Santa Barbara County CEO Erik Talkin is in the midst of the month-long Food Security Challenge to find out if it’s possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget. He’s restricted to spending $6.46 a day, the equivalent of what he would receive in food stamps if he were in need of assistance and classified as a single, unemployed, non-dependent person.
Talkin is chronicling the challenge on his blog, which the Independent is republishing here. For more information, and to donate time and money to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and its 330 nonprofit partners, visit foodbanksbc.org.
I am into a routine now, where my meals are very controlled. Here is my daily menu:
Breakfast: Oats with nuts and fresh fruit. This sets me up with the slow-release of energy of the oats, the protein and disease-fighting capabilities of the nuts and blueberries. I eat this after exercising, so it helps me recover from this too.
Lunch: A salad with a protein. Sometimes a chop salad, sometimes more a lettuce-based traditional salad. The variety comes with what protein I pair it with – canned tuna, chicken, some of my infamous ‘how dare he eat it on food stamps’ smoked salmon or rice and beans (combining to make a complete protein). The dressing also stops it from being monotonous. I can include some soy sauce on one day, or fresh lemon or mustard. This all helps my olive oil and vinegar take on different faces.
Dinner: This is the main meal of the day, with fish or chicken, chili or curry or Chinese. Sometimes with rice and beans or with a tortilla or salad and another hot vegetable like broccoli. I might cook 3-4 times a week and the rest of the meals are leftovers.
Snacks: I might have half an apple or a few Kitten Cookies if I am totally out of control.
This can be monotonous, however it also allows me to not have food as the focus of everything. I can’t always reward or punish myself with food if things are going well or bad. In theory it should be good for me to lessen the use food as an emotional crutch. Maybe this is the cheapest therapy session ever. (This challenge makes me want to perform ridiculous calculations, so I reckon I could get 3 minutes and 50 seconds with a reasonably priced therapist for my $6.46. I think i’ll take the food.
While we’re on the bean counting, I went shopping for only the second time in my challenge. I spent a very modest, very controlled $11.61, which with the $83.76 I spent in my initial splurge, leaves me $100.67 for the remaining 20 days of my challenge.
This means I am down to $5.03 a day instead of the $6.46 that the food stamp program allows – but with some major items that will last multiple weeks already purchased. I think I’m in good shape, but I know that as I get closer to the end of the month, that money will suddenly gurgle down the drain (or my gut) with increased speed!
My focus in this challenge is at looking at the challenges faced by senior citizens in our county and I had a great opportunity this morning to visit one of our 15 countywide Brown Bag program sites. Brown Bag provides staple grocery items and fresh produce to seniors twice monthly. Those who cannot pick it up receive deliveries.
I visited the site at Goleta Valley Community Center and chatted with lead volunteer Robert as well as a number of other volunteers who range from married couples having a date activity to UCSB students.
The quality of the food and the attentiveness of the volunteers created warm feelings all round.
An(other) Inconvenient Truth
The Foodbank began its big push to increase Food Literacy (having skills of budgeting/meal planning/ preparation/storage) as a way of combatting the ‘food illiteracy’ that was running rampant in our society. Grandparents knew how to cook, but the skill was lost by many parents whether because they were too busy or just didn’t know how. That’s why our Feed The Future kids programs are designed to intervene and create a new generation of SB County children who will become adults who can be healthy with food whether they have a lot of money for food that week or not much at all. They should be able to whip up something tasty and healthy from modest ingredients and be able to make enough to create extra meals from the same cooking session.
I tell you all this now, because while I do my Food Security Challenge, I am up against the tougher part of food literacy – it takes time and effort to make it happen. Even if we are picky eaters or foodies, we still rely on a lot of convenient or pre-cooked meals. We expect to save time by eating out a lot as well.
On food stamps none of that is possible. There is absolutely no money for convenience foods and scratch cooking is the order of the day. After a busy day working a job or looking for a job, you don’t feel much like hitting the saucepans and chopping ingredients.
The inconvenient truth is that it requires a different approach – turning cooking into as much of a communal opportunity to connect as eating the finished dinner could be (if everyone was there at the same time). If no one is around to rope into chopping and conversation, you can also use the preparation of a meal as a kind of meditation, letting the physical work free yourself to clear your mind and enjoy being in the moment.
I’m feeling well prepared at the moment as I have prepared two large dishes in short order. Firstly a chicken noodle soup that should be good for five dinners spread across my month. The second is a turkey chili, which is also good for about five dinners. The pain now is allowing me to build up a stock of chilled or frozen left overs that I can have once a week so I don’t get stuck reverting to student days and eating the same thing meal after meal.