Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hunger Challenge 2011, One Week Down

For those just tuning in to my posts on the Hunger Challenge, here's the Reader's Digest version of what's going on:

For a month, I am eating on a budget of $4.46 per day ($31.22 per week), roughly the same budget a person in Bloomington, Indiana receiving food stamps would have to work with. Why am I doing this? Two main reasons: 1. To attempt to gain a tiny understanding of what it's like to eat on such a limited budget. 2. To force my culinary skills out of their comfort zone, make this budget work, and in turn teach others how cooking on a restrictive budget can happen for them.

I'm just over one week in. Obviously, this isn't an easy task (nor did I expect it to be), but I have never had such feelings of desperate attachment to things in my refrigerator. I've been trying to keep my eating relatively normal for how my cooking and meals usually run. Over the weekend I get some ideas for what I'd like to cook, check the fridge and pantry for what is already on hand, make a menu and then head to the store for a list of remaining ingredients. Invariably, this plan will change throughout the week. Worked late one night, picked up takeout on the way home. Had colleagues in from out of town, went out for dinner with them. Just didn't feel like cooking much so I whipped up some quick pasta instead of the meal I'd planned. Those days of tossing the plan are so over. For my time on this challenge, at least, my menu is my lifeline. That's how I know when I look in the fridge and see leftover chili and ketchup, I know I've got a plan for how to eat the rest of the week.

If I didn't already know how to cook, this would feel impossible. While shopping both this week and last, I had to do some last minute ingredient substitutions because of unexpected prices or lack of stock in the grocery store. If I wasn't able to do that on the spot, a skill I only have because of copious amounts of time spent in the kitchen and with my nose in cookbooks, I would have panicked. I would have ditched the recipe and reached instead for something I knew how the heck to make and had all the ingredients for or even something that I knew I could add just milk or water to for a meal.

This week's meal line up went a little something like this:

  • Chili and cornbread kicked off the week. Easy and comforting, this wasn't much of a departure from how I was used to these turning out. Though I did make some substitutions to keep the chili cheaper, they were unnoticeable in the finished product. 
  • Next up were quesadillas. I'd wished I'd had more protein, but the peppers I had to use were great, so I didn't mind much. 
  • Then came the zucchini and corn pancakes. I had to alter the recipe because of a serious lack of flour and ended up with cakes that felt undercooked because there was so little flour to balance the eggs. Perfectly edible, but not terribly enjoyable. 
  • Then the pasta I meant to toss in olive oil, but realized I had next to no olive oil left for the week. I made it work, but was also much hungrier than usual with the cumulative effect of repeated 1400 calorie days that I wolfed down the entire thing, accidentally eating what was meant to be tomorrow's lunch. 
  • Then there was the lunch when all I ate was carrots. See what I mean by panic setting in when I stray from the plan?
Rather than continuing to post recipes as I go along, I'll be posting recipes the week after this challenge concludes so they are a better balance of low cost, little prep time and excellent taste and can hopefully be more useful to more people. 

I'm heading into week two with some things on the menu that I'd normally be excited to make (Mom's broccoli and rice casserole), but cooking is beginning to excite me less and less. Nervous that if something goes wrong, I'll have wasted precious ingredients that I really, really needed. Feeling that if I have a craving, I can't try to ignore it, I have to. There's no margin for error when I'm in the store shopping and no room for exceptions when I'm cooking my meals. Sure does put a whole new perspective on cooking.

A couple of words on what it's like going to the grocery store:

Before I go shopping, I've been checking ads to determine where I will shop for the week. I make a list before I go, mark prices where I know them and estimate them when I don't. When I walk through the aisles there's a constant number in my head. "30.25," "29.00," "27.50" as I count down the amount of dollars I'm left to work with on any given trip.

But when I get to the checkout, I pay with cash and seem no different than most others in the store to the cashier or patron in line behind me. However, for those actually on food stamps it's not cash they pay with, it's a preloaded debit card that effectively identifies them as a food stamp recipient. When I hand over my cash, there's no judgement from anyone around (at least, not on how I'm paying for my purchase). When someone is actually on food stamps, there's no guarantee the cashier or person in line behind you won't make a snap judgement or utter a condescending remark. It's a part of the food stamp reality I am luck enough not to have to learn firsthand in this simulated exercise. There's an excellent post by food blogger Beth Sheresh on her blog kitchenMage about what she remembers from her days on food stamps and why this challenge isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. I found it quite impactful and helpful as I continue to gear up for the coming weeks of the challenge (especially this post on how to better make the challenge more like reality). What fantastic perspective this woman has and how grateful I am that she shared it. I encourage you to read it.


  1. "If I didn't already know how to cook, this would feel impossible."

    While my daughter was in Head Start I also learned that many families also have to deal with illiteracy. They don't know how to cook, read a cookbook or even read package directions well on a box of macaroni and cheese! That makes living on a food stamp budget even MORE challenging.

  2. I wish I wasn't so cynical about many on food stamps but I have seen it abused for so many years having spent a lot of my adult yrs living in Ms. Now i live in Texas. Here however my husband was behind someone probably during the holidays that was buying an enormous amt of meat, good meat with food stamps that they must have saved up or I think they had another person with them. How they are able to do this? I don't know. Maybe they are on welfare and have other money coming in. But my husband said it was meat that we couldn't afford especially the amount of it. Although that part doesn't bother me because now I am a Vegetarian. You know, it's the principle of the thing. Then he has seen them get in nicer cars then we have. It is hard to keep a good attitude about another gov't system that is not working.

  3. The system has worked remarkably well. My family was on food stamps, welfare, and medicaid and now we're middle class. Without these programs, we would have been homeless at best.

    The poor deserve more benefit of the doubt to compensate for perpetually being blame for society's ills by the dominant discourse. The problem is not what the people without do, but it is what the people with do.

  4. Hope, I've never thought about the whole new level of challenge presented to someone who has difficulty or cannot read preparation instructions. I'm so glad you shared this insight! Nearly every time I've made something since reading your comment I've thought back to how fortunate I am that I have food and understand how to prepare it.

    Toni, as far as what people can and cannot purchase on food stamps, their options nowadays are pretty wide open. Anything that is considered food (and not food for immediate consumption like items meant to be eaten in-store or hot foods) is allowed to be purchased. Through some research of my own, I've found discussion of government changing the rules, only allowing certain types of food, etc., but the final word always seems to be it would be extremely difficult to constantly regulate if a food is eligible to be purchased with food stamps. Any food sold in any supermarket would have to be declared eligible or ineligible. I don't know about "rolling over" food stamp benefits from month-to-month, but I do know you get a month's worth of money on your card each month. So, I suppose it is feasible that someone could spend their entire month's worth of money in one trip.

    Like any system out there, there are sure to be some abusers, but I'd like to think there are far more people out there who use the system honestly as a way to try and get food on the table for their families than outsmart Uncle Sam into providing weekly feasts for people who don't need assistance.