My Food Security Challenge is officially finished.
Thirty days of getting a small taste of having to view food as a scarce and precious resource rather than something that you just open up the refrigerator – and there it is.
And it was a small taste. Thirty days felt like a long time to me, but for some of our friends and neighbors in Santa Barbara, this is the reality year in and year out. My experience could never replicate what they face, but it also wasn’t also playacting around a serious subject. I needed to understand what are the stakes with an issue where my job as CEO of the Foodbank brings me every day.
The benefit of any kind of challenge is that it pulls you out of your normal mode of seeing the world and gives you a new view of that world, the people in it – and yourself. The real challenge we all face in life is to stay aware and present to what is happening around us in the moment, and the last thirty days have been great for that. (Things such as the value of a healthy meal with a loved one; the value of providing sustenance and support to everyone in our community.)
Did the emergency safety net hold fast? Barely. It’s frayed and straining and in need of an overhaul, but it did keep me pretty much fed, but it would have been a huge challenge to sustain living like that.
If any element of the net was weakened or removed, then the whole net would tear and become ineffective. That means supporting the Foodbank and its local nonprofit member agencies who do such wonderful work. It means paying your taxes knowing that the relatively modest amounts that go toward food stamps are a vital tool for helping people who need the most help. (Food Stamp fraud has been independently estimated at 1%, the lowest of all Federal programs) This doesn’t just help the families who receive them, it helps the entire community stay strong. Enlightened self-interest or love of your fellow man, both can lead to the same place.
The value of what I received on top of the $200 in food stamps, was the equivalent of nearly $300 in terms of the value of the food that I received from the Foodbank distributions, not to mention the cost of the free meals I was served at the various soup kitchens.
In my blog/online Independent piece last week I chronicled my reliance on emergency meal provision in the last week of my challenge, when the food stamp money ran out. I experienced sleeping in my car and joining the invisible part of SB’s homeless. By the end I was living in a world of abundant food that was unavailable to me, because I had nothing in my pocket to pay for it with.
“A hungry man is an angry man,” goes the old Bob Marley song. My body was angry at me for not providing enough sustenance for it that day, and that anger got turned outwards. I believe ‘low blood sugar’ is the polite description, but in the last couple of days I lost my temper with my wife Mari at some small thing, scrunching up an invaluable (to me) packet of crackers and throwing them against the wall. Sometimes the futile gesture is the only one left to you.
What about my food tips? Besides all the amazing fresh produce that our region provides and which formed the core of my diet, my main anti-hunger staple was countless meals of Trader Joes Eggplant Hummus and Akmak crackers. It had the ability to stop the stomach growling almost immediately, the hummus was nutrient dense and lower in calories than most hummus. Cost, a total of about 75 cents a meal. I wouldn’t recommend it long term though, and maybe better check the label again, because I was really eating Soylent Green…
My month ended at exactly the place it needed to. Not at a rendezvous with my old pal McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip, but with a morning spent volunteering with the Foodbank’s ‘Brown Bag’ grocery program for seniors. I had been helped by the community around me through Foodbank food distributions paid for by so many members of that community. I had withdrawn from that ‘bank’ when I needed to, and now it was time for me to make a deposit – time, money, support it’s all needed. To be able to pack together healthy fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen hams and canned and dry goods, to break down boxes and clean up, all of it was a wonderful form of nourishment for me.
Those men and women who came to the Westside Community Center to receive that food really needed help. The food itself was the main course, but the sweetest dessert of all was for them to know that the community cared enough about them to provide that food.
The lessons learned have been simple – that food stamps (CalFresh/SNAP) by themselves are not enough to prevent a person sliding in expensive, destructive ill health. They need to be supplemented by other sources of food, distributions by the Foodbank, and by the ability to grow some of your own food.
The other lesson is that the food itself is not enough. Without the skills and empowerment about how to plan, shop, cook and store that food, you might as well toss away all that fresh produce. It means a family making the effort to find the time to cook and eat together, to find the space to cook and the cooking instruments (blenders, slow cookers) that help them stretch their food resources.
I feel even more confident that we are going in the right direction at the Foodbank, by putting a strong emphasis on both sides of the equation – the food and the skills to use that food. My commitment to ending hunger and transforming the health of Santa Barbara County through good nutrition is stronger than ever. This goal is vital, it’s possible and it’s joyful. There’s not much else that makes life worth living than sharing a healthy, delicious meal with those we love.
Take care and thanks for all the support and encouragement. The story’s only beginning, so if you are interested about wider hunger and nutrition issues, check out my regular blog at www.hungerintohealth.com