Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CalFresh Challenge

As part of our local Food Day events this year, we decided to promote a CalFresh Challenge. The Challenge asks participants to live for a week (or five days, in our case) on the average benefits provided by CalFresh, California's version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In California, that means participants were expected to spend no more than five dollars a day for all their food and beverages.

My goal was to not only stay within budget, but also continue to eat (and serve my family) healthy meals including adequate fruits and vegetables. So how did I do?

I managed to stay under the $75 limit (three people at five dollars a day for five days). I didn't even struggle to do it. We ate similar food to what we typically eat and even had enough left at the end of the week for a very simple breakfast out (six dollars for two of us). 

But I'm under no illusion that it is that "easy" for most people who actually live on the CalFresh budget day after day, often for many months at a time. I have some major advantages over people living with poverty and food insecurity. Among them:

1. I have a reliable car and money for gas. These two things are not a given for many families living with food insecurity. In our region, many people live 10 miles or more from the nearest supermarket. Without adequate transportation, they are forced to buy their food from smaller markets that offer fewer healthy options AND tend to charge higher prices because of their smaller scale.

2. I know how to cook. Again, this is not a given. Many adults have grown up on packaged foods and don't know how to create healthy meals from whole foods. Because our agricultural subsidy system rewards commodity growers, foods like boxed mac and cheese and ramen noodles are incredibly cheap while offering almost no nutritional value beyond calories. By knowing how to cook, I can make foods with much higher nutritional value from cheap ingredients like onions, potatoes, and frozen corn (which became a corn chowder at $1/meal last week).

3. I have a full, working kitchen in my house. I don't only know how to cook, but I have all the tools I need to cook most things: a working refrigerator, stove, and oven, plus pots and pans and knives and wooden spoons. If you are homeless or living in a hotel room or couch-surfing with a different friend every week because you have lost your house to the mortgage crisis or your job to the recession or your whole way of life because of a catastrophic illness, you probably don't have access to a full kitchen. Maybe you have a mini-fridge, a hotplate, and a microwave in your hotel room. Or maybe you have an open fire. Either way, you aren't going to be cooking a lot of made-from-scratch meals and you can't count on being able to store food, whether we're talking about ingredients or leftovers. For me, I could make the giant pot of corn chowder at the beginning of the week, knowing I could portion it into containers and keep them in the fridge for lunches throughout the week.

4. I eat a mostly-vegetarian diet. I eat fish and other seafood somewhere between two and four meals a month usually. Otherwise, I don't eat any kind of meat. During the Challenge, I didn't buy or eat any fish, so my proteins were all much cheaper than almost any cut of meat you can find. We had omelettes one night and even though I purchased local Alexandre eggs, they still only cost $3 for all of our omelettes. We had tofu another night -- at a buck-fifty a pound, our main course cost all of 65 cents per person once I added in the cost of seasoning and the oil for pan-frying.

I do, of course, have even more advantages -- I don't work two jobs, I don't work swing shifts, I don't have a job that leaves me physically exhausted at the end of the day -- but the four discussed here helped me stay within budget without much trouble.

The causes of poverty and food insecurity are systemic and closely related. The effects of food insecurity are devastating -- people who do not get adequate nutrition get sick more often, can't concentrate as well at school or a job, and simply can't live up to their full potential.

One in seven Americans relies on SNAP. One in seven Americans is at risk of falling below their potential. It doesn't have to be this way.

Friday, October 17, 2014

CalFresh Challenge Tips For Success

So you've taken the first step and registered to be part of the 2014 DNATL CalFresh Challenge from October 20th to 24th. (What? You haven't registered yet? Register here!) You've committed to spending just $5 per day on all of your food and beverages.

What next?

Unless you're used to living on a tight food budget, you might be getting anxious about what you'll eat next week. We've put together some tips to help you be successful.

First, rethink your drinks. Consider sticking to water during the Challenge! It's the most cost-effective choice. But if you are used to grabbing a latte (at $3.50) on the way to work and can't give up the caffeine, what are some alternatives that will fit your new budget? If you often relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine or beer, you should stock up on Two Buck Chuck or figure out a replacement. Although you certainly can find beer to fit a $5/day budget, think carefully before you commit 15-20% of your total food budget to alcohol. The cost of juice, soda, and sports drinks also adds up quickly while adding lots of sugar and not much nutrition.

Second, PLAN. Figure out a menu for the five days of the challenge. Some things to consider:

  • Meat tends to be expensive, so participating in Meatless Monday (and maybe Wednesday and Thursday, too) will help you stay on budget
  • Cheaper protein alternatives include beans, eggs, and tofu
  • Try to incorporate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day -- a vegetable and bean soup could be a great part of this
  • Don't forget to plan breakfasts and lunches -- if you choose well, these can be very cheap meals
  • Write out your menu, make a corresponding shopping list, and STICK TO IT at the store

Third, make ahead in bulk. If you can make a big pot of soup that can be dinner one night and lunch for a few days as well, you won't find yourself hungry without a quick, easy option within your budget. Some other ideas:
  • Hard-boil five eggs at the beginning of the week for your breakfast or lunch (even super-premium pastured eggs only cost about 50 cents each)
  • Cut up carrot and celery sticks for the whole week and store them in a container of water in the refrigerator -- you'll have a quick veggie snack or lunch component that will stay fresh all week
  • Re-use leftovers creatively
Fourth, remember why you're doing this Challenge. The CalFresh Challenge isn't about winning or losing. It's not a competition. The goal is for you to gain new understanding of the lives of people living with food insecurity. If you absolutely have to attend a business lunch and your meal consumes three days worth of your CalFresh budget? Take a deep breath, enjoy the meal, and take $1.50 out of your Challenge budget to represent the lunch you would have had otherwise. Just remember that someone who actually lives with a CalFresh budget wouldn't have that option and think about what that would mean for feeling included at work functions.

Fifth, join in one of our Food Day community dinners on Friday! Even though you're supposed to avoid free meals during the CalFresh Challenge, make this one exception. We'll be showing A Place at the Table, a movie about hunger in America, and providing a free dinner in Crescent City, Gasquet, Klamath, and Smith River. Consider sharing your Challenge experience during the community conversation after the movie. Find details about the showings here and take a couple bucks out of your budget to account for the dinner.

If you're struggling to find low-cost recipes, check out USDA's recipe finder. Most of the recipes on their page are geared toward low-income food budgets. Googling "low budget recipes" will also net hundreds of low-budget, but very tasty recipes.

Thank you for participating in the CalFresh Challenge! We wish you happy eating and hope you share what you learn with others.