Austerity Measures: A Restaurant Critic's Week on Food Stamps

The marshmallow was the best thing I'd eaten in days, a soft, white, silky hit of pure sugar that went straight to all the pleasure centers in my brain. Four days earlier, I wouldn't have believed that a puff of corn syrup could bring me so much happiness.

I was participating in the Hunger Challenge, an initiative put on by the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank to raise awareness about poverty and food insecurity in the Bay Area. For five days, 150 participants and I — chefs, journalists, and regular people who signed up on the Food Bank's website — were to live on a $4.50-per-day food allowance, about the amount provided by SNAP (the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). The meager budget was supplemented by pantry supplies from the Food Bank, a weekly allotment of produce, protein, and dry goods that more than 150,000 individuals in San Francisco and Marin counties depend on to survive.

Going in, I was aware that this was an imperfect simulation. Choosing to live on a limited food budget for five days is nothing like doing it out of necessity, and in my more uncomfortable moments I wondered if I were any better than the people who take tours of the Mumbai slums and then return to their luxury hotels, congratulating themselves on having a character-building experience. I knew that if I forgot my lunch or got stranded somewhere, a sandwich was just a swipe of my debit card away. And I knew that at the end of the week I would return to a life of overabundance. Which maybe made it that much more important: I thought about food all day, but I didn't think about what it meant to live without it.

At St. Anthony's, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Anna Roth
At St. Anthony's, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Volunteers pass out pantry supplies to Hunger Challenge participants.
Evan DuCharme
Volunteers pass out pantry supplies to Hunger Challenge participants.

I woke up Monday morning and ate a multigrain English muffin with peanut butter (both purchased on sale at Safeway the day before) before heading to the Food Bank on Potrero Hill for a tour and pantry-supply pickup. Executive Director Paul Ash walked us through the warehouse, stacked to the ceiling with pallets of canned beans, fruit juice, tomato sauce, cereal, applesauce, and other goods that the Food Bank provides to families, schools, and charitable organizations. After the tour, we lined up to get our pantry allotment. My two bags of groceries included a pound of rice, a half-dozen eggs, a small watermelon, a cantaloupe, two baskets of strawberries, three large carrots, two tomatoes, four potatoes, two onions, two oranges, two pears, and four plums. This isn't going to be so bad, I thought.

Two hours later, facing another English muffin with peanut butter, I gave in and went to McDonald's for a McChicken sandwich from the dollar menu. It was warm, tasted good, and filled me up with very little expended effort. I realized that if I were living on this budget permanently, McDonald's — a chain I hadn't patronized for years out of principle — would probably play a regular role in my diet.

The next few days were a blur of cranky, lightheaded hours punctuated by poorly cooked meals of beans, rice, potatoes, and eggs. A year of living off restaurant food had made me rusty in the kitchen, and when the chickpeas never softened and I over-peppered the black beans, I had to eat them anyway. Food usually doubles as entertainment in my life, but all these meals did was fill my stomach. Later in the week, I discovered that chefs participating in the challenge were facing the same thing. "Honestly, it's been tough trying to come up with food that is tasty, satisfying, and healthy on a SNAP budget," wrote Lincoln Carson, corporate pastry chef for Michael Mina, on Instagram. The sentiment was echoed by Central Kitchen's Ryan Pollnow, who says he wasn't thinking of it as the "Hunger Challenge" as much as the "Food Enjoyment Challenge." None of us were starving, but we were far from satisfied.

On Wednesday, I went to St. Anthony's for a free lunch. The Tenderloin nonprofit gives out about 3,000 meals a day to anyone who shows up, and about half of its annual 2 million pounds of food comes from the Food Bank. The dining room was organized chaos. An emergency medical situation was partially obscured by a sheet in the corner. Lunch was a cafeteria tray of macaroni and cheese, a starchy salad, a banana, a slice of multigrain bread, a cup of juice, and four marshmallows. I ate with glee, grateful for the calories, grateful for a meal I didn't have to plan and prepare myself, grateful for the marshmallows I saved in a St. Anthony's-provided baggie and would savor slowly at my desk over the next few days.

Later that day, I caught up with Paul Ash of the Food Bank to talk about the bigger picture of hunger in San Francisco. One of the main causes, he says, is the high cost of living in the city. Because the qualifying amount for SNAP benefits is the same across the country, a person might make more dollars per hour here than someone in rural Pennsylvania, but have less buying power with that dollar.

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3 comments
vicvicvic
vicvicvic

Although I agree with commenter Windy to a certain extent, I do want to applaud Miss Anna Roth for accepting this challenge. I commend her for taking into consideration that she knew she'd have delicious and satisfying food again as soon as the challenge ended, and even drew comparisons to "the people who take tours of the Mumbai slums and then return to their luxury hotels."

My family and relatives grew up on SNAP, and it wasn't until I reached adulthood that I finally was able to stop receiving aid from the government. I have spent all of my young adult and adult years giving back to my community, through volunteerism and my regular job. Clients I serve often are forced to dine at McDonald's and other fast food restaurants because they do not have the kitchen or kitchen tools to cook their own meals - time, of course, is also a huge issue. I find it bewildering that those who are against SNAP are saying people in poverty spoil themselves by dining at fast food restaurants when the vast majority of clients I know would much rather cook their own meals if they had the time, space, and tools.

Thank you for a very well-written and thoughtful article.

Windy
Windy

I don't mean to be unkind, and I'm sure Anna Roth meant well, but if she really wanted to simulate the experience of most people receiving food aid, she'd have limited her cooking to a microwave or an old frypan on a burner and been grateful to have received any fresh produce, not just canned surplus. She'd have been combating illness, possibility disability, persistent digestion, and possibly bad or missing teeth. And carrying bags of groceries home from the food bank on MUNI from a poorly paid job to prepare meals and care for children.

SF Food Bank is a remarkable institution, and I'm glad they try to spread awareness. I encourage anyone reading this article to donate (money, not cans) to them I'm just not sure having food critics and chefs that have never known food insecurity spreading the word about how bored they are of eating rice and beans and fresh berries.

Barbara Mcwilliams
Barbara Mcwilliams

Thank you for taking this incredible journey and sharing your experience of what it feels like to be hungry in America.

 
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