Food Stamp Challenge: Week 1

Foodbank CEO Battles Hunger Pangs, Works Around Tight Budget

To get a better sense of what challenges his clients face on a daily basis, Erik Talkin, the CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, is living solely on food stamps for a month. He’s seven days in. Follow Talkin’s weekly updates — in which he candidly discusses how he’s budgeting, what he’s eating, and if he’s surviving — here at and at

How did my first week living on food stamps go? It’s had its rocky moments.

Erik Talkin (left) at the Franklin Community Center food distribution

For the first three days while I waited for my application to be processed, I ate only what I could get from the Foodbank’s regular distribution at the Franklin Community Center in my neighborhood. On day three, I woke up at 3:33 a.m. with intense hunger pangs. My stomach placed its order: a bowl of flax cereal with fruit, nuts, oats, and skim milk. But I had to break it to my stomach that this wasn’t an option, and that it should have a corrective interview with my bio-clock.

Instead, I pulled myself out of bed and ate handfulls of the dry corn flakes that I had picked up at the food distribution. If I had still been an eight-year-old in front of Saturday morning cartoons, this would have been great. Only I was a hungry adult with no TV. This was probably the low point of week one.

My whole nutrition rhythm seemed confused. I’m used to being in charge of what goes into my stomach, but for three days I had given over the rhythm to whatever the outside world threw in my direction. I had to get ahold of food stamps to be able to assert some kind of control over my digestion. Don’t get me wrong, I had picked up some really good food at the distribution — poultry, bread, fresh vegetables — but because of the strict rules of my challenge, I couldn’t spend any money to buy the oil, the butter, the seasonings that would enable me to turn all those raw materials into meals to keep me going for a month.

I weighed myself and discovered that I had lost three pounds in the six days since I had last stepped on the scale (three days on the challenge, three days before it). I don’t think we’re going to hear Dr. Oz proclaiming the joys of the “food stamp diet” any time soon.

For the purposes of the challenge, I am imagining that I have lost my job and have no income coming in. A lot of people only turn to food stamps when they have exhausted other possibilities, because they figure “they’re not the kind of person who goes on food stamps.” I’m as proud and tediously over-concerned with my self image as the next man, but because of my job as CEO of the Foodbank, I also have insight into the huge increase in the numbers of “not that kind of person” people who have been forced by the recession to take advantage of food stamps.

Food stamps are one of the only federal benefits designed to assist with situational poverty, so they are there to be used. What’s more, they provide vital financial stimulus to everyone in a local community. Santa Barbara County has a low uptake amongst those who are eligible.

There are also many others who are stuck in low-paying jobs but still qualify for the “supplemental” nutrition that food stamps provide. In the line for the Foodbank’s Mobile Food Pantry at the Franklin Center, I chat with Doris, a lady who has lived in S.B. for 66 years. She and her husband find it hard to make ends meet and the food they receive from this distribution makes all the difference to their health, especially with vegetables being so expensive.

The Foodbank provides food help to one in four people in Santa Barbara County, which is a startling statistic. That’s why our focus has changed to the educational and self-help programs, which will enable people to become more independent. We want to help people now, but also provide them with the skills so they can continue to eat healthily on a budget. And that’s part of the reason I am doing this challenge, to be sure that I am not asking of anyone else something that I could not do. I’m lucky to have the advantage of good health, but we want to help people draw on their natural strengths and to use good nutrition as a basis for leading healthy lives.

Have you ever been window shopping for food? I have, to plan some of the items I would get once my ship (or my stamps) came in. I checked out the stores in my neighborhood. I’m lucky in that Milpas Street has three grocery stores within about 10 minutes’ walk of each other. I can try and stretch out my food stamps by comparison shopping.

While waiting at the Department of Social Services, I started reading a book pretty appropriate for my situation. Called The End of Overeating, it’s about how the American public has been led to an addiction of sweet, salty and fatty foods by a short-circuiting of the mental processes that normally keep weight steady.

Once I got my (simulated) EBT card, I had $200 to spend over 30 days on food items at stores that would accept it. I wasted no time in packing up my youngest daughter Mia (18 months) for what was going to be the most exciting shopping trip I had undertaken in quite a while. Forget about Black Friday, this was Food Stamp Thursday. I remember someone at college advising me not to go grocery shopping when you are hungry. It was sound advice, and I tried to control myself. My hands were shaking from not having eaten since morning, but I had my trusty comparison shopping list that I had developed.

I hit all three stores and spent a combined $43. I tried to keep my stock modest and focused on items that would allow me to create multiple meals for the month, but that was still nearly one quarter of my money in one pop. Returning home, it was time to fight back against the hunger beast by using my materials to generate multiple meals that I could put in the refrigerator and the freezer to last me for the rest of the month

I spent about three hours in feverish activity, simultaneously preparing three different dishes at the same time. Some fresh guacamole first to fight off the hunger pangs and then large quantities of a chicken soup and a turkey chili. (Check out the blog for more information on what I bought and what I cooked.) I used a lot of old plastic containers to hold my soup and my chili, and I stockpiled them in my fridge and freezer. I felt like a survivalist, and I guess in some ways I have become one.

All I knew was that I would have been lost without the food provided by the Foodbank and its member agencies. I was also back in charge of the Talkin gut, and ready for what the next phase of my 30 day challenge would bring.


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