Day three of the S.F. Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, where I'm living on food pantry supplies and $4.50/day, found me at St. Anthony's for a free lunch. The Tenderloin non-profit feeds around 3,000 people a day, with about half of its annual 2 million pounds of food coming from the Food Bank. Pretty impressive stuff, especially considering that the four employed chefs are working in a cramped, temporary space while the new facility is built across the street at Golden Gate and Jones (the site of the original free restaurant, a converted auto body shop started by the church next door in the '50s; the new building will also include social services and low-income housing, and is set to open in October 2014).
Lunch today was macaroni and cheese, some sort of potato salad deal loaded with vegetables, a banana, a slice of multigrain bread, four marshmallows, and a cup of juice. Two days into this thing, and I'm already assessing each meal with an eye to its caloric value as well as nutrition -- getting enough to eat every day is hard, and I'm learning how to stave off the 3 p.m. headache and crankiness with plenty of snacks. Marshmallows don't normally play a significant role in my diet, but today the sugar rush they provided really hit the spot, especially since I've been missing the afternoon energy jolt of Diet Coke.
The menu at St. Anthony's changes every day, based on the supplies that have been donated. Upcoming meals include spaghetti bolognese, chicken and corn stew, Moroccan chicken with lemon cous cous, and black bean soft tacos. The monthly menu is posted on Facebook.
Anyone can get a free meal at St. Anthony's 365 days a year, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. -- other organizations in town like GLIDE, Project Open Hand, and Meals on Wheels fill in some the other gaps. Karl Robillard, senior manager of communications and outreach, told me that volume is usually heavier toward the end of the month, when residents have spent their SNAP benefits or monthly budget and need food. The busiest day is Memorial Day, which comes at the end of the month and also on a day when most other businesses are closed.
Today I also had a chance to talk briefly with Paul Ash, executive director of the Food Bank, about some of the bigger issues contributing to hunger in San Francisco. One of the main causes, he explained, is the high cost of living in the city. Because the qualifying amount for SNAP (food stamp) benefits is the same across the country, an individual might make more dollars here per hour than someone in a rural area, but have the same or less buying power with that dollar.
I also brought up my uneasiness about essentially pretending to be in poverty for a week, feelings that I touched on in my blog post yesterday. "If all we did was experience this and go back to our regular lives and didn't do anything differently, that would be kind of self-satisfying," Ash says. "I think the value of this whole process is to use our voice, and to bring a different perspective." He mentioned the bill currently in the House of Representative to cut the SNAP budget by $40 billion, and how he's hoping this challenge will encourage people to speak out. "Active citizenry approaches issues from a base of knowledge, a base of understanding. It's easy to see data, but this is about showing people how it feels, and how you act differently [when you're living with food insecurity]," he says.
And the project is definitely making an impact on my life. It's a lot harder than I thought it would be. Last night I was in the newsroom until 7 p.m. and hadn't planned to be, so I didn't have dinner or even a snack to get me through. All that was waiting for me at home was a big bowl of soaked black beans that would take an hour of simmering on the stove. When I got home, I ate a few spoonfuls of peanut butter to prevent a meltdown, looked longingly at a spare bottle of red wine in my pantry, and eventually ate a decent dinner of black beans, rice, a fried egg, and watermelon and strawberries for dessert. I'm really feeling the lack of greens in my diet, but today I bought a head of kale ($1) at the UN Plaza Farmers Market. Tonight I'm thinking some variation on black bean soup with my leftover beans and cooking water. Tomorrow, anyone's guess.
A bunch of other Hunger Challenge participants are documenting their experience, if you want another perspective. Check out Renee Frojo's posts on the S.F. Business Times, Blain Johnson's posts on the S.F. Food Bank website, Ryan Pollnow of Central Kitchen's posts on the 20th Street Corridor blog, and Michael Mina corporate pastry chef Lincoln Carson's Twitter.