For me the most challenging thing about challenges is that what ends up being the most challenging thing is never what I thought was going to be the most challenging thing. This has been borne out again this week as our family has taken up the San Francisco Food Bank’s “Hunger Challenge.” For five days my wife and I, together with our two daughters, are trying to mirror the experience of a family living on food stamps (now called SNAP benefits). At $4.50 per day per person this works out for a family of four to $18 per day plus two bags of fruits, vegetables and eggs from the Food Bank.
We figured it would be a week of less: less food and less taste. What we’re learning is that living on less means more work shopping, more planning and more time in the kitchen. The boneless chicken thighs, usually so easily snatched from the meat department, have to be carved from a whole chicken (half the price), the bones set aside for broth and then carefully picked for the makings of the next day’s chicken salad sandwich. Beans have to be soaked ahead of time, and we need to get up early to make lunches.
Scheduling problems delayed my retrieval of the Food Bank’s groceries. So two days into the challenge, when I walked through the door with bags of fruits and vegetables, you would have thought it was Christmas in September—oo’s and ah’s over fresh strawberries, potatoes, cantaloupes and more. All of a sudden new possibilities opened up to us: a healthy snack, and eggs for breakfast.
These days when we head to the store, we go in the opposite direction, not toward the Oakland hills and the aisles of well-lit produce and specialty coffees, but toward the tracks and the bustling grocery outlet. The other day, while carefully counting out her allotted portions, my wife was interrupted by the checker: “Are you paying with food stamps?” As a child, her family with its eleven kids relied on food stamps for a few months when her father was out of work. The checker’s question brought back those feelings of shame and judgment—another reminder to all of us of what is really challenging about this challenge.
As the Executive Director of St. Anthony’s, I see how this challenge plays out in the day to day lives of the guests we serve in our Dining Room. While sitting at my desk looking at my tuna sandwich, I’ve been tempted to go downstairs and share in the nutritious and filling meal provided for the thousands of people every day whose food stamps have either run out or have been denied for some reason. This “Hunger Challenge” becomes a challenge for all of us to continue to support institutions like the Food Bank, St. Anthony’s and other food security programs that help people feed their families and retain a sense of dignity.