Sunday, October 12, 2014

Day 7: What are we going to do to end hunger?

On Day 7 I knew I could get through the day and finish the challenge. But my failures on Day 3 and 4  really got me thinking about what I am or am not willing to do to end hunger, and what the significance of my actions this week will be. After all, my efforts do not amount to a hill of beans if all I do is eat food on a SNAP budget for a week, and tell you about it here.

Clever tips and recipes for living on a shoestring are great, but they clearly were not enough to keep me nutritiously fed on a SNAP budget. Food drives or donations to a local food bank are obviously essential, especially with the benefits sized as they are now, but they do not get at the source of the problem. At the end of the day, the fact is that the SNAP benefit is too small. The fact is that minimum wage has not kept up with cost of living, driving more people into poverty.

What kinds of collective political action might be effective to end hunger? I found a lot of great information in the 2014 Hunger Report, published by the non-profit Bread for the World Institute. Bread for the World is a people of faith organization (ecumenical Christian), and I know not all of you reading this are people of faith, but they do have some of the best information out there. So if you can handle the references to Jesus, it is an amazing resource.

The Institute is the 501(c)3 entity linked to the 501(c)4 Bread for the World which takes direct political action to end hunger (see, e.g., their handy Congressional scorecard).  Bread's four step action plan depicted in the infographic at right makes a lot of sense to me. I took a number of actions today including writing Congress, engaging the media, and making sure my membership was active and that I was subscribed to future alerts from hunger advocacy organizations like Bread for the World or Feeding America. There is reason to believe our actions are worthwhile: see Bread's accomplishments and Feeding America's.

I hope you will take action too and tell everyone about it in the comments.

Day 6

Day 6 was Saturday, and I had all the time in the world to make breakfast. I gleefully fried up some potatoes to go with my egg for breakfast instead of grits. Found some hot Hungarian paprika in my spice cabinet to liven it up. 

Despite this exuberant variation I concocted, the toll of the week had set in.  At snack time I found I could not face another under-ripe granny smith apple and skipped my morning snack. I took a walk with a friend to distract myself, and headed to the farmer's market to shop for next week. 

It is not a coincidence that I bought all kinds of apples: Honeycrisp! Stayman-Winesap! Nittany! Not one of them green.  Also: fresh kale. And squash, both of which were on my list from last week but which I could not afford. Also an heirloom tomato, some chicken of the woods mushroom, and some frisee greens. It was impulsive - I bought what looked good without regard to budget. I ran to the supermarket and bought a half gallon of lactose free milk, a block of cheese, and some soy yogurt to make up for lost dairy this week. (Some will note the absence of meat; I guess I didn't miss it.) I bought a box of pasta because I decided in the moment that I was going to make squash-kale mac and cheese. And I bought a box of cereal for breakfast. A privilege not to plan.  My total bill was around $50. A privilege not have to keep exact track going stall to stall at the farmer's market.

If I were relying on SNAP benefits, the picture would be quite different. I would have $33 to spend again, and have to think and plan very carefully about what to do this coming week. Whether I really need dairy, and if so, what to sacrifice in order to afford it. The thought of having to do it all again for next week, and every week, is exhausting. And the difference of a few more dollars is critical, as it can be the difference between including or excluding dairy, the difference between fresh and frozen vegetables, or the difference between whole and processed foods.

My leftover food is likely to include about a pound of carrots, a couple of potatoes, a granny smith apple. These will become carrot soup (and on SNAP, it would be without the benefit of the chicken broth I bought at the grocery store). There are some grits leftover, but not enough for a whole week.

I came back from my shopping trip and ate chana saag for lunch. Dinner was chickpea potato stew and chorchori. But I was still hungry, maybe the result of the walk I took earlier with my friend, maybe the result of living 6 days under minimum Caloric requirements. I decided to bake a granny smith to make it more palatable. It was better, but I was still hungry. In the end I made some grits so I could finally feel full. Definitely the best food choice of the week. True confession: it is the first time this Yankee ever bought grits to make at home. It is the one food I bought this week that I don't feel like I need a break from. I guess grits and I need to make up for lost time.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Day 5: A Road Trip on a Food Stamp Budget

Day 4 went much like day 3, given the day was filled with good bye celebrations for my boss. I sat through the pizza party eating lentils and rice, but in the end could not resist the cake. I mangled a piece getting it out of the cake pan onto a could not be served in that state so I ate it...  I am weak, and hunger makes it that much harder to stick to one's principles. It was downhill from there.
Day 5 was a different challenge: a road trip. I currently work in DC on a short term basis but own a home 5 hours away. I had not been home since Labor Day so was eager to get out of town.

I went for a run in the morning - my first real exercise of the week. I normally try to fit in four or five workouts a week, but suspended all workouts for this challenge, figuring it would be a bad idea on limited Calories. This is an important point: basic fitness is not possible on the food stamp budget. But given my failures on Days 3 and 4, I was no longer worried about my ability to sustain forty-five minutes of exercise. I spent the rest of the morning packing and preparing for the trip, then left shortly before noon.

It wasn't until after I had hit the road that I realized I would have a bit of a challenge with lunch - cold chickpea stew, cold chorchori, cold lentils, or cold chana saag? After 4 days these are not even appealing hot, let alone cold... so I went for an apple.  I stopped halfway at a rest stop and spent $1.50 on a bag of pretzels from a vending machine. I have exactly $0.08 left for the week. Usually when I make this trip I think nothing of spending $5 on a sandwich, plus another $2 on a soda, and maybe another $2 on some kind of snack or treat. That would be two days' worth of food on a food stamp budget.

Meanwhile, life goes on with its own challenges. I got to my house to discover a large window, shattered, that I will have to repair or replace. I learned my neighbors needed me to attend an emergency meeting because an energy company just rerouted a proposed fracked gas pipeline through our neck of the woods. So I quickly heated up some chickpea potato stew and headed to the meeting. I got home between 9:30 and 10, exhausted and yes hungry. Unable to face my Indian food options once again, I made myself some grits with honey and went to bed. I am really glad I bought grits - great comfort food, versatile, and still tasty after five days....

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Day 3: A Failure

I am finding myself really short fused. I had to run several errands this morning at work related to preparations for a good-bye party for my boss, and I didn't get to eat my mid-morning snack, and some time after 11am my colleague and co-planner was still running trying to get the next thing done and I just didn't have it in me. I cut out of the planning activities, and went to eat my snack. A co-worker walked in my office and I was feeling exasperated because I just wanted to eat my banana... and then he offered me a tip to make my bananas last longer. Another act of thoughtful solidarity.

The problem came at 5pm when I realized I had not prepared properly for my day...  I had to attend an evening meeting starting at 5:30, and I didn't bring dinner. The meeting was at a brewery. My coworkers ordered food for the table. It was happy hour and beer was $2. I came up $0.42 short because as you may recall I had $1.58 left for the week. The meeting went until after 7. I broke down and accepted their offer to share food.

I could blame my weakness on light-headedness due to lack of Calories. I tried to explain why the rules prohibit others from giving me food. But they said something about a time machine, that they would pretend they bought me the beer last week. I don't know why or how that could ever pass as convincing argument. Is my resolve to end hunger in America so easily undermined? Is this how our Representatives get talked out of doing what it takes to end hunger?

What's even worse is that as part of the planning for my boss's party tomorrow, I am in charge of bringing cake. So after I came home I went to the store and spent $4.86 on cake mix and frosting and baked a cake, something I absolutely could not have afforded to do on $33 this week.  I will not eat the cake. I will not eat the cake.

But this is one of the difficulties of this week: outside of breakfast, almost every meal has been a social occasion. This is indeed a very positive element in my life. And this week I have contemplated not attending several of these events in order to avoid the awkwardness of not being able to eat anything, or not wanting to tell yet another person about this thing I am doing, the SNAP Challenge (what's that? And so on...). I am certain if food stamps were a regular part of my life I would avoid many of these social situations because I could not afford them, and because I would not want to tell people over and over again about my circumstances. And I would lose out on all the benefits of those relationships...  support, companionship, and in the professional context furthering the work we do both together and individually.

I failed the Challenge today, but this failure revealed yet another limit of SNAP benefits: Having too small a SNAP benefit doesn't just limit your Calories, it limits your possibilities for Community.  I want to live in an America where each person has enough to be in relationship with others and gather around a table with something to share. It really doesn't cost a lot - a $2 beer or a $5 cake that feeds 20 people produce invaluable returns. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Day 2 and some recipes

It's 8:30 PM and I am finding myself hungry at the end of a long day. I worked until 7 and my last bit of food was a banana I ate for a snack just before 3pm. I came home and had a serving of chana saag and some chick-pea potato stew. Not really enough.

I'm trying to decide whether to eat my spare apple (I bought 8 when I need 7) or save it for later this week. I could make an extra serving of grits maybe. Or microwave a potato.... but the apple wins. Definitely the best of my options right now. 

Some folks have been asking for recipes, so here are two. I no longer recall how I came by either of them other than that they were the product of Internet searches, and they may or may not have been changed before I put them on recipe cards... so apologies to my unknown sources. 

Chickpea-Potato Stew
15 oz can chickpeas
3 c. stock or water
1 pound potatoes, chopped into bite size pieces
1 15 oz can tomatoes
2 t. garam masala
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. turmeric
3 T cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

1) Boil water or stock. Add chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes, garam masala, ginger, and turmeric. Simmer for 30 minutes. 

2) Put half in a blender or food processor and add back to thicken (or mash or use hand blender)

3) Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro and serve. 

Chana Saag
15 oz can chickpeas
10 oz fresh spinach
1/2 c. water (or more as needed)
1 c. onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T. minced fresh ginger
2 t. ground cardamom
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 t. garam masala
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. salt
1.5 t. cumin seed
1 t. coriander seed

Saute onion in a large skillet until soft. Add garlic and saute until golden. Add spices and cook for 1 minute. Add chickpeas and 1/2 c. water. Cover and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add spinach, cover and cook until wilted, 1 min. Simmer uncovered till flavors blend, about 10 minutes. 

Day 1

Late Sunday night and early Monday morning I was dealing with an overflowing dishwasher disaster, so didn't get much sleep. Monday morning I had to clean up and arrange for repairs. I was late for work because of this and wanted to run out the door and just grab something on my way in, but I had to stop, cook grits and eggs, and make tea, sit down, and eat it. I'm not sure that living life in a rush is a luxury per se, but I know I couldn't afford it Monday morning.

At lunch I was very grateful for coworkers who originally planned to meet at a restaurant but agreed to meet in a conference room and bring our own lunches because I was taking the challenge. A small act of solidarity. In the evening I had to give a talk to a group of students, and the faculty took me out to dinner after. I explained to them why I would be eating ahead of time, and they were also supportive. One of the faculty members told me about how she lived on very little money as a grad student, and another told me about how she lived on food stamps many years ago, and it was not difficult because she was vegetarian and ate a lot of rice and beans. On Sunday I met a man at a cookout who also said he didn't think it would be difficult if I had just shopped at H-Mart, the large Asian supermarket out in the suburbs.

I tried to explain to each of them how the economics of my challenge worked out in 2014; how i also lived on a shoestring in grad school but prices of food have gone up since then, and most food stamp recipients don't have access to universities' largesse of free food at lectures; how food stamp benefits have been cut; and how my shopping trip went this week, how many Calories I am getting and not getting. It's not that I have a bad shopping strategy, it's that the benefit is too small. And as some of the cookout attendees pointed out, I came at this with a lot of social capital, knowledge and resources to know what would supply balanced nutrition, to bargain hunt, etc.

 Many people have offered to give me food, and when I explain it's not allowed in the challenge, some have posited that lots of people on food stamps have friends that give them food, because they themselves have given food to people receiving food stamps... but I explain how not everyone has access to friends who can or do spare food, and that the challenge isn't about learning exactly "what it's like," to be someone living on food stamps, it's about learning the real limits of the SNAP benefits and how we the American people need to do more, not as individuals generously helping other individuals, but systematically ending hunger through political action.

I am really glad people are engaging so much with the challenge, thinking and talking about SNAP benefits. I hope we all can move from problem solving strategies for saving money and managing tight budgets, and from gestures of individual generosity (however welcome these may be) to organized action that changes the collective political will. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Food for the week

All right, here it is. My food for the week. Lunch and dinner, anyway. You'll notice I'm eating Indian food. This reflects an early cost-saving strategy of buying cheap rice and beans from an Indian grocer. This plan didn't pan out as the rice was more expensive per pound than at my local supermarket, and beans were only available in large quantities beyond what I could have eaten in a week, and therefore cost prohibitive for this challenge. But once I had worked out the menu plan and researched the supermarket pricing of the ingredients, I decided to stick with it. 

First, of course, is a big pot of brown rice. It will go with everything. I have about 20 servings. Eight servings to go with lentils, four for a chickpea collard dish, and another eight to go with a chickpea potato stew for some carb-on-carb goodness.

Next is eight servings of lentils, which should give me complete protein when paired with the rice. These are just brown lentils cooked with some cinnamon, turmeric, and garlic, finished with some lemon slices (worth the dollar I spent on that fresh lemon!) and cumin. I think I also may have snuck a little cayenne in here for good measure. I reserve the right to doctor it as the week goes on.

For variety's sake I made four servings of this riff on chana saag. Normally a chickpea/spinach dish, this time I used frozen collards for the green. It has an interesting array of whole spices including cardamom, cinnamon, and coriander, plus fresh ginger, ground turmeric, and garam masala. Should handily mask any freezer taste.

With the rest of the chickpeas and a couple pounds of potatoes I made eight servings of this hearty but simple stew with tomatoes, turmeric,ground ginger, and garam masala. (Put 6 cups of water in a pot; add chopped potato, a 28 oz can of tomatoes, the above spices, and 2 15oz cans of chickpeas. Et voila!

Finally, I made a Bengali root-veggie and green dish known as chorchori. It makes use of any combination of veggies you have on hand, all made delicious through the magic of a spice mixture called panch phoran. This was my go-to dish when I lived in New England and subscribed to a farmshare that brought me endless root vegetables and kale from October through May. Many turnips and countless bunches of that brillo variety kale  were made palatable this way, so why not carrots, potatoes, and a block of frozen greens that make me long for the days of fresh brillo kale? 

You may note that I have more than two "servings" a day here, but I will be mixing and matching these four dishes in hopes that I don't get too sick of any one of them over the course of the challenge, which was an issue for me last year. My black beans and rice became very unappetizing by day 6 in a row. So I have enough here to have two dishes at each meal most of the time. I will  mix it up with dal and chorchori, or stew and dal, or stew and chana saag, etc. Remember that per my nutrition analysis, even doubling up on these dishes doesn't get me to recommended daily allowances for Calories.... 

Nutritional Analysis

Based on my planned meals, my daily calorie intake will average 1150 Calories per day, where the recommended daily allowance for an active woman is between 2000-4000 Calories. Even if I eat the leftover potatoes and rice and onions and carrots I bought, I can only get my Calories up to 1400 per day.  At this maximum possible food intake, my protein is 50g per day, which is exactly at the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). My carbohydrate intake is 285g when 300g are recommended. My fiber intake is 47 when 25 are recommended, and my fat intake is 8g when 65 are recommended (maybe a little higher because I didn't count the oil used in cooking).

I could trade some of my high fiber food for high fat food, but I believe I would feel less full doing so and still not get enough Calories to meet the RDA.

As far as the food groups go, I am balancing grains, proteins, vegetables and fruits, but have had to omit dairy entirely because I could not afford it.

So there you have it. I did my best but I have not achieved adequate nutrition on $33 a week. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Foiled by Bait and Switch

I spent $31.42 on groceries today, my best laid savings strategies foiled by bait and switch advertising. $4.88 for 3-pound bags of honeycrisp apples. Sounds like a steal, only they don't have any of those, so I left with 3 pounds of granny smith for $4.99.

A pound of dried chickpeas for $1.99. Nope, had to buy cans instead and spent $2.07 for less food than the dried bag would have gotten me. No red lentils to be found, had to settle for brown. A pound of conventional carrots was supposed to cost $0.99, but they only had 2 pound bags, or I could pay more for a pound of organic (I bought more conventional carrots, which you will see below was probably a wise decision). No generic grits, had to buy the brand name. 

The costliest switch: the deal on potatoes that looked online like I could get 5 pounds for 2 dollars required me to "buy one get one" of either the same potatoes or a 3 pound bag of onions.... so I took the onions and have way more than I need for the week (it was the cheapest way to get the potatoes and onions I do need, because the next smallest bag of potatoes was two pounds for $3.49, and I need 3 pounds, so this way I got my 3 pounds, plus 2 more pounds I can turn into potato pancakes or home fries or hash browns, plus the onions, for $3.99)

But the bait and switch that got me mad enough to complain was related to fresh greens. Collards were advertised at  $1.29 a bunch. There were none. There was a sign for kale at $0.99 a pound so I thought that would be an ok substitute, but they had no bunches of kale either. They only had pre-packaged, pre-chopped kale "on sale" at 2-16oz bags for $5, or $2.50 a pound. (!) In the end I bought 2 10-oz boxes frozen for 1.19 each. 

After all this I could not afford to buy the frozen fruit I was going to have with my grits in the morning, or any milk with which to make the grits, which would have at least given me one serving of dairy a day.  I still have $1.58 but that isn't enough even for raisins to put in the grits. Maybe I will buy a single serving of lactose free yogurt, since I am getting 0 dairy this week. More nutritional analysis to come soon....

Friday, October 3, 2014

Menu Planning

One of the things I learned from last year's challenge was the importance of variety. I made two bean and grain dishes and then ate the same thing every day for a week, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This year I want to repeat the bean and grain strategy but try to have more variety if I can. Also my grocery store circular is telling me I can get a five pound bag of potatoes for two dollars, so the proposed menu is four Indian dishes:

Chana Aloo Masala (chick pea-potato stew with tomato)
Chana Saag (chick pea-spinach curry, which I will make with collards)
Dal Tarka (spiced red lentils)
Chorchori (mixed vegetables, in this case potato and collards, maybe with some carrots)

red lentils
2 onions

This adds up to 17.01, leaving $15.99 for breakfast and snacks. 

So how about breakfast? Last year I was really happy to have some eggs. The cheapest way I can buy them this year is $1.49 for 8. Last year I made my own muesli out of oats, corn flakes, raisins, and milk, but that cost more than $10. Oatmeal,  maybe, but oats are more expensive than last year. Grits are cheaper and could pair well with the eggs.  Frozen peaches are on sale for $3/lb. Tea is a necessity for me and the cheapest one I can find is $2.69. So breakfast looks like: 

eggs (8)

This adds up to $9.07, leaving me with $6.92 for snacks. 

The healthiest thing is probably fruit, since I should target my five fruits and vegetables a day. The cheapest fruit is likely to be bananas, on sale this week at $0.49/lb, about $2.00 for the week. Apples are in season and filling so I would like to invest in some. The best deal I can find is a 3 pound bag for $4.88.  And that adds up to $6.88, leaving me 4 cents to spare. 

But what about that $3.63 I mentioned yesterday.... We know the actual benefit in Virginia is less than $33 per person per week. What if I had to do this on $29.37, the average for June 2014? What would I have to put back? Probably the tea and the cilantro. 

Notice there is absolutely no dairy in my plan. I already prioritized the tea and cilantro over milk for the week. If I could find the money for some cheese I could put it on my grits or on a baked potato one night or something. But is it worth giving up tea? Stay tuned for nutritional analysis.... 

Last year I tried a couple of savings strategies by going to the bulk food store and the farmer's market that offered double dollars for food stamps. However, I moved from DC to Arlington and neither of my two closest farmers' markets offer this double dollar deal, so I would have to drive quite far out of my way to find one that doubles SNAP dollars. Bulk foods are available in my community, but all in expensive organic markets. Based on last year's bulk pricing it is unlikely my rice or beans would be cheaper; I might find bulk tea, but that would be about it. I don't think there is much to gain by driving out of my way for this, but maybe I will try. 


Thursday, October 2, 2014

SNAP Food Stamp Challenge 2014

I am preparing to take the SNAP Food Stamp Challenge next week, along with many others in DC, Maryland and Virginia. I chose to do this for a second year because nearly 50 million Americans are still not getting enough to eat.

It is easy to misunderstand this challenge as a way for a person with the privilege of food security to "know what it's like" to experience hunger. Clearly it doesn't do that.  The challenge only lasts a week and I can go back to my regular patterns of nutrition, spared any long term effects. I have the resources of time and information to hunt down bargains, to plan my week's meals as a special project rather than out of necessity as part of the daily grind.

Taking the challenge doesn't provide authority of experience, but it DOES provide insights into some of the real limits of SNAP benefits, and some of the consequences those limitations produce. I am repeating the challenge this year because many food prices are higher than in 2013, while the average SNAP benefit has been reduced.

I found it odd that even though SNAP benefits were cut in 2014, the SNAP Challenge budget this year is $33, slightly higher than last year's  $32.14.  So I went to look at the data and in fact you can see that if I use the most recent month's data that are available, for June 2014, the average benefit per person in Virginia was $29.37, not $33.  These data are only preliminary and the average benefit number shifts slightly from month to month, which may be why the SNAP Challenge is still using a number as high as $33. It looks like the budget for this year is based on most the most recent available full year of data, which is for fiscal 2013, before the cuts took effect.

So over the next week I will explore the difference between $29.37 and $33, and what  that  extra $3.63 means. Last year I paid $3.79 for a half gallon of milk, which provided me with a half serving of dairy each day, the only dairy I got that week. Maybe that would be the thing that would have to go. Last year I paid exactly $3.63 for seven apples, one of two fruit servings I had each day. Impossible choices.