Filling up on a New Experience: Hunger.

The week before Thanksgiving, I ate less than I usually do. It had nothing to do with saving my appetite for the upcoming feast. Instead, I was filling up on a life experience which is a common reality for as many as 13% of households in Vermont, and as many as 15% in the US.  In the spirit of walking a mile in another’s moccasins, I signed my family up for an eating challenge sponsored by Hunger Free Vermont. Scraping by for a week on another’s tight food budget, opened our eyes and heightened our awareness.

According to Hunger Free Vermont, as many as one in five Vermont children experiences hunger or food hardship.  In a country as well off as the United States, it seems unimaginable that so many people live with hunger and food insecurity on a regular basis. And yet, taking a three-year average from 2009-2011:

  • 27,000 Vermont children under 18 live in food insecure households (22%)
  • 85,000 Vermonters of all ages live in food insecure households (14%)
  • 32% of Vermonters cannot afford either enough food or enough nutritious food.

In 2008, the federal government renamed the Food Stamps program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP). In Vermont, the program is known as 3SquaresVT. The Challenge consisted of eating on a 3SquaresVT budget.  We are a family of four, but since my husband was traveling part of the week, I budgeted for a family of 3 1/2 people, or $91.  With careful planning, some stomach grumbling, and the benefit of two community dinners, we made it on $84.  Since Thanksgiving was the follow week, I thought it made sense to be extra thrifty so that I could put a few extra dollars toward the upcoming holiday meal.

In no particular order, some observations and realizations from this experience include:

* Feeling hungry and preoccupied.  Almost constantly thinking and calculating how long could I stretch the time between meals, could I skip snacks, and how could I get a next meal within (or below) my budget.

* Walking through a grocery store when you’re hungry and on a budget is no fun - you want all these delicious looking foods, but they are too expensive; you want to find the cheap aisle and not have to search so hard among all the things you can’t afford; you have to be a walking calculator (how much per serving, how can I stretch this ingredient and/or this dollar).  Add to that, your hungry children, to whom you’re trying to avoid repeating, “we can’t afford that, we can’t afford that, we can’t afford that…..”

* It was challenging to stay true to my food preferences: non-GMO, organic, fresh whole foods, mostly vegetables and fruits, local food.  I bought a bag of tortilla chips ($1.50) which I am sure were made from GM corn and GM soybean oil. They made a couple of bean meals more exciting, but didn’t taste very good, and really did not feel good.

* Having a fully functioning kitchen, a reliable car, buying bulk foods, being an experienced cook comfortable making up recipes all allowed for a lot of cost savings.

* When work threw a few unexpected meetings into my week, my budget-doable cooking/food prep plan got trumped.  Twice I needed to find some lunch out in the world.  This was expensive.  Trying to hide my financial situation from my co-workers, made things even more complicated.  I spent $10.72 on lunch on Monday.  My daughter (home from school) was at work with me, and I couldn’t ignore her requests for lunch: we ordered 1 large sandwich and a drink and shared it.  Even so, I didn’t really have $5.36 per person for a single meal.

* Living in a community which shares food, was a tremendous help.  As it turned out, this week included two evening meetings during which pizza was served.  I gladly accepted, and was able to take a few left over slices for my children’s lunches the following day. At the end of the week, a generous farmer friend gave me several heads of lettuce - enough for two large bowls full of fresh, organic greens. Yes!

* Struck a goldmine at Shaws. Roaming this enormous store, I chanced upon the reduced produce rack.  Since I was planning on eating what I bought on that same day, I was able to afford organic mushrooms, a slightly dented cucumber, 2 mature tomatoes and a package of sliced mango.  All greatly reduced as they were on a fast track to becoming compost.  On the day-old bakery rack, I found a roasted garlic ciabatta bread for $1.90.

* A vegetarian diet is cost-effective, but I wouldn’t want to be forced into it for financial reasons.

* I can’t remember ever appreciating a jar of peanut butter as much as I did that week (a spoonful calms a hungry stomach enough to be able to concentrate on something else for a while).

* A tea bag can make several of cups of hot tea when brewed in a pot instead of a mug.  Sipping tea feels more like eating than having nothing at all.

* Food is so much more than hunger suppression.  That week, I had both very stressful situations during which I wanted to comfort myself with food (or drink), and a long-anticipated victory which I wanted to celebrate with an edible treat.  After much back and forth, I decided to spend $7 on the occasion.

With a considerable amount of careful planning, calculating, driving out of my way to where the deals were and cooking at home, I was able to feed my family for $84.  We ate a lot of black beans (I soaked a large pot full on Saturday night, cooked them on Sunday and had soup, rice and beans, quesadillas and finally enchiladas to round out the week) and other groceries which I found in discount stores and on day-old shelves. Taking part in this challenge ranks high on the worthwhile life experiences list, but not because it was particularly fun. It was sobering, and on the other side of it I am left appreciative of my increased awareness and knowledge of how easy it can be to support those for whom food insecurity is an involuntary situation.

The challenge and the 3SquaresVT program is not limited to Vermont.  This week in New Jersey, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, is taking part in a similar opportunity.  You can follow his experiences and learn more about the program, by clicking here.  And you can always visit the Hunger Free Vermont website, your local food bank, food shelf or soup kitchen, where you are welcome to make a donation of food, money and/or time.