I just spent 30 days with only the equivalent of $6 a day for all my food, which is what an individual would receive on food stamps (aka CalFresh/SNAP). I quickly discovered that this benefit by itself is not enough to prevent a person from sliding into ill health. It needs to be supplemented by other sources of food, such as Foodbank distributions and the ability to grow some of your own food. Without this extra sustenance, I would have soon been suffering from malnutrition.
One of the highlights of my month was experiencing firsthand the caring work of volunteers and service providers in our community. Another highlight was the opportunity to grow some of my own food. The Foodbank has a program called “Grow Your Own Way,” which helps people grow vegetables — even if it’s in a plastic bucket outside an apartment. I got a couple of my daughters to help plant a salad garden in my backyard. It was a joy to see how my 18-month-old, Mia, instinctually took to careful planting and tending when anarchic deconstruction is more her current modus operandi. The salad tasted pretty good, too.
The low points of my month were many and varied. My money ran out six days before my challenge ended, and although I was living surrounded by abundant food, it was unavailable to me because I had nothing with which to pay for it. I sought out free meals at local shelters and spent a night sleeping in my car joining the invisible part of Santa Barbara’s homeless population.
“A hungry man is an angry man,” goes the old Bob Marley song. On a couple of days, my body was angry with me for not providing it with enough sustenance, and I turned that anger outward. I believe low blood sugar is the polite description, but, during the last couple of days, I found myself losing my temper at small things.
My month ended at exactly the place it needed to — not a rendezvous with my old pal McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip, but with a morning spent volunteering with the Foodbank’s “Brown Bag” grocery program for seniors. I had been helped by the community through Foodbank food distributions; I had withdrawn from the “bank” when I needed to, and now it was time for me to make a deposit — time, money, support, it’s all needed.
Another important lesson reinforced in my challenge is that the food itself is not enough. Without the skills of how to plan, shop, cook, and store that food, it is impossible to be healthy. It takes a family making the effort to cook and eat together, to find the space to cook and the cooking instruments (blenders, slow cookers) that help them stretch their food resources.
I feel even more confident now that the Foodbank is going in the right direction by putting a strong emphasis on both sides of the equation — the food and the skills to use that food. My commitment to ending hunger and transforming the health of Santa Barbara County through good nutrition is stronger than ever. This goal is vital, it’s possible, and it’s also joyful. There’s not much else that makes life worth living than sharing a healthy, delicious meal with those we love.
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Erik Talkin is the CEO of Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. For more on his month living on food stamps, visit independent.com/foodbank.