokes were.  They are now two of my favorite foods.  My mom wasn’t very adventurous when it came to fresh food- but she did the best she could with what she had! 


Sunny in the hood…

I took a walk to one of the 53 liquor stores in my neighborhood.  I wanted to compare prices and food options at the corner stores versus the dollar store.  I was surprised at some of the “specialty” items they sold…

…like popcorn in a can and four different kinds of Vienna Sausage in a can.   Yummo.

I was impressed with their selection of items that can be used to cook a real meal, such as spice packets, dried beans and corm meal.  Price wise, it was way more expensive then the dollar store, on average $1.50 higher.  So why would you choose to spend more money at the liquor store?  The only reasons I can think of are A) if it’s closer to where you live (I live 1 block from the dollar store) or B) you also need alcohol and you don’t want to go to two stores.

Speaking of alcohol…

Guess how much the cheapest fifth of vodka is at my local liquor store?

$2.15.  I had no idea that liquor could be that cheap.  No wonder I see bottles of it everywhere around here…

So my 4 bucks a day has not left me hungry, but I realize that is due to the .99 Store that has stepped up to fill the role of a grocery store.  I have never seen a dollar store that has a little freezer section, produce and bread sections.  After talking with several people, I know that if I was doing this in a part of town where there wasn’t that option, I would not be able to buy as much as I have .  I’ve talked a lot about the crap that I’m eating, but I want to talk about the hunger.  Turns out that according to the San Francisco Food Bank, hunger manifests itself not just as a consistent lack of enough food to meet nutritional requirements, but it can also mean poor-quality food that is calorie-rich and nutrient-poor.  So while I feel like I am getting enough calories everyday, I am still hungry, hungry for nutrients.  When I think about how many people in this city alone qualify as hungry because of the lack of nutrients in their diets, I feel overwhelmed.  A common misconception is that the only people in this country who are without food are the homeless.  This simply isn’t true.  Only 18% of people that the SF Food Bank serves are homeless- the rest are people who are unemployed, disabled or working and not able to make ends meet.

My husband and I are always complaining that we don’t have enough money.  The truth is, as is the truth for many people with the same complaint, that we don’t have enough money for our lavish lifestyles.  Let me define lavish- because we certainly don’t have a BMW or take exotic vacations while our house cleaner vacuums.  But we do  go to concerts and festivals, spend money on camping and baseball games and enjoy going out for dinner.  While I buy most of my clothes at second hand stores and we cut out cable to save money, we are still wine club members and have a netflix subscription.  We have had many times in our 10 years together where we didn’t have enough money to pay the bills- and have always gotten assistance from family.  But we have never been in a situation where we didn’t have enough money to eat, and if we were, we would always have someone to help us.  I can’t imagine not having anyone to turn to in times of need, or being to ashamed to ask for it.  We are so lucky to have the lives we have, and while we struggle to pay our bills every month, we spend a not so small portion of our income frivolously and enjoy doing it.  That sounds kind of twisted and immature when I read that back…but it’s true.  We work hard and like to play hard.  We are fortunate to not just have jobs (OK- I don’t really have a job) but to have the freedom to spend some of our hard earned money on enjoying life.

Today I ate the exact same thing I ate yesterday, except instead of beans in a can, I had Spaghetti O’s without meatballs in a can.

They were not as good as I remember them being as a kid…

Symptoms already?

No- I don’t think it’s possible that I am already having physical symptoms as a result of my processed, unhealthy 4 bucks a day diet.  But I sure did have a mother of a headache today after lunch, and I don’t usually get headaches.

Water, a dark room and some peace and quiet did the trick.  I bet a glass of wine would have helped as well, but I don’t have enough money left to drink any alcohol.

I can’t blame the headache on the diet, but I’m pretty sure my all around crankiness today was in part due to this food stamp challenge.  I was tired and just wanted a nice cup of chai tea.  But I can’t afford a nice cup of chai tea.  I can only afford water or milk.  I was lethargic and whiny and I know fresh fruit, veggies and whole grains would have made me feel better.  I don’t know that they would have eased my headache… but I bet it would help.   I do know that hot dogs and canned baked beans do not make me feel good.

Today I ate:

  • oatmeal packet (I’ve never had oatmeal this sweet in my life)- .19
  • smoothie- .75
  • PB&J (I secretly love Wonder bread- and while this isn’t Wonder, it’s Wonderesque and wonderful!)- .35
  • carrots- .25
  • hard boiled egg- .34
  • baked beans- .50
  • hot dog- .26
  • milk- .54

Total for today: $3.35

I had a great conversation with a neighbor of mine who receives food stamps.  I asked her for examples of what she eats and how she manages to eat healthy, which she claims she does.  Her solution is to use her food stamps for non-perishable staples and go to St. Vincents or Glide Memorial to pick up free bags of perishable items like fruits and veggies.  She is unable to eat anything fresh unless she drives to a facility that hands out free healthy food.  What is the point of providing food stamps if they cannot be used for nutritious items?  Why assist people in need if the food choices they are given are detrimental to their health?

In my neighborhood we have the Mandela Food Co-op.  It is a wonderful shop that offers local goods, wholesome, fresh and affordable foods grown on family farms, nutrition education classes and a cooperative economic investment program that provides multi-level investment for community residents.  When we moved to West Oakland, we were members of a farm CSA- a program that allows people to buy “stock” in a farm and receive weekly boxes of produce directly from the growers.  As firm believers of voting with our money,  we decided to not have our money going to a farm in Dixon and instead put it directly into our neighborhood through buying all our produce from Mandela.  I have been fortunate to be able to afford local fresh fruits and veggies,  organic meats and bulk items, but on 4 bucks a day, I can’t afford to buy anything from there.  Their veggies are so fresh and amazing, but at 2.50 for a head of broccoli, just too expensive for someone on this budget.

Mandela sells bulk items, which is great for budgeting, but when their organic brown rice costs $2.39 a pound and the .99 cent store has processed white rice for .99 a pound- the obvious choice is to go for the cheaper, both in cost and quality, option.

This is the case with many items that are sold at both stores, and

while in my normal life I always choose to buy my groceries at Mandela, on 4 bucks a day, it just doesn’t cut it.

Chart retrieved from

A Day In The Life…

It’s almost the end of day one, and I am realizing that due to the 99 cent store on the corner, getting enough food to eat for 4 bucks a day is not difficult.  See earlier post for a description of what $20 got me.  It’s not the quantity- it’s the quality.  The food I ate today is mostly crap.  It all has additives, high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.  I am not the healthiest eater in the world, but I am normally very aware of what I put in my body.  It feels good to nourish yourself with wholesome, fresh ingredients, it rejuvenates and revitalizes you.  I try to eat as much as possible according to the “whole food diet”- fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains.  If you know me then you know I struggle with this, (can you say Bud Light and sour gummy worms?) but even if I am not eating healthy, I am aware of it.  Being aware of the connection between diet and health is an important aspect of eating that gets overlooked by many in this country.

So eating on 4 bucks a day means I can’t eat the way I am used to.  I realize how spoiled I am when it comes to food.  I pretty much eat what I want when I want and don’t think too much about cost.  Today I ate:

  • smoothie and maple/brown sugar instant oatmeal
  • package of ramen noodles
  • baked beans with hot dog and a potato
  • instant butterscotch pudding

It wasn’t bad but nothing was good (except the smoothie).  I decided to save my two cans of veggies for another meal, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stomach the fuzzy zucchini.  So as far as getting my veggie fix- it’s not going to happen today.  But I have a baggie of carrots with my name on it for lunch tomorrow- and I can’t wait!

Shopping Trip

I woke up this morning for day 1 and totally forgot I was doing the challenge.  As I was munching on my usual raw, organic almonds ($12.99 a pound), my husband gently reminded me that I was quickly eating my way through 4 bucks a day.  Woops.

I quickly realized I had nothing I could eat so I trekked down the street to my local dollar store.

I bought so much more than I thought I could get on 4 bucks a day (which is $20 total since I am doing this for 5 days).  I ended up spending $20 even, but will have to break down every meal since, for example, the loaf of bread costs $1.00 but I will not be eating it all at once- 2 slices cost about .10.  For $20 I got:

  • can of baked beans
  • 6 ramen noodles
  • 4 zucchini’s
  • 2 packs of instant butterscotch pudding
  • 1 box of scalloped potatoes
  • 1 bag of red potatoes
  • 1 bag of bananas (6)
  • loaf of wheat bread
  • 1 pack of hot dogs (the only meat they sold)
  • box of instant oatmeal
  • 1 gallon milk
  • bag of frozen blackberries
  • jar of blackberry jam
  • jar of peanut butter
  • package of frozen acai smoothie  packages (not sure why this is at a .99 store)
  • can of corn and can of mixed veggies
  • bag of baby carrots (I was so happy to buy these)
  • can of Spaghetti O’s (with meatballs)

That is a lot of food for 20 bucks.  At first glance, this seems really easy.  I can eat this stuff for a few days and it will be plenty.  If I eat it all and nothing else, I will have spent no more than 4 bucks a day for 5 days.  But I will also have eaten very few fresh items and much of what I bought has added high fructose corn syrup in it. I don’t really like pb&j sandwiches, milk or hot dogs.  Canned veggies are gross.

And after opening my bananas, they are mostly rotten and the zucchini has fuzzy mold all over them.

This might not be as easy as I thought…

The Day Before the Challenge

Easter Sunday with my Massachusetts family was a huge deal growing up.  The whole family goes to my grandmothers and it is an all day affair with a wild party atmosphere.  The theme of the day is stuffing your face with as many goodies as possible.  We not only had the traditional Easter ham, but an Easter turkey as well.  The sides, my personal favorite, were endless.  The dessert options were absurdly numerous and taking less than three slices of something sweet is unheard of.  Usually everyone drinks Bud Light the whole day and 
everyone is passing out by 8pm.  Easter at my Nannie’s was always a wonderful holiday and I miss it every year.

Not to say that my Easters here in the Bay Area are deprived.  I spend it with my husband, his sister and my in-laws.  It is not as big a deal as back east, and we usually just celebrate together with a nice meal at home.  My mother-in-law is from Vermont and is an amazing cook, with everything being made from scratch.  Cooking in the Bay Area, you have access to the freshest, highest quality ingredients at your fingertips.  When my mother-in-law cooks, she has the resources to buy all organic and local meats and produce and purchase those wicked expensive specialty items, like Mediterranean seafood steaming broth ($12.95 for 26.5 oz).  It is tomato sauce with garlic in a fancy bottle.  We all drink expensive, local wine and drink a lot of it, and we all are passing out by 8pm.  It’s funny how drinking Bud Light or Pinot all day equals the same result at night.   Easter dinner usually consists of my mother-in-law cooking and baking for two days and lots of leftovers for us poor kids to take home on Monday morning. It is fancy, delicious  and wonderful.

This year, the sister-in-law is away traveling and the father-in-law is on day 1 of riding his bike to Massachusetts (yes, from California).  Instead of cooking, we decided to go to a late lunch at a fancy place in Menlo Park (think upscale Silicon Valley) that was having a set Easter dinner meal.  At $68.00 a person, this surprisingly won’t be the most expensive set menu meal I have ever had (that prize goes to brunch at the Ritz, $80.00 per person, includes one glass of champagne- no free refills).  I am wearing a fancy hand-me-down dress and shoes from Goodwill.  We made a plan to get there early, so we can have daytime cocktails at the bar while taking in the beautiful view.  It will probably not be a crappy meal.

Then tomorrow I start the challenge.  Read the “food stamp challenge” section to learn what it is and why I am doing it.  I will be eating no more than $4.00 a day worth of food sold to me within walking distance of my house.  I won’t be able to steep my morning cup of organic white tea, or make a sandwich of avocado and sprouts on seeded whole grain bread for lunch.  I won’t be able to look through for a recipe and then go out and buy 3/4 of the required ingredients.  And I won’t be opening a bottle of Cab to enjoy while I eat a little piece of cheesecake that was made in Berkley.  Nope- the wine alone would put me over my $4.00 allotment.

This will take planning on my part.  I will be hungry.  I will not have many choices.  It will be hard to get proper nutrition into my meals.  I will not be eating the extravagant, unnecessary foods I am used too.  I will be eating what many of my neighbors will be eating.  I will be eating what 39.6 million people in the United States will be eating.  But I will only be doing it for five days, while they face hunger everyday of the year.

But for now, I am eating a dinner that costs $68- seventeen days worth of food for someone on food stamps- in one meal.

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