Hungry Planet, Part II, Completely Guilt-Free

India looks delicious.

Have a look at these eleven photos of families from around the world, sitting around their dining table, with their dining table filled with all the food they consume in a typical week.

After doing the Hunger Challenge, I can't stop myself from doing math every time I see a carrot. How many of those people, how many people of the six and a half billion alive now, must by on less than the $4 a day a person allotted for food stampers in the United States? The Hunger Challenge forces you to be aware of not only what you eat but how you eat and where you get it.

How low on the food chain must you go? You can make that conclusion yourself by looking at the brightly-dressed, happy-looking Guatemalan family and compare them to not only the narwhal-eating Canadians but the stuffy French. (Honestly - you already have a bad rep. The young woman sitting on the left looks as if she's thinking that, yeah, my cat eats better than you.)

And what the hell is with those Luxembourgers?

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats


Second Thoughts on Hunger Challenge

Only my parents have money enough. Everybody, even those previously smarmy superior relatives that used to brag about how much they paid for things, has sunk a couple of notches on their tax bracket.

It's my hope that, excluding my parents (different generation = different way of codifying), more people will open their eyes and see a fellow individual, at least one, with a little more compassion. It's easy when you live by a strict rule structure to blame people for their circumstances, especially when you've never been anywhere remotely close to the edge.

When it's your own life that implodes, your rules about the benefits of hard work versus luck, for example, relax. It's the only good benefit - compassion - that comes from a personal earth shattering financial incident.

Now that the layer of my brain where the deep thoughts reside has been cleared, phew, all that remains is shallow, random ideas about the Hunger Challenge, food stamps and the inequality that will always exist due to trans-national corporations (oops, slipped on a deep spot there). I have three:

1. Location, location, location. This week I spent $4.75 at New May Wah on a big bag of beautiful deep pink pluots, an avocado, an onion, cilantro and some yogurt drinks for Stella. When I was on food stamps, I lived in Montana and Safeway was my only option and the only option for cheap produce was crappy squash and dried up root vegetables. I would have killed for a pluot or anything of any color pulled off of any tree.

I wake up every morning grateful for cheap produce, not only from little Chinatown but from the abundant and plentiful friendly Farmer's markets in San Francisco, and even the La Playa begging-for-a-remodel Safeway. All choices here are a good deal cheaper than anything I found even in Oregon last week.

2. When you're poor it's almost impossible to buy smart. My kids went to Costco and were nice enough to stop by first and ask me if I wanted anything. There is no better way to shop than handing over a list and a debit card and finding it magically carted up three flights of stairs so all you have to do is put it away.

All told, I spent $22.62 on so much half and half and soy milk that my husband will be in coffee and milk heaven for the next month. $22.62 at Safeway would have bought exactly half. Limited resources signifies shopping immediacy. It's hard to shop well and load up your pantry and refrigerator when you can't buy in bulk.

3. Don't even think about a CSA. I didn't until a few months ago and I am convinced this is the most decadent thing I do done all week. Greenhearts charges $33 a box a week for fresh, organic, local produce delivered to my door. There's no membership fee or share purchase up front. Still, who has $33 extra for food not qualified to be bought on stamps?

And yes math whizzes, this tipped me over my $4 a day a person. I spent a little over $60 for two people in a little over a week. We accidentally started our Hunger Challenge early due to laziness. After returning from several weeks in Oregon, it seemed like a lot of work to shop. So with nothing in our refrigerator and a fairly bare pantry, we re-enacted a more accurate week on food stamps (that's my excuse anyway).

Most importantly, there is more to life than money. When you're really poor, it's really hard to remember this. Obsessing over what you don't have, though, is a 100% sure way to repel friends, hate life and attract frowns. Money was created by kings 3,000 years ago who saw all this local bartering and wealth being exchanged and they weren't getting a cut of it so they stamped their faces on coins, killed those peasants who didn't conform, and kept the production of money scarce so they could control the supply.

I heard that on a podcast when I was running yesterday so the details might be a little sketchy. Once you have enough for the basics, it's been proven many times that more doesn't mean happier. Want what you have, even though that is too easy to say when you don't have enough.


The Hunger Challenge is Underway

If you haven't done a food challenge lately, you're missing out on a lot of fun. There's the Eating Down the Fridge week and you can figure out the parameters of that challenge without much explanation. If you stock up the day before and have a well-stocked pantry full of fancy things I don't even know what they could be, a refrigerator all filled up with jars and packages of ingredients my friends don't even acknowledge on the grocery store shelves unless we want to laugh at the prices, and a freezer stuffed with whatever it is freezers get stuffed with, you are cheating. The challenge is to be honest with yourself. How willing are you when it comes to cravings and how dependent are you when it comes to your grocery store?

The excitement is turning nothing in your refrigerator into something good and the best part is that anybody can do it. You don't have to be creative, you don't have to have hours of prep time, you don't have to have expensive ingredients. If you have an internet connection, you have all. You knew that, though. Do a google search of the ingredients you have with the word "recipe" at the end and what you get will amaze you. There's so much you can make with nothing at all.

This week is the Hunger Challenge for the San Francisco Food Bank and it's even better than Fridge Eating Down. You can spend $3 a day, or $4 if you want to do what food stamp users live on in this, our fat year of 2010. Next year, without government support it shrinks back down to $3. It's just one week of $3 or $4 per person per day: your choice. Limits are a wonderful thing. Try it and when the week is done, it's like you're rich. It's like not eating sugar for a month and when you finally break into the Ben and Jerry's you think it's too sweet and you're disappointed.

I know what you're thinking: food stamps. Why would you want to do anything to simulate your life on food stamps? Food stamps aren't even stamps anymore, but you can sneak a look at the machine to see if the people ahead of you in line are using them. You know you look. You especially look when the people ahead of you in line LOOK like what you judge food stamp users to look like. You know you do.

Me, too. Last week at Winco, the last time I shopped, a couple of fake-tanned chunky young women were in the line ahead of me, sisters, both of them wearing better clothes than me - yes, it's so easy to judge, judge, judge - talking louder than anybody, buying more than everybody and taking their time bagging up all that food. They were buying so much packaged food, dinners that looked delicious, frozen things you could put in the microwave or oven and dinner would be ready without extra effort.

When the Oregon Trail card paid for their purchases I had an uncharacteristic teabagger-like thought: I wish I had food stamps so I could buy all those bottles of juice (I always think I'm too poor to spend money on juice). Did I think that, I thought. When did I become one of those people who convinces herself it's okay to judge what other people buy at the grocery store when they're buying it on food stamps? It isn't okay, although when I was on food stamps I was so careful to get only produce and flour/salt/baking powder kinds of things. I still look over my items lined up on the conveyor belt, judging my potential purchases like an observer, as if someone is judging me on what I'm buying here. Once you become one of those people that live in the glass house of food stamps, it's hard to be normal again. It's hard to not judge, even yourself.

With my face still red and swollen from getting the rosacea damage and pre cancerous stuff lasered off, ouch, I was already getting stared at and already telling myself I'd never see these people again so I don't have a reason to care what they think of me and my open sores. These sisters, though, they clearly didn't see themselves as representing every food stamp user, making ends meet by careful shopping and extreme budgeting of their scarce limited, ever-so-grateful for resources. I ought to get a spray tan, I thought. That's what I thought, after the first judgmental thought of how can you be that big and well-dressed and orange on food stamps? Orange, I have to say, is a better look than pink-face. What would it be like to be that orange and have that much packaged food in the house?

Only when they left did I stop thinking about their cavalier attitude toward shopping. They made it look so fun, doing it together, talking about how they're going to have to move the golf clubs in the truck to fit in all their groceries, acting as if they were actually golfing or doing some sport they excelled at, they were so excited, so good at it.

I should be that excited. I had more money to spend on food even if I don't because of all the guilt. Food stamps, when I was on them, were like Christmas the first of every month. I had more money to budget for food during that time than during any other time in my life except for last year when there were no kids at home and my husband was making the most he ever made and will ever make by about four or five times, and I told myself to relax and I listened for once.

Now it's back to living on a stingy fixed income but I'm into to doing these challenges even more. There's no reason to do them, not really. They don't solve the problem of getting food to hungry people. It's hard to live on little, I know that, too. And I even donated so I don't feel guilty for having more than others.

It feels good - it simply feels right - and that's why we do most of what we do. After the week is over, knowing you could easily eat for $3 a person a day without much planning or thinking about it, you feel like you do when you've completed a good run. You feel even better that you're not on food stamps and don't have to be on such a tight budget even if it didn't feel particularly tight to you.

Things could be a lot worse. It's just a week. We have the ability to return to normal and buy more coffee when we run out, more half and half, and restart the CSA box of produce for $33 we enjoy from Greenhearts. When you're done with food stamps though, you're done. Unless you sell the golf clubs, I suppose.