Wednesday, April 6, 2011

$100 a Week: 5 things I learned from The Hunger Challenge

This is about $70 worth of food from my pantry, every item purchased at a farm, farmstand or farmers' market. Is all this food from small farmers really affordable on a food budget of $100?

The affordability of locally produced food was on my mind a few weeks ago when The United Way hosted their annual Hunger Challenge and asked people to sign up to live on $7 a day for one person, $12 a day for two people. The idea of the challenge was to feel empathy, to walk in another person's shoes and learn about hunger. I didn't learn about this Challenge early enough to consider signing up, but when I first read about it, I thought how can people live on that?

A few minutes later I felt like an idiot when I realized that is my so-called "food budget." Well, close enough anyway. ($100 a week is a little more than $7 a day for two people.) I was suddenly compelled to read all the participants blogs and discover out what they experienced, how they shopped and how this may have changed their lives, and okay I admit I was hoping to pick up a few tips for my budget. I never did discover how this changed participants' lives, and at times I wondered if signing up for this challenge and getting links to the blog posts was just an attempt to drive more traffic to some folks blogs. A sad comment on our times, but I do wonder about all possibilities.

Here are 5 things I learned:

1. Plan meals and make shopping lists. This is very important when you have this low cash flow. Planning meals takes time and effort, but it pays off in healthy meal dividends if you can learn to juggle the cash and shop carefully. Just a note that no one really mentioned: if you don't know how to cook, checkout a basic cookbook like Joy of Cooking at the library, or check out cooking videos like Cookusinterruptus. Or check out this great blog by the Veggie Queen.

2. Make do with less. It isn't always easy for other family members. Take a look at this bowl of of carrots I purchased for $9 last summer at the market. Will my Cooking Assistant be satisfied with less than what he deems his fair share? Or maybe he thinks I should deal with less.

3. Quit picking on other people so much. It's so easy to criticize our neighbors about petty things, but where does that get anyone really? For example, one of the participants wondered if the challenge was just a form of poverty tourism or watching privileged people (people with jobs?) play at being poor. And another person wrote about how she was poor once and found it insulting to read the blogs on how people had to do without their lattes. Sure people were playing a part for the week, as this blogger admitted in an odd sort of way, but one thing I noticed was this Hunger Challenge got people thinking about, talking about, and doing something about hunger in our community, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

4. Get creative, work together and making ends meet with your food budget will make your family stronger. That's what this person discovered. I'm not sure my Cooking Assistant is up for that part.

5. Donate more money or food to food banks or the United Way if you can. With so many people in our community still out of work and so many people homeless the food banks in our area desperately need more donations.

I spent a good part of an afternoon reading all the blog entries and Face Book comments on The United Way page. I don't know if I'd take part in this Challenge next year because $7 a day is already close to my budget limit, and I didn't really get why you can't accept free food or use spices and things from the pantry. That is the essence of really making a long time commitment to that kind of budget work. There is lots of extra food in our community and when you are on a lower income, finding free stuff is part of the plan.

In 2010 we veered into the low-income category, but because we own our place with no outstanding mortgage, we can afford health care and food. If not, it would have been one of the many trade-offs that lower income people must make.

One thing I noticed from reading the posts was many of the bloggers, except one or maybe two, resorted to Grocery Outlet or Safeway and bought non organic options. And many still focused on meat-based meals. Sure conventional bacon is cheaper and you could get a ton of 69 cent chicken pot pies or even "fresh" foods at the end of the line at the Outlet, but many of the bloggers also discovered cheap food wasn't worth the price.

By the end of the day, I wondered how I could start a fund that could help feed low income families and seniors from the farmers' markets. A $25 dollar food only gift certificate, given out each week, was my idea. I've found that $25 can buy some great healthy options from local farmers who could use more customers. It's win-win. And I also wondered how many folks might contribute to a fund like that. If 60 people chipped in just $5, just think, $300 could feed some low-income folks with fresh local foods. I initially imagined hosting a drawing for a food certificate each week. I tell you, it would make me smile if one of my low-income friends won and was able to buy more market food for the week. What do you think? Would it work?

For me, it's definitely an idea that deserves more conversation before the summer season begins.
This is an $8 loaf of 100-Mile Bread that I got at the Granville Market in Vancouver last summer, when I wasn't thinking about how rapidly I was delpeting our savings with purchases like this. Eight dollars works out to about a dollar a slice, if you got ten slices out of this loaf. I'd have to think twice before I splurged on that with $100 a week.

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