Chicago has to be one of the most vibrant and impressive cities in America. Lots of amazing buildings and culture and great restaurants. Oh yeah, great restaurants — that won’t be of much relevance to a food stamp tourist like myself.

I was in the city for three days this week for a meeting of the National Advisory Council of Feeding America, the nationwide network of 202 food banks. My second purpose was to check out the food stamp scene in a big (and cold) city.

At the meeting attendees were chowing down on a delicious Chicago-style Mexican lunch while I was eating the cheapest sandwich I could find, for $3.69 from 7-Eleven, which still blew my overall budget of $2 per meal per day. I made it because I skipped breakfast. But being without the food I had amassed at home was a huge problem. I couldn’t buy a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to bring back on the plane, and so waste. So I had to sandwich it.

On my last day, I visited the Marillac Center Food Pantry on Chicago’s Westside to see how the level of services would compare from S.B. to Chicago — and maybe to score something other than a cold, tired sandwich.

The Marillac Center has been around for a 100 years providing services and a place for the local community to meet. The Food Pantry serves about 1,200 families per month.

The good thing is that it has a waiting area where people can congregate until it is their turn to visit the pantry. In this area they have blood pressure screenings and cooking demonstrations. There were volunteers to help with your shopping, which they call “client choice.” This means that you can choose what you want from a selection of items.

The amount you can receive is also based on family size. The food is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository and includes pasta, beans, meat, vegetables, canned goods, bread, and some dairy. As a single person I would be able to get enough food for maybe 4-5 days. My trouble was that in a strange town with no cooking facilities I wouldn’t be able to eat too much. (As in S.B., I didn’t actually take the food, but bought an equivalent). So I was able to get some soup, which I heated up in my hotel room.

I would say that the level of services is broadly similar in Chicago — less fresh produce obviously, and more need for a lot of hot food to stop you from freezing. I loved the architecture, but you can’t heat and eat it, so it was good to be back in sunny Santa Barbara!

At least we live in a place where you can grow some of your own food, which brings me to a secret project I have been working on and will change nutrition as I know it. A project that will help me meet the challenges of living on food stamps. A vegetable garden.

There is an unassuming wooden bed of soil that has remained empty since we moved into our house a year and a half ago. Ignored and unloved. Even weeds couldn’t work up the energy to grow in the thing. All that changed when I was paid a visit by a man with the greenest of green fingers, Oscar Carmona, manager of the Foodbank’s Grow Your Own Way (GYOW) program.

Oscar has been a tireless promoter of the simple virtues of growing your own food and the benefits this brings families. He is the owner of the Healing Grounds nursery in Goleta, and you can always see him at the downtown S.B. farmer’s market on a Saturday morning looking cool in his wraparound shades and selling seedlings.

Grow Your Own Way is a beginner’s program that helps encourage and provide training for people to grow more of their own food. Growing food is not something that can only be done by people wearing open-toed sandals or who have big backyards.

The idea with GYOW is that this is the program for people who are convinced they cannot grow anything beyond their own toenails. It is for people who are convinced they have no space whatsoever to grow food. In other words, it is designed for people like me.

The Foodbank starts with the belief that anyone can find a place to grow. A plastic bucket on an apartment balcony – fine for some cilantro or a tomato plant, in a raised bed made with old wood and plastic on a piece of cracked concrete.

Vegetables are a vital part of our diet and fresh produce is the most expensive element when we hit the supermarket, so by growing a little bit of produce yourself, you can make a big impact in your health at minimum cost. You also get the freshest food possible, not something that was shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I don’t want to get all Zen here, but nurturing something and watching it grow and then having it nurture you in return is also good to combat stress. And remember even if everyone else in your life is sick of listening to you, your plants never will be.

We have started a “seedbank” at the Foodbank where free seeds are made available to families in need. Currently these are available through our Healthy School Pantry program and Brown Bag programs, but we hope to have it more widely available (all seed donations taken).

Because my food stamp challenge only lasts a month, Oscar helped me out with some seedlings so that I could skip a couple of weeks in the process. I was lucky to have my two daughters as helpers, Mia (18 months) and Lili (15). Both girls took to the task of planting the seedlings with gusto. Even Mia realized intuitively that there was something special about planting something in the ground and watering it.

We planted primarily different types of greens for salad (arugula, butter lettuce, etc.) as well as cilantro and two types of kale. (You can’t escape kale at the Foodbank, believe me). We live in Santa Barbara County, with an amazing growing climate. It’s hard to mess it up here, and even if you do, you can check in regularly with GYOW to get help and advice.

To get the fresh vegetables is wonderful. Almost as important is the feeling that you are directly involved in generating food for yourself. Whether you go to a luxury market or a free food distribution, you still rely on someone else to provide food for you. Eating something you grow yourself gives you a satisfaction and energy that neither of these places can provide.

Just what I need to sustain me, living on food stamps!


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