The Hunger Challenge

I have accepted the Food Bank's kind challenge to live on a SNAP budget for one week.  I think this experience will be a lot like squeezing blood from a rock, but I'm interested in how I fail, what the obstacles are and, possibly, if there is anything I can do to help alleviate hunger in my area.  I will be spending approximately $9.00 a day for all food for Arthur and I.  I will not be accepting free food, and my kids are exempt from the experiment. 

The End

posted Jun 16, 2012, 8:58 AM by Jessica Bart-Williams   [ updated Jun 16, 2012, 9:28 AM ]

Yesterday was the last day of living on the SNAP budget.  I had another opportunity to talk to people about what SNAP was, how much families are potentially receiving, and the proposed cuts to the budget before the Senate next week.  My grumbling stomach is particularly upset with the idiot that interrupted the President today, even though I know that had he not done that, the FARM bill STILL wouldn't have made headlines.

Was I able to complete the challenge?  Sure.  Did it really make me see what living with a SNAP budget is like?  I'm going to say no.  

I have a functioning and completely stocked kitchen.
I played like it was the first week of the month, not the last, so I was able to cook in large batches.
I was able to get to the grocery store easily, and I was able to cook whenever I wanted.
I wasn't sick.  This is particularly glaring since I know for a fact that if I continued with this challenge I would get sick and my mental health would decline sharply quickly.
Even if I went on SNAP tomorrow, I am unusual because I would not have to support a caffeine or sugar addiction which most Americans have to manage.
I'm not standing in line at the library waiting for computer time to find a job, in the waiting room at the clinic waiting for my number to be called, at the VA trying to get results from tests taken last month, or at the Social Security office dealing with my benefits.
I didn't have to fill out any paperwork.
I didn't have to explain myself to the person standing in line behind me at the grocery store.
When my kids said they were hungry, I could feed them whatever I wanted, and they didn't go to bed hungry.

But above and beyond ALL of that, I knew Saturday was coming.  There was a definite end to this challenge and I knew relief was on its way.

We have what it takes to fund effective support to the people who need it.  We don't need to re-invent the wheel; there are fantastic organizations in place, excellent proposals on the table, and the will to do it.  It needs to be funded.  Now.

Please call your Senator and tell her to pass the Farm Bill without cuts to SNAP.  When she tells you, "Oh, but it is complicated because we are restructuring the subsidies..," tell her, "No, you're rearranging deck chairs.  Separate the subsidies and pass an emergency extension of SNAP through 2020 if necessary, but get it done.  Today."

Thank you to everyone that has supported me this week.  Next time Grandma offers you that candy, take it.  And thank her from the bottom of your heart. I know I will.

 Tortilla Chips        $0.75

Veggie Refried Beans$0.89 

  Beef with Broccoli$2.28
 MY TOTAL   $4.50
 Toast $0.92 
 Pot Luck $???
 Pizza       $5.00
 Beef with Broccoli$2.28 
  Rice $0.20 
  Juice $1.00 
  Formula $5.40 
  Baby Food $3.33 
 KIDS TOTAL   $18.13

Arthur drops out and people ate my food

posted Jun 14, 2012, 10:28 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams

Well, this was a challenging day.  Arthur chose to discontinue his participation, which through me into the individual plan instead of the family plan.  So instead of the two of us living on $9.44 a day, now I am living on $4.46 a day.  Not too different, but an adjustment nonetheless.  My previous post explained my accounting error regarding toast, so there is an adjustment for $0.86.  Today I exceeded my daily allowance, but I'm being judged on the week, and I saved some money on Tuesday, so I still have a chance to make it to the end of the week with that beef with broccoli stir fry.

I had the opportunity to visit Joey's pot luck Thursday get together.  We're trying to start something similar here, so I really wanted to see how the kids got along and what the experience was like as a parent.  I can't wait to start ours here in Hercules.  Hopefully I will have a healthier relationship to sharing food when I attend ours as well.  Socializing without money stinks.  Everybody knows that.  Now try going to a pot luck with your $2.00 dinner and a promise to not accept food from others and see if you can do better than I did.  I was chuckling at myself for all of the petty stuff going through my head. As people were eating my chips, I just kept thinking about Elmo and Telly on Sesame Street teaching my kids how balls are better when you share them.  Someone brought the best looking coconut almond fudge brownies that I could smell for four feet.  People did ask what was up, and I was able to share about the food challenge which made me happy.  They were surprised about the amount allotted and asked questions about eating organic.  I told them about trying to food shop today.

I was too hungry to figure out how to get enough vegetables to fill me up, so I opted to eat some meat to fend off the hunger.  I found cabbage for $0.72 a pound, so I decided to pair it with some sausage.  Unfortunately I can't tolerate nitrates or nitrites, so I generally buy organic, preservative free sausage.  I've seen blogs about how organic isn't any more expensive, but at the store I was at, I couldn't afford it.  By that I mean, I could not afford to eat a single serving of sausage without blowing the day's allowance.  I did buy a sausage without casing or preservatives, but it did contain lactose which can irritate me, but I made a choice.

Today I honor all the mothers and fathers out there working in the food industry feeding their children with SNAP.  To the people that are feeding their families, thank you for demonstrating the true grit most of us have never had to muster over the long haul.

  Toast $0.46 
  Toast adjustment $0.86 
 Cabbage and Sausage$1.92 

  Iced Tea $0.25 

Tortilla Chips $0.75 
  Veggie Refried Beans $0.89 
  Bok Choy left overs $0 - left over 
 MY TOTAL   $5.13
  Cheerios and Milk x 2 $5.88 
 Lunchables $2.99
 Egg Rolls         $1.98
 Chicken $2.66 
  Formula $5.40 
  Baby Food $3.33 
 KIDS TOTAL   $22.24

Budget update and lesson learned

posted Jun 14, 2012, 2:37 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams

I didn't realize all the people that would be affected by the challenge as I took it.  I have received lots of calls and emails from people truly concerned and in a bit of shock at times.  It has been a wonderful experience to talk to people about our food system and the challenges that our community seems to be silently suffering (silently from my perspective anyway).

I went through my logs again, since a lot of people had questions about the amounts, and though I was sure, I thought I'd better double-check.  The amount, $5.40 for formula for the baby is correct.  And no, I didn't stop breastfeeding.  Though I eat a well-balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids, I don't produce enough to satisfy my child's hunger, so we have always supplemented her diet with formula (and now baby food as well).  Her formula, Similac Advance Infant Formula, sells at $1.35/ounce.  She drinks 4 oz per day (sometimes more, but lately she's drinking 4 and eating more food) so that's $5.40. 

The baby food fluctuates, but I got a whole bunch on sale recently for $1.11 for 2, and she eats twice a day so it should have been $2.22 a day but I forgot to double it the first and second day.  I played catch up on the third day and didn't tell y'all, and some of you caught it.  Her appetite varies, but generally she eats 4 containers a day which would equal $2.22 a day.

Toast has been confusing.  Toast is priced out at $0.23 a slice, which I may have rounded up on the first day.  I need to correct these errors, because they got compounded:

Monday said $0.50, it should have been $0.92
Tuesday said $1.00, it should have been $0.92
Wednesday said $0.40, it should have been $0.92.

There will be an adjustment for -$0.86 for toast.  This is why I no longer work in a grocery store.   And heads up, my toast today will only be $0.46, because I skipped breakfast today.

Ok, so I just have to say that this really sucks.  It isn't that I made public mistakes or that I mismanaged my money, which is terrifying and embarrassing. It's that it's Thursday.  i was really looking forward to having stir fry broccoli with beef on Japanese white rice tomorrow, and I don't think I'm going to be able to pull it off.  I'll know better tonight, but I better start thinking of some alternatives.

I encourage everyone to become an advocate for SNAP funding.  This week it is being discussed in the FARM bill before Congress, and we need more, not less.  Call your legislators today and tell them you want SNAP protected.

You can also sign up for requests for advocacy by your food bank.  Contra Costa/Solano's bank is here.

Or find yours here.

Day 3 - More leftovers and visions of plum fairies

posted Jun 13, 2012, 4:29 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams   [ updated Jun 13, 2012, 5:13 PM ]

I've been pretty productive today, which has distracted me from my grumbling tummy.  It started rattling yesterday afternoon, but it hasn't stopped yet.  I will probably give in and take some ibuprofen soon.  It seems like "more water," which is usually the answer to my headache, isn't doing the trick these days.  The girls ran errands with me today and asked to go out to lunch, so we stopped at Subway for them, and I stuck to my challenge eating leftovers again.  Thank God those Mung beans were so good.

Arthur approached me in the bathroom with the news that he will most likely leave the challenge tonight.  He has a business meeting and can't seem to figure out how to be social without eating or drinking at this event.  I completely understand and support whatever decision he makes.  This was my idea, and he has done as much as he can do, but ultimately he needs to network.  This created another opening for understanding.  I can't imagine what it would be like to try to hob-nob with the inability to buy a drink or coffee with a co-worker.  How would you land a client if you couldn't even afford to expense a lunch if needed?  How can you go look for work if you can't afford to build a sandwich to pack for lunch AND get on the bus?

While I was running my errands, I noticed that the amount of gas left in my car costs the same as feeding 6 families for a whole day, and I would need to fill up soon.  Before I get into my accounting, I have to share the conversation the girls were having in the back seat:

"I want to go to McDonald's!"
"Yick.  No, you don't, Natalie.  Remember what they make those burgers out of?"
"They make them out of ACTUAL Pink Slime!  The real slime, Natalie!  And it also has the same stuff you use to clean your house with in it!  You don't want to eat that!"  Isabelle was disgusted.
"I want to go to Subway!"

And so we did.

*UPDATE*  Arthur decided to stay home tonight, so he is continuing with the challenge.  Then he went into the kitchen and ate an avocado/tomato sandwich which threw us entirely over today's budget.  I will need to save $1.12 tomorrow in addition to the budget cuts I was already going to make so that we can eat stir-fry broccoli with beef on Friday.  I think I will try to make dinner early and eat it for both lunch and dinner.  I will have to skip breakfast.

Arthur says, "This is madness!"

  Tea - Bag $0.38 
  Toast $0.40 
 Mung Beans and Rice Casserole $0 - left overs 
  2 bananas (I ate one yesterday) $0.72 
 Arthur eats off budget Avocado and tomato sandwich $2.63 
 Dinner Bok Choy  $4.97 
 OUR TOTAL   $10.56
  Cheerios and Milk $2.94 
 Subway Sandwiches, chips and cookie$10.24
 Bok Choy          $4.97
  Biscuits $1.46 
  Formula $5.40 
  Baby Food $3.33 
 KIDS TOTAL   $28.34

Low hanging fruit

posted Jun 13, 2012, 9:25 AM by Jessica Bart-Williams

As an economics buff, I have always had a passion for garbage.  We are constantly throwing out stuff that could be helpful to somebody else, but 9 times out of 10, we're either too busy or we don't have an easy way to get it to the right person.  It's just another reminder that we aren't talking to each other.  I am constantly surprised that people will do anything to keep from working together; then I remember I have 20 things to do and I've got to get them done because for heaven's sake, can't anyone do it right around here... but I digress.

We foreclosed on our home in Richmond a few years ago.  We lived off Park Central in Hilltop Green, and we had two pear trees and a pine tree in the backyard.  With a toddler, a newborn, and two brown thumbs, the fruit rotted on those trees every year.  Every Fall I would collect green cans full of pears promising that next year, things would be different.  My empty promises were joined by a chorus of neighbors street after street (except my next door neighbor who had the best garden I have ever seen).  People were racing to work and crawling back home day after day.  Those that could afford gardening service usually chose to hire someone, and the rest of us stepped over fruit in our backyards.  Sometimes the kids would rip off an orange and whip it down the street, but that was about as much action as those trees ever saw.

Back then I thought, "Why doesn't somebody do something about this?"  And in spurts I would think about creating a program for kids and teens to get the fruit out of the backyards and drive it up to the Food Bank.  I thought the program could be financed somehow because there might be a tax write off that somehow could work as income for the donation that could pay back the investor after a year or so.  I never looked into the tax benefit, and to this day I have never been to the Food Bank.  I've just sat here thinking somebody should have been able to figure this out.

Today, as I spend 25% of my daily allowance on toast and tea, I am motivated to look at that idea again.  I had a banana last night before bed (it will be on today's allowance sheet), and it was the first piece of fruit I've had in two days.  I'll go to the grocery store today, but the advertised prices make it unlikely that I will see any within the next week.  And if this challenge were reality, I would be thinking that fruit is probably a non-essential luxury by now.

I'm putting this idea on the list too.  I would also love to meet or talk with Van Jones, since I think this could be incorporated with weatherproofing neighborhoods for pay.  Who knows?

Day 2 - and we're moving forward...

posted Jun 12, 2012, 1:52 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams

Today was better.  We made spinach leaves last night for today and we are eating left-overs, so I feel like I have a lot more room.  Arthur and I had tea for breakfast and as always, we are re-steeping the leaves all day for hot and iced tea.  Arthur and I both agree that if we are able to stay on budget, we can look forward to a great Beef with Broccoli Stir Fry at the end of the week.

Even with the extra room, I wonder how I would plan for dinner guests or ever eat on the run.  If there was even one day where I missed my schedule or fell off my plan, I could end up going hungry by month's end.  There is no way I can save enough to buy vitamins or supplements, so I absolutely have to make sure the diet is balanced, which means extra pressure on the kids to eat what is served.  

I'm looking forward to dinner, and I have a craving for either an entire bag of potato chips or an entire quart of premium ice cream.  Since I rarely if ever eat either, I think I am feeling dominated and trapped by this plan.  That's my emotion; but the reality is that this is a choice for me.  Not so for hundreds of children within walking distance of my house.

  Tea - Teavana Loose Rooibos $1.41 
  Toast $1.00 
  Spinach Leaves $2.73 
  Mung Beans and Rice Casserole $0 - left overs 
 OUR TOTAL   $5.14
  Orange $1.06 
  Cheerios and Milk $5.88 
 Tea - Teavana Loose Rooibos $1.41 
 Spinach Leaves $2.73 
  Mung Beans and Rice Casserole $0 - left overs 
  Formula $5.40 
  Baby Food $1.11 
 KIDS TOTAL   $17.59

$100 to save $70 a month

posted Jun 12, 2012, 8:34 AM by Jessica Bart-Williams

Though my children are not in this challenge, I am astounded by how much money we are spending feeding them, particularly my infant.  I remembered a TV commercial for a miniature blender called the Baby Bullet.  That thing is amazing, and I would love to have one.  If I had that, I could feed her all sorts of fruits and veggies I already have, cutting the overall cost of my groceries.

It's only 5 "easy installments" of $19.99.  Unless you live in HI or AK, then it's an additional $13.  I think a great project would be to figure out if getting access to these or something like them would ease child hunger in our country.  If so, let's get them subsidized and into the Food Banks asap.  Maybe that's what I will start next week.

Mung beans? Where's the beef?

posted Jun 12, 2012, 12:50 AM by Jessica Bart-Williams

About two years ago I started trying and failing to improve my diet.  Changing my diet was much like trying to quit smoking; I even joined a 12 step group at one point.  Like most people, almost all of my deceased relatives died of cancer or a heart problem.  We used to call it "old age," but nowadays looking back, they weren't that old.

I even let my eating habits hurt my children.  Although I learned early on that our daughter was allergic to eggs, and I did an adequate job avoiding those, I ignored other signs of infirmity.  Our entire family suffers from lactose intolerance, but every meal contained cheese.  I switched to almond or soy milk when my second was born, but giving up cheese, butter and cream of mushroom soup?  I justified my behavior saying they didn't seem sick, so maybe we had found a balance.  My go-to meals were spaghetti and lasagna; my kids still beg me to make the 2 pound pan of lasagna almost weekly even though I finally sorted out my priorities about 8 months ago.

So we really gave up dairy.  By that time, my oldest had an ulcer so she was put on medication.  Once we got the eggs and dairy completely out of her diet (turns out xanthan gum and lecithin count) it was easy to see that she was also very sensitive to tomatoes, chicken, and gluten is not such a hot idea either.  Her specialist has asked me to keep gluten in her diet at this point, but I can hear that train coming down the track.

Having children with allergies has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.  I wish I loved myself enough to eat well because I deserve it, but I don't love myself that much apparently.  At least not yet.  But I do love my girls enough.  Being able to get straight about our eating habits and admit that I, the person in control of their access to food, was feeding them poison foods was the first step.  When I finally faced my behavior, clearing the kitchen, introducing myself to the produce guy while admitting I didn't know what a leek was or how to cook it, and apologizing to my children with a plan to make things better soon followed.

Though my brother-in-law has been talking to me about nutrition for years, 8 months ago I finally started to listen.  In addition to our allergens, I have also severely reduced oils and processed foods which were also irritating.  If we go out for lunch, the girls prefer Subway, but those days are limited because the salt and preservatives in those meats aren't doing our bodies any good.  The girls will eat deli meats without nitrates on occasion, otherwise we eat beef once a week and no other meat.  The recommended amount seems to be about 4 ounces a week, and we really don't need much else.  I describe our diet as "vegan+meat."  We eat tons of vegetables, especially green ones.  We take vitamins, including fish oil.  I'm anemic again, so I also take iron, vitamin D and magnesium.  Arthur is watching his cholesterol, so you will see turmeric in our diet almost every day (his doctor says his levels do not warrant medication, they are just higher than optimal).

Since the shift, my daughters are happier, healthier, now medication free, and thinner.  I recently gave birth to my third daughter, but I have lost 55 pounds and plan to lose another 15.  Arthur has lost 10 pounds without any change in exercise.  

Given the enormity of this challenge, I was very concerned that I would not be able to maintain a diet heavy in vegetables.  I am shocked at the prices of onions, mushrooms and potatoes; and white flour is cheap and goes a long way.  I am certainly willing to eat less to eat better if that ends up being the choice, but so far, so good.  Fruit, on the other hand, seems really expensive to add.  It is an important element in our diet, and I really need to figure out how to get it in.  Back to the store tomorrow...  Hopefully the produce guy will have some ideas.

Here's a link to a really great article talking about inflammation and our American diet.  You may have heard it all before, but he seems to write in a way that makes it make sense to me.

Day 1 - Are you really going to eat that?

posted Jun 11, 2012, 5:49 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams   [ updated Jun 12, 2012, 7:00 AM ]

I entered the kitchen at 8:30am, even though I went to bed around 1 am and was up from 3:30 to 6:00 am - gotta love breastfeeding with insomnia - to find my husband with a banana in his hand.  I just looked at him.  He had an advantage over the cat we found this weekend with bird feathers hanging from her mouth; he put the banana back.

"Can I have tea?" he was dashing to a meeting with clients, unable to tell me if he was going to be providing lunch thereby blowing our entire experiment out of the water in one fell swoop or not.

"I really don't know yet.  Drink some water, and I'll let you know later.  Did you eat anything?"  I was supposed to plan this out ahead of time, but I never did sit down and do the math.  Ugh, the math...


"What does that mean?"

"Two slices of bread and some margarine."



The things I step over every day are astounding.  Our normal "Good Morning" routine, which actually does seem like a scene stolen from Mary Poppins, was quickly replaced with concern wrapped in a hint of defeat.  I was hungry just thinking about my tea I wasn't going to drink and the day I had failed before I even stepped out of bed.  My kids were already up asking for something to eat.  There was no way I was going to be able to fold the kids into this thing.  Just no way.  I had already learned more than I expected, and I was only ten minutes into it.

The table below shows what we ate today.  The prices were calculated by breaking down the ingredients and assigning unit prices as advertised on  I used the actual brand and size we had in the house, so for instance Cheerios comes in two size boxes and the cheaper box was not the one I had, so I used the more expensive price assigned to the box I had in my cabinet.  Mung beans sell for $5 a pound, and I used the entire 1/2 pound I purchased.

I don't feel hungry.  I feel grumpy and resentful.  This is a tremendous amount of work, and my family is not entirely on board.  Though we had stopped eating cereal in the morning (because the girls do a better job of letting it get soggy and then throwing it down the drain), I had no idea how much money I have wasted on processed junk masquerading as a quick breakfast food.  If I am going to spend more than what one person eats in a day on one meal, it better do a better job of nourishing my child.  After we finish this box, cereal is out.  We'll find something better.

By the numbers, we came in under our $9.44/day allowance, but what a joke.  I HAD to exclude the kids; my 7 month old blew through the individual allotment of $4.66/day in one meal - and she's mostly breastfed.  My kids' mantra, "Can I have some food?" gave me a headache in record time, but I had no idea how expensive it has been placating their demands.  Though I did an ok job including vegetables, there is no fruit here and we are still heavy on the starches.  I have been backing down on processed foods, but out of sheer frustration I grabbed the pizza dough out of the fridge and built a pizza.

Now that Arthur has finished his big presentation, he will help on baby duty so I can catch up a bit on my sleep.  Thank God there are two of us, which in this day and age seems like cheating this experiment as well.  Recipes are included under the recipe tab just under the banner above.

  Tea $0.19 
  Toast $0.50 
  Broccoli and Spinach Pizza $3.56 
  Mung Beans and Rice Casserole $4.87 
 OUR TOTAL   $9.12
  Cheerios and Milk $5.88 
  Biscuits $2.62 
  Broccoli and Spinach Pizza $3.56 
  Mung Beans and Rice Casserole $4.87 
  Formula $5.40 
  Baby Food $1.11 
 KIDS TOTAL   $23.44

If it's not real, why do it?

posted Jun 10, 2012, 11:39 PM by Jessica Bart-Williams   [ updated Jun 11, 2012, 12:13 AM ]

Sometimes in the morning, when I look out my kitchen window, I can see people lined up at the public bathrooms across the park.  We live in a small town of 25,000 or so.  The lawns are manicured.  I live in the townhouse version of the McMansion development down the street; we have granite counter tops and everyone seems to open their garage doors and head to work at approximately the same time every day.  We know our neighbors' names, but we politely respect each other's privacy and generally leave it to nods in the street and short conversation here and there.  

Our neighborhood got hit hard by the foreclosure mess, and it's not done wreaking it's havoc.  The street down the block had four empty houses on it, and three of the houses on my side of our street were for sale at the same time at one point this Spring.  The prices are half what the original owners paid, and they are still decreasing, however slowly.  Our unemployment rate, depending on who you ask, is somewhere between 16 and 25%.  40% of the kids attending our local school eat a free or reduced lunch each day, and I heard our town is down to two patrol cars per shift.  We're trying to close a $1.5 million gap, so in the absence of a miracle, it looks like more layoffs.

I am a registered Democrat, and I believe very strongly that we need to come together as a community through government to support each other, so I'm not interested in proving this $4.46/day allowance right or wrong.  I'm interested in understanding my neighbors; the people who manage to send their kids to school everyday before darting off to work again hoping school lunch will keep them fed for a while, the people who can't afford to send their kids to school because they need them to be working somewhere - even if it is illegal, the people quietly squatting in the homes around here, and the people that keep lining up to use the bathroom across the park.

I know that I will still be using my Ninja blender and Global knives, I can drive my car to the store, I have all the time and patience in the world to make stuff from scratch because I haven't been working a double shift on my feet all day, and I can quit anytime I want.  I won't have to use a SNAP card when I get in the line at the supermarket, and I won't have to budget other things like the gas for the stove or the water coming out of my sink.  My kids will be fed regardless of how badly I blow this experiment and my husband, who has already tried to bail before we've started, is here still married and still an active father raising my kids with me.  Though I've lived through my house burning completely to the ground and other monumental moments in my life, like childbirth, the memory of the pain seems to vanish over time.

But maybe this experiment will have me stop for a minute to think about what is actually going on around here and consider what I can do about it.

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