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.