Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County
Paul Wellman

You may have read the recent press coverage of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s “food stamp challenge.” He committed to living on food stamps for a full week and — while regaling us with some candid accounts of burning his yams and becoming grumpy without his coffee — brought attention to what food insecurity means in our country.

As CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, my job is to find those yams and get them out to people. Surely, a single week of little money for food wasn’t too much to handle, but how about a month? If I could live on food stamps for a month, it would give me more of the true flavor (or lack thereof) of the challenges that our clients face every day. Could a picky eater like me with my rice vinegar and my jasmine tea make it through on $6 a day? What kind of help from the Foodbank and our member agency programs could I get to supplement the food stamps?

You cannot say the words “food stamps” to someone without eliciting a visceral response. Sometimes it unlocks fears of “there but for one paycheck go I” or other reactions that run the gamut from outrage about fraud to outrage about disempowering people by paying them to be “losers in a winner/loser society.” Emotions run high, and so does lack of knowledge about what food stamps actually are and do. They are only supposed be a supplement, but the reality is that people are spending most of their money on rent or medical bills, so many have to live on food stamps long-term.

We take for granted opening the kitchen cupboard and finding food. Despite this, many of us have had at least some minor brush with a lack of money for food. At college, my mom hung her tea bags on the clothesline to dry them for a second use. I had my own lean time for a brief period in the aftermath of a divorce when my refrigerator was empty enough for a herd of wildebeests to roam through.

Can I eat on $6 a day for a month? More than that, can I do it and stay healthy and sane? Starting January 15, I’ll find out. Each week of the month, I will be looking at a different aspect of living on food stamps — getting advice from the Foodbank’s dietician on eating smart, finding out what nonprofit services are available to me as a resident on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, and figuring out if and how I can grow some of my own food. I’ll be traveling to freezing-cold Chicago to see how the situation in S.B. differs from that in a big city and also meeting with Feeding America to look at the national situation with food stamps. I’ll be finishing off my challenge with a few days of living in my car, without access to a kitchen and depending on local soup kitchens.

The Food Security Challenge is not a gimmick; it’s a chance for me to keep in direct touch with how the Foodbank is trying to move people from hunger to health. If you follow my updates in The Santa Barbara Independent or join in the challenge, you too can find out the secrets of the “Food Stamp Diet.” Oh, and if you catch me cheating, you can call always the Foodbank hotline.


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