The month of my challenge has come and gone. I am at the finish line, less enthused about the end than I predicted I would be and feeling painfully aware of what hunger can do to a person’s body and soul.
I have gone from adoring food and cooking to dreading the thought of making dinner. My kitchen went from a sanctuary of creativity to a site for irritation and insufficiency. My soul went from craving culinary education and inspiration to just wanting to understand one iota of America’s food system.
I could see the effects of my changed diet very quickly. I didn’t have as much energy. Because of that, my exercise routine took a hit. I became careless about what I was putting in my body; I just cared that I was managing to feed myself. I think I ingested more yellow 5, blue 1 and red 30 dyes in the past month than I did during all of elementary school combined. When I didn’t have the energy to plan meals, I let it slip; food went to waste and I made careless choices. I usually chose comfort foods so I could take solace in at least some part of my meal. Social functions were almost out of the question entirely. It felt incredibly isolating to feel like I couldn’t go out and be amongst friends at a meal. I felt shame when I could no longer bring people over to enjoy a dinner. Not only was there hardly enough to share, I didn’t want people to see me cooking and eating the way I was.
Several people have expressed their relief at the conclusion of the challenge. Many said they had felt bad over the past month eating or cooking certain things in front of me they knew I couldn’t afford. Others wanted me to be back to a more active social life, which included the ability to have a meal or drinks out. Some were concerned for my health and were happy that I’d be able to take better care of myself again. These are many of the same people who have been extraordinarily supportive of me over the past month. Don’t get me wrong, I’m appreciative of their honesty but on some level it makes the conclusion of the challenge seem incredibly unfair. I get to flip a switch and go back to life as I knew it 30 days ago. That change is at such odds with reality, it hurts.
What am I taking away from the Hunger Challenge? Three important lessons:
Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs of human life. How you choose to feed, clothe and shelter yourselves and your family are personal choices. If I want to fill up a shopping cart full of ramen noodles and Cheetos and call it dinner for the night, I can. If I want to make a dinner out of Cap’n Crunch and Ben and Jerry’s, I can (And, for the record, totally have). My mother always told me “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Have I ever looked into someone else’s shopping cart and thought, “I’d never buy that!” Of course I have. But the next time I find my eyes wandering to someone else’s cart, food stamp recipient or not, I’ll think twice before I start examining their purchases. I hope you’ll do the same. If you won’t, then have the decency to keep your thoughts to yourself. No one deserves to be publically chastised for what they choose to eat. Ever.
(Amateur Gourmet recently had an excellent, brief article on a similar topic. I highly recommend it: http://www.amateurgourmet.com/
2011/10/lets-not-be- paternalistic-about-food.html# more-6290)
There’s no simple answer to the question “Can you afford to eat healthy on food stamps?”
After researching the actual prices of certain fruits and vegetables (and filling in from my experience over the last month), buying fresh produce or produce at all certainly is possible on a highly restrictive budget. But what about that can of chicken noodle soup? How far up the price chain do you have to go before it’s void of a laundry list of additives? In half the stores I visited, otherwise identical loaves of white and wheat bread were being sold at significantly different prices. When pennies, nickels and dimes matter, would you choose to buy milk, or pay a small fraction of the price for soda? Is your motivation to buy fresh vegetable strong enough when canned varieties are (or even just appear to be) cheaper and require a much shorter prep time? Everyone is free to make their own choices on exactly what they eat, but the almighty dollar sure does have a way of shaping those choices, especially when dollars are scarce.
If you are fortunate enough to have enough, share what you can.
The operations of so many food banks and soup kitchens run on the generosity of both companies and individuals. If the economy over the last five years has proven only one point, it is that anyone, no matter their class status, race, religion or age, can go from having everything to nothing in the blink of an eye. Chances are you won’t wake up tomorrow in need of a food bank’s services. But someone will. Tomorrow I go back to a regular grocery budget just as swiftly as I began to restrict it. There’s no switch to flip that turns off hunger. How can you help? You can donate food. You can give your time. You can provide funds. You can understand how the food banks in your area provide assistance. You can start a conversation. In whatever way you desire or are able to help, it can make a difference.
For me, helping will mean more frequent donations to my local food banks, especially in the seasons when I can donate excess from my own vegetable garden. It will mean keeping accessibility in mind when I decide what foods I feature and recipes I post on this blog. It will mean when I teach beginning cooking classes, to better educate my students on the true cost of certain foods and how to shop and choose ingredients intelligently. It will mean giving some of my own time with efforts to mitigate hunger in my community.
I hope you have gained something by going on this journey with me. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take on a Hunger Challenge of your own. If you are able, I urge you to support your local food banks. Most importantly, if you are reading this, I thank you for having the curiosity, interest and support to see this challenge through. Regardless of your opinion on food, the challenge or hunger itself I hope these posts have helped you to see this issue from a new perspective. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll charge one of you to help make a difference.