Monday is the start of The Hunger Challenge, a five-day "exercise in empathy" organized by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. Participants — the amount provided to low-income individuals and families through the CalFresh food stamp program. The purpose? To discover just how challenging a nutritious lifestyle can be for the nearly 4 million Californians whose daily food allowance is about the same as the cost of a gallon of gas.
Fueling up every day on a handful of dollar bills and a stack of coupons would indeed be a feat, I thought. So I decided to embark on the journey and retrace my steps through a culinary past peppered with meals for deals.
After all, I was raised a bargain hunter. As soon as I was old enough to understand the concept of money — or rather, lack of it — and big enough to push a cart, I was scouring the shelves at the grocery store for the yellow signs reading, "buy one get one free." I knew where the reduced-price meat section was, with its graying beef and watery chicken nearing expiration. I could locate the damaged-goods shelves stocked with bent soup cans and ripped cereal boxes. I developed a hawk's eye for the bold stickers advertising mark-downs.
By the age of 11 or so, I was doing most of the grocery shopping for our family of three: my mother, my sister, and me. It was also around the time I started cooking the family meals, concocting great cauldrons of over-cooked pasta with tangy, tasteless tomato sauce. I was no Julia Child, but pasta was cheap and filling.
Living on a tight food budget when I was a kid meant not having the things other kids had in their lunch boxes. It meant mustering a meal from two or three simple, low-cost ingredients, with frequently bland results. It also meant a deep psychological connection between food and security.
Fortunately, it's been a while since I've had to ask the grocery store cashier to put items back on the shelves after seeing the final tally at the register.
Now, I not only eat to satiety three times a day, but I also have the luxury of stocking my cupboards with fresh fruit and vegetables, opting for organic and farm fresh and experimenting with nutritional super foods. I am healthier than I ever was as a child, and my choices are far less limited.
But what would happen if my food budget suddenly shrunk, and I was thrust back into a time of expired meat and bland pasta? Would I be able to maintain a nutritious diet? And more than that — would I want to?
Food is comfort. At least, it is to me. The Hunger Challenge comprises two words that are distinctly uncomfortable. Bare cupboards represent lack of choice, lack of control and lack in general. And being without can breed feelings of insecurity and unhappiness, which can lead to a search for abundance — even if that abundance is artificial or unhealthy like, say, a Big Mac and fries. Healthy eating is much more difficult on a budget of a few bucks a day when a cabbage costs the same as a fast-food cheeseburger.
Over the course of the week, I plan to share my experiences and recipes while participating in The Hunger Challenge. My goal is to stay satisfied and keep away from the quick-fixes. Do you have a recipe, advice or a food bargain to share? Let me know in the comments.
To follow along with my experience of The Hunger Challenge, read: