I have never been unwillingly hungry. Except for one very memorable self-inflicted occasion.
While studying for my Masters in nutrition at Columbia University, I had the absolute honor of having Dr. Larry Kushi as a professor. The course—Community Nutrition and the curriculum was one hundred percent centered on how to raise awareness in and bring nutrition education programs to communities across multiple demographics.
For one particular assignment, given to help our group of budding nutritionistas understand the barriers that prevent people from making healthy food choices, Dr. Kushi asked us all to feed ourselves for one week on $20— the amount of money a individual on the Food Stamp Program (now called SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) received per week (in 2001). I remember everyone’s jaw dropping, including my own. For the person not in need, spending $20 per day on food was more like the norm!
We were told to take this challenge on, record what we ate in a day and at the end report on our experience and thoughts regarding how hungry American’s were being “assisted”. Being a chef, I had a unique set of resources so I was eager to take this challenge on and had every intention of seeing it through no matter how hungry I became.
At the starting gate, I had three advantages—I knew how to navigate food and cook; I had top-notch kitchen equipment (like a food processor to ground nuts into peanut butter—buying a bag of nuts is less expensive than the jar of nut butter); and I shopped at my local food coop in Brooklyn where I received healthy food at a discount (a member benefit). This is what I procured for a mere $20 spot:
- 3 apples
- 2 lemons
- Small bag of carrots
- 2 cucumbers
- 1 head romaine lettuce
- 1 onion
- 1 head garlic
- 3 white potatoes
- 1 large can crushed tomatoes
- ½ dozen eggs
- 2 cans of tuna
- 2 cans of beans
- Peanuts (to ground into peanut butter using my Cuisinart)
- 1 bag of white rice
- 1 box of white pasta
- 1 loaf wheat bread
- 1 jar of jam
- 1 small bottle vegetable oil
And, taking advantage of my culinary creativity, I ate 3 meals per day with 1-2 snacks:
1 slice toast 1 egg Slice of apple
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Small salad with lemon and oil Baked potato ½ can beans sautéed with onion and garlic
Slice of apple with smear of peanut butter
While I did succeed in eating on $20 per week, I was hungry every single day and starving by the end of the week. I felt depleted, lethargic and I lost about five pounds (no folks, this is not a weight loss remedy). My conclusion—it is absolutely absurd to think that any person can healthfully survive on such a small food budget. I could barely do it even with the knowledge and skills to nourish myself. So how the heck can the average American (without this skill set) begin to help herself? My eyes were opened!
Thankfully by 2012 individuals received roughly $35 per week. But (and this is a big BUT) food cost has risen since 2001 so not sure this makes any difference whatsoever. Sadly, the Federal government has officially decided to cut SNAP benefits as a result of the new “Farm Bill” so basically an individual is back to roughly $20 per week for food assistance today and given food inflation that surely amounts to far less value than the same amount in 2001. Pretty scary!
Right now, there is no simple solution but raising awareness on the issue of hunger in America and beginning a discourse is something we can all do to help. I hope you will check out A Place at the Table—watch the film available on Netflix, read the book) and take part in the fight against hunger in any way you can.