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.

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.

I brought up my feelings of dilettantism; my trip to St. Anthony's had reminded me how far removed I was from poverty, even when I was pretending not to be. “If all we did is experience this and go back to our regular lives and didn't do anything differently, that would be kind of self-satisfying,” he says. He brought up the bill currently in the House of Representatives 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].”

And the Hunger Challenge was definitely having an impact on my life. I felt isolated and alone. A visit to the supermarket was just a reminder of all the things I couldn't buy. An invitation from my friends was just a reminder of all the bars and restaurants I couldn't afford. I didn't have much time to go out, anyway, with all the planning and cooking I had to do just to make enough food to get me through the day. On Wednesday night I was feeling so low, physically and psychologically, that I knew I had to make a good dinner. I spent half of my remaining budget on six chicken legs, a head of kale, and a lemon. That night I made the best meal I ate all week, with enough leftovers to last a few days. It was a kind of victory.

On Friday, I went back to the Food Bank and had lunch with the staff, who were all participating in the challenge together. The sense of camaraderie was palpable as they cooked their lunches in the kitchen, swapping recipe ideas and the names of stores where they'd found the best deals. We talked about our separate experiences and I was gratified to hear how similar theirs had been to mine. Those who'd been most successful on the challenge were the ones who'd had time — to comparison-shop or prepare food — or kitchen know-how, and had livened up their week with homemade potato chips, pickled watermelon rind, and pizza. “It's not just about the food, it's about knowing what to do with it and having the time to do those things,” says Teri Olle, associate director of policy and advocacy.

You also need community, a lesson brought home by a phone conversation with Glenda Robinzine, a 65-year-old San Francisco resident who depends on the Food Bank every week. She said she'd just taken a pound cake out of the oven, made from butter and cake mix she'd received, and was planning to use her supplies to make peanut brittle, banana bread, pecan pralines, and other goodies for a Food Bank fundraiser she was holding at her church the next weekend. I asked if it was hard to plan ahead, not knowing what she'd receive every week. “I like to be surprised,” she says, adding that she usually calls a friend in Bayview, who receives her Food Bank delivery a day before, to find out what might be coming.

Robinzine now lives in an assisted living facility; before she moved there, before she was homeless, before she was diagnosed with cancer, she volunteered at her church, giving out food to people who needed it. “Now I'm the one who needs it. Now I'm the one who's dependent on it,” she says. “I never thought I would be, but I am.”

The day after the Hunger Challenge ended, I went to Bi-Rite for groceries. I didn't know if I'd feel Veblenesque outrage at the Bay Area foodie lifestyle, but instead all I saw was community. Bi-Rite supports family farms and small local businesses, and it donates or sells food at low cost to charitable organizations like St. Anthony's. My week on the Challenge had made me feel stressed and alienated, but it also made me aware of all the ways, large and small, that we're all taking care of each other instead of behaving as though we live in different worlds.

With that in mind, it was as hard to adjust to abundance as it had been to austerity. My first meal after it ended was a rich bowl of tonkatsu ramen at a hip Mission spot that cost more than half of my food budget for the week. I threw it up.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories