I came across The Hunger Challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Food Bank and the Marin Food Bank yesterday and it got me thinking. The challenge was to spend a week eating on a food stamp budget, which in the San Francisco area is $4.72 per person per day. The point being to raise awareness of hunger in the United States by asking people to live on less than they usually do and instead live on what others have to. I was curious, so I did some math. $4.72 times 10 (the number I regularly feed) is $42.72, times 7 gives me a week's grocery budget of $330.40. I actually did the math twice because I wanted to check that total. Let's just say it would take some effort on my part to spend that much each week, because it is more than twice what I usually spend. Even if I divide up and add in what I spend on the semi-annual bulk orders and the side of beef, it is still a generous $100 over my usual budget. In reality, I spend (on average) $2.87 per person per day.
Why is this? I'm not particularly frugal; there are a lot of ways I could cut back if need be. We eat well. No one goes hungry. Granted we don't eat out a lot, but we do sometimes. None of us feels deprived. (Well, except perhaps the children who love breakfast cereal.) But if I think about how one person, living by themselves and cooking for themselves, would live on $4.72 a day, I realize the problem. It would be very difficult to have my entire food budget be just $33.04 a week. It's an interesting phenomenon, isn't it? One person can barely feed themselves for that much, yet I am able to feed 10 people well on $2.87. (And let me be very clear. There is really nothing special that I'm doing, it's just the fact I'm feeding so many.)
We humans don't do well in isolation. We need others and when we have a good social support network of family and friends, we are better able to navigate the challenges which life throws at us. Evidently this is true with money as well. Wouldn't everyone be better served if people who need assistance and are on their own could be encouraged to share a kitchen? Think about it, one single mom trying to raise a child could agree to share cooking with another single woman. Instead of each having a weekly budget of $66.08 and $33.04 respectively, they would have a combined budget of $99.12 to feed three people. Anyone can eat well on that budget. Plus the sharing of a meal would provide stability for the child and companionship for the adults. We've all read the studies about how children do significantly better when they eat dinner together with their family, but why can't we assume that it is good for adults to sit down and share a meal together each day? It wouldn't solve everything, but it would be a start.
As I mentioned earlier, the point of the Hunger Challenge was to give people who don't have to worry about their food budget a chance to experience how others live. And I keep italicizing that word because I am not entirely sure that people who do and write about these things, really believe that those others are real people, who are not stupid and have just as much potential as anyone else. Why else in the FAQ's would these two questions and answers appear?
Q: What if someone offers to take me out for a meal? Can I go?
A: Not if you want to play fair. A person on food stamps probably wouldn't have that opportunity.
Q: What if I'm invited to someone's house for a meal?
A: If you want to stick strictly to the Challenge, take your own food — or suggest that you all plan the meal around a food stamp budget. It could be an interesting experience!
Yes, I know that many people on assistance probably don't have a social network of others who are taking them out or inviting them over to eat. But it just feel paternalistic to me. As if someone is saying, "I know all about those people who are on assistance. I know what they do and what they don't do." But to say someone participating in the challenge shouldn't accept is to say that this NEVER happens, and if it did, the person on assistance would say no. Yeah, right.
It strikes me the same way a recent article about food deserts in various areas of Chicago did. Paternalistic and out of touch. (I am in no way making light of the fact that it is indeed a problem that many people do not have access to healthy food. In a perfect world, everyone would have equal access to what they need.) To summarize the article (in case you don't want to jump over and read it), there is a new grocery store which has opened in a neighborhood which has very few options for fresh food. But, it seems, there are not a lot of customers and everyone is wondering why that is because previous studies has shown grocery stores were what the residents all wanted. I think I can help them figure it out. First, there is an Aldi in the neighborhood, which does sell fresh food, and it is not included by the author of the article as being a 'grocery store'. I'd like to know what it is then. Half of my weekly grocery budget is spent at an Aldi. Residents also said they often went together to another neighborhood where there was a cheaper grocery store and did their weekly shopping there. Just as I choose to drive to the stores in another city rather than go around the corner to my local store to shop. Why? For the same reason the residents said they didn't frequent the new local store in their neighborhood... it's cheaper than the regular chain grocery store. I don't want to donate my hard earned dollars to some chain's healthy bottom line, I want to make them stretch as far as possible. What is baffling about that I want to know. It's not that residents don't want to buy fresh food, it's that they don't want to pay through the nose for it.
Really all of this tells us far more about the 'haves' in our society (and I'm including myself) than it does about the 'have-nots'. Wouldn't a far better challenge be to cut down your own grocery budget and help out someone else with the difference? Do you know someone or a family on assistance? What have you done for them? If you don't know someone on assistance, how are you going to meet some? Having a real face and a real story to think about rather than all those others, is the real challenge. I know I am convicted if I think about it in these terms. Eating very frugally for a week in the end doesn't really do anything except make the participant glad they don't have to do it all the time. Meeting someone who has hit a rough patch, or never had the same advantages and has struggled from the get go, and then getting to know him or her as a fellow human being has lasting consequences for all involved. We all have the ability to teach each other something we didn't know and we all have the ability to help one another... if we just started thinking in terms of relationships instead of dollar signs.