The Ballad of the Hungry Man

16 Jan

Welcome to my report on Day 1 of the Food Security Challenge. (If you want to know the why’s and the how’s, it is contained in the ‘about’ page to the right of this post.)


It’s all about can I live healthy on Food Stamps (CalFresh) for a month. But of course the first challenge is actually getting hold of the food stamps, or in today’s world my EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card that would contain them.

For the purposes of the challenge, I am imagining that I have lost my job and have no income coming in. A lot of people only turn to food stamps when they have exhausted other possibilities, because they figure ‘they’re not the kind of person who goes on food stamps’. I’m as proud and concerned with my self-image as the next man, but because of my job as CEO of the Foodbank, I also have insight into the huge increase in the numbers of ‘not that kind of person’ people who have been forced by the recession to take advantage of food stamps. They are one of the only federal benefits designed to assist with situational poverty, so they are there to be used.

There are also many others who are stuck in low-paying jobs and still qualify for the ‘supplemental’ nutrition that food stamps provide.

Over the next 30 days, I am committed to only eating only what I could buy with my monthly allotment of food stamps ($200 for the month) or what I am able to supplement from Foodbank neighborhood distributions – especially fresh produce.

I woke up on day one and found out that my luck was in and that the Foodbank would be holding a Mobile Food Pantry at the Franklin Center, my local neighborhood community center. Even better, there would be an outreach worker there from the Foodbank who could help advise me about whether I was eligible for food stamps and who would help get me started to being able to access them.

The only catch is that the food distribution starts at 2.00pm and so breakfast or even lunch are looking like luxuries that I cannot afford. Assuming I can get something I can eat there and then, it will still be 17 hours since I last broke bread.

I’m used to doing exercise each morning, which I did, but that took a lot of energy, so by the time 2pm rolls around, I am probably even grumpier than usual. In fact I have kind of a headache. I have been drinking a lot of water and that has helped.


I show up at the Franklin center and find about a hundred people there already. Some have been there for a couple of hours already. I live on Santa Barbara’s east side, which is a predominantly Latino residential area. Up above us the hills rise to where there are big homes and a very rich area, Montecito, is not far away. Yet in my area there are plenty of families living on very low wages and seniors living on minuscule fixed incomes. They look to their local community center and the services that the Foodbank and our member agencies can provide through it.

The Foodbank provides some food help to one in four people in Santa Barbara County, which is a startling statistic. That is why our focus has changed to the educational and self-help programs which will enable people to no longer need our help. We want to help people now, but also provide them with the skills to eat healthily with not a lot of money. That is part of the reason I am doing this challenge, to be sure that I am not asking of anyone else something which I could not do. I am lucky to have advantages of education and good health, but we want to help people draw on their natural strengths and to use good nutrition as a basis for leading healthy lives.

But enough sermonizing – even if I have to pass the time in the queue sometime. If you want to understand the master plan check out my blog at


Check out my ‘hunger into health’ blog at the above address


While in the line, I chat to Doris, a lady who has lived in SB for 66 years. Her and her husband find it hard to make ends meet and the food they receive from this distribution makes all the difference to their health, especially with vegetables being so expensive.



At the front of the line, I get a box to put in my allocation of food. This distribution is only once a month, so the amount of food each person gets is pretty large – you have to remember that this is got to last as a 30 day supplement. At this particular site, it is backed up by Mobile Farmer’s Markets providing fresh produce distribution each week.

Food from MFP




So this is what I cram into my box:

Food provided from donations to Foodbank:

1 can of  tea

Bread (3 loaves)

Large Frozen Thanksgiving turkey dinner

Frozen assorted meats (pork, turkey, beef variety – 5 packages)

Nestle breakfast drink

2 containers of pizza sauce

Fresh Water cress

Fresh Potatoes

Fresh Pears

Fresh Cauliflower

I also sign up for a distribution of USDA food, which is government food provided through food banks. Much of this comes as the flip-side of subsidies to farmers, but can contain a variety of foods. So I am able to access:


Pitted dried plums (1 lb bag)

Corn flake cereal (1 box 18 oz box)

Can of chili 32 can size

Spaghetti sauce (15 oz can)

Spaghetti (2 lb )

Chicken leg quarters (frozen) – 10 lb bag

This is a bunch of food. I’m lucky that I have a car to bring it home. If I was a senior citizen on foot, I couldn’t drag that lot home, especially before the frozen stuff started to defrost. At this point I should spell out to people that I did not take this acutal it would be achieving the opposite of my job for me to be an actual drain on the resources that we have available to help the public. Consequently, I am purchasing the food rather than using actual food stamps, and when I get food from a distribution, I give that food back, so that someone else can benefit from it and I buy the exact same items in a store.

It's not nice to eat your new best friend, but hopefully Mr. Pear understood

It’s not nice to eat your new best friend, but hopefully Mr. Pear understood

After I grab one of my pears to get some food inside of me, I get the chance to meet Amy Lopez, the Foodbank Outreach worker. It is Amy’s job to build relationships and trust with the community and to assist them in accessing our services. It is also her job to help people sign on for Food Stamps. Increasingly, Foodbanks across the national Feeding America network of Foodbanks have become involved in helping promote uptake of foodstamps as this is a great way of getting people the food they need.

Amy Lopez, Outreach Officer, Foodbank of SB County

Amy Lopez, Outreach Officer, Foodbank of SB County

In Santa Barbara county, the uptake level is low – not because people are well off, after all, there are only 14 out of 55 California Counties that have more food insecurity than we do. The main reason is that signing up is very complex, there are lots of myths around who is eligible and what will happen to them. It is Amy’s job to cut through these myths. Food stamps are available to those with legal residency, which might only be the children in a particular family set-up.

Amy helps me go through the forms and promises to submit my application electronically to the local DSS. SHe is putting a ‘rush’ on it because I have no income and no savings. But even with a rush, it might be a day or two before I can be interviewed to process my application.


I go home with my food and realize that with no milk or butter or cooking fats or other basic items, then my choices are limited with the food I have and which I am going to be very careful at using. I better hurry up with the cauliflower though, because it’s looking a little senior itself.

Stay tuned…


Here’s what I ate today:


LUNCH – Pear

DINNER – Frozen Thanksgiving Complete Dinner / Watercress salad / bagel




3 Responses to “The Ballad of the Hungry Man”

  1. quiet January 19, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    Interesting thanks for your efforts.

  2. ddsprncs January 25, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    I have back read all your posts and I think this is interesting and important challenge but….sorry for the but….I think these challenges can sometimes do more to perpetrate the myths of the food stamp population.

    Mainly that $6 can buy plenty of food and that any one can live on 6/day when in reality there are so many more factors to consider.

    #1 Many many people do not know how to cook. I mean really cook not assemble. It is definitely less expensive when you know how to really cook. Many do not know how to cook only how to assemble prepared items like sauce 2.50 and pasta 1.50 versus a can of tomatoes .65 adding your own seasoning .10 and pasta 1.50. This example can be multiplied over 90 meals saving a lot of money. Many people have grown up eating Top Ramen and frozen burritos and hamburger helper, as did I, it was not until I was in my late 20s and unemployed that I truly learned how to cook. Trust me there are many a home with out a cookbook or the internet.

    #2 Transportation/food deserts, some of which you did address. Buying food at a corner store or a Safeway can be really expensive but sometimes that is the only option.

    #3 Making 3 meals a day is time consuming and hard! Many low income people work crazy hours and sometimes 2 minimum wage jobs, leaving very little time for cooking.

    #4 I have personally lived with out electricity. I know friends who only have one pan to cook in, no blender or other kitchen equipment that makes cooking easier .

    #5 Education including classes on cooking from scratch, using coupons with snap cards and nutrition should be a part of the deal. I don’t know if it should be mandatory or not but I am sure it would be helpful.

    #6 Access to a kitchen and a refrigerator. When I was renting a room I was told I could use the kitchen but it turned out to be that i was allotted the smallest shelf in the fridge and when I would cook, the people I was renting from would want to eat my dinner (even though they had plenty of money) or they would leave the kitchen such a mess that I would have to clean it 1st before I could cook but i still do consider myself lucky as many do have it worse than I did.

    #7 Food bank hours are usually the same as the hours most people are at work and if you don’t have a car you can not zip over on your lunch break.

    God has blessed me and I am doing fine now but I want don’t want to forget that there are others who are still out there struggling.

    • Erik Talkin January 26, 2013 at 5:01 am #

      Great points, thanks for contributing to the discussion

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