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Cupboard’s Bare, Time’s Up

11 Feb

empty cupboard

My Food Security Challenge is officially finished.

Thirty days of getting a small taste of having to view food as a scarce and precious resource rather than something that you just open up the refrigerator – and there it is.

And it was a small taste. Thirty days felt like a long time to me, but for some of our friends and neighbors in Santa Barbara, this is the reality year in and year out. My experience could never replicate what they face, but it also wasn’t also playacting around a serious subject. I needed to understand what are the stakes with an issue where my job as CEO of the Foodbank brings me every day.


The benefit of any kind of challenge is that it pulls you out of your normal mode of seeing the world and gives you a new view of that world, the people in it – and yourself. The real challenge we all face in life is to stay aware and present to what is happening around us in the moment, and the last thirty days have been great for that. (Things such as the value of a healthy meal with a loved one; the value of providing sustenance and support to everyone in our community.)

Happiness is daddy's vegetable dip says Mia

Happiness is daddy’s vegetable dip says Mia

Did the emergency safety net hold fast? Barely. It’s frayed and straining and in need of an overhaul, but it did keep me pretty much fed, but it would have been a huge challenge to sustain living like that.

If any element of the net was weakened or removed, then the whole net would tear and become ineffective. That means supporting the Foodbank and its local nonprofit member agencies who do such wonderful work. It means paying your taxes knowing that the relatively modest amounts that go toward food stamps are a vital tool for helping people who need the most help. (Food Stamp fraud has been independently estimated at 1%, the lowest of all Federal programs) This doesn’t just help the families who receive them, it helps the entire community stay strong. Enlightened self-interest or love of your fellow man, both can lead to the same place.


These are the criteria for an 'expedited' food stamp application

These are the criteria for an ‘expedited’ food stamp application. Would any of us begrudge someone in this situation from getting help?

The value of what I received on top of the $200 in food stamps, was the equivalent of nearly $300 in terms of the value of the food that I received from the Foodbank distributions, not to mention the cost of the free meals I was served at the various soup kitchens.

In my blog/online Independent piece last week I chronicled my reliance on emergency meal provision in the last week of my challenge, when the food stamp money ran out. I experienced sleeping in my car and joining the invisible part of SB’s homeless. By the end I was living in a world of abundant food that was unavailable to me, because I had nothing in my pocket to pay for it with.

belly full

“A hungry man is an angry man,” goes the old Bob Marley song. My body was angry at me for not providing enough sustenance for it that day, and that anger got turned outwards. I believe ‘low blood sugar’ is the polite description, but in the last couple of days I lost my temper with my wife Mari at some small thing, scrunching up an invaluable (to me) packet of crackers and throwing them against the wall. Sometimes the futile gesture is the only one left to you.

My favored gruel

My favored gruel

What about my food tips? Besides all the amazing fresh produce that our region provides and which formed the core of my diet, my main anti-hunger staple was countless meals of Trader Joes Eggplant Hummus and Akmak crackers. It had the ability to stop the stomach growling almost immediately, the hummus was nutrient dense and lower in calories than most hummus. Cost, a total of about 75 cents a meal. I wouldn’t recommend it long term though, and maybe better check the label again, because I was really eating Soylent Green…

Erik shows his heavy lifting abilities. Now you know why HR put him in a swivel chair, not on the warehouse floor

Erik shows his heavy lifting abilities. Now you know why HR put him in a swivel chair, not on the warehouse floor

My month ended at exactly the place it needed to. Not at a rendezvous with my old pal McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip, but with a morning spent volunteering with the Foodbank’s ‘Brown Bag’ grocery program for seniors. I had been helped by the community around me through Foodbank food distributions paid for by so many members of that community. I had withdrawn from that ‘bank’ when I needed to, and now it was time for me to make a deposit – time, money, support it’s all needed. To be able to pack together healthy fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen hams and canned and dry goods, to break down boxes and clean up, all of it was a wonderful form of nourishment for me.

Fresh produce for the brown bag program

Fresh produce for the brown bag program

Those men and women who came to the Westside Community Center to receive that food really needed help. The food itself was the main course, but the sweetest dessert of all was for them to know that the community cared enough about them to provide that food.


The lessons learned have been simple – that food stamps (CalFresh/SNAP) by themselves are not enough to prevent a person sliding in expensive, destructive ill health. They need to be supplemented by other sources of food, distributions by the Foodbank, and by the ability to grow some of your own food.

The other lesson is that the food itself is not enough. Without the skills and empowerment about how to plan, shop, cook and store that food, you might as well toss away all that fresh produce. It means a family making the effort to find the time to cook and eat together, to find the space to cook and the cooking instruments (blenders, slow cookers) that help them stretch their food resources.

Foodbank Feed The Future (Email Version)

I feel even more confident that we are going in the right direction at the Foodbank, by putting a strong emphasis on both sides of the equation – the food and the skills to use that food. My commitment to ending hunger and transforming the health of Santa Barbara County through good nutrition is stronger than ever. This goal is vital, it’s possible and it’s joyful. There’s not much else that makes life worth living than sharing a healthy, delicious meal with those we love.

Take care and thanks for all the support and encouragement. The story’s only beginning, so if you are interested about wider hunger and nutrition issues, check out my regular blog at


Running on Empty

8 Feb
The great wheel of life turns...

Here I am: The coolest thing that is both on four wheels and wrapped in a pink duvet.

When last we left my Food Security Challenge, I was down to my last $11.77 in food stamp money and hoping that I would be able to score some free meals designed to help those in our community who are facing the biggest challenges.

Could I find a free breakfast, lunch and dinner?

First up is breakfast, and I made my way to the bottom of Chapala Street and the Salvation Army’s impressive Hospitality House.

Hospitality House

Hospitality House

There I met up with Enrique who gave me one of the Sally Army’s breakfast burritos, made with beef, rice, cheese and vegetables.

Enrique reaches for the burrito

Enrique reaches for the burrito

They give out about 50 of these each day and they are made by those in their residential programs. That was quite a belly filler, but sure enough, when lunchtime came around, I was looking for something else.

CK Logo

My next stop was at my alma mater, the Community Kitchen, located within the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter. They say you can’t go home again, but that’s just popular wisdom. I say ‘go home’ because I was Executive Director of Foodbank Member Agency, Community Kitchen for six years before joining the Foodbank.

Your faithful and wooly-hatted scribe sharing lunch with Casa Esperanza staff members Imelda Loza and Jose Figueroa.

Your faithful and wooly-hatted scribe sharing lunch with Casa Esperanza staff members Imelda Loza and Jose Figueroa.

I was excited to see the improvements that have continued since I was in charge, and marveled at the dedication of staff like Imelda and Jose who are still working hard to help homeless people.

It’s all down to the food, and the Community Kitchen is able to access a lot of healthy produce and meat from the Foodbank. Yet, as I have discovered, unless the Chef is ‘in the zone’ you might as well be eating sludge.

That is why I was thrilled that they have engaged an enthusiastic young Executive Chef, Augusto Caudillo, who has seen service at the Bacara and Biltmore.

Augusto Caudillo

Augusto Caudillo

I had a good lunch – still served on a tray, which I always hated because it has that institutionalized feeling, but the costs of disposables or broken crockery are astronomical. The lunch featured barbecued chicken leg, a nice salad and a great fruit salad with julienned apples and blue berries.

Lunch at the Community Kitchen

Lunch at the Community Kitchen. Loved the fruit salad (top right) not so sure about the refried beans (bottom left). It must be being brought up in England.

The Community Kitchen is primarily designed to serve the residents of Casa Esperanza (about 200 in winter, under 100 rest of year), but also those in the community who need a lunch, who now need to get an id card to be served after the first day. The kitchen is staff both by those staying at the shelter and by a rotating volunteer core of servers, especially from the faith community. (All Saints By The Sea Episcopal Church are particularly staunch supporters, covering two days a week).

All Saints Volunteers serving the line

All Saints Volunteers serving the line

Like the Foodbank’s approach, in addition to literally serving those in need, food and meals also provide a key to engagement – for the Foodbank, around nutrition and health education that changes lives and strengthens families, and for Casa, around building trust and helping connect the homeless with opportunities to access jobs, housing and recovery.

What about dinner? I am lucky that I live about a fifteen minutes away from Santa Barbara Rescue Mission.

Rescue Mission

Rescue Mission

The Rescue Mission offers dinner to about 100 people each night (More toward the end of the month when people’s money runs out). Some are homeless people who also get a bed. Others are just hungry.

Rescue Mission decides to invest scarce funds in food rather than state-of-the-art client management software...

It looks like the Rescue Mission decided to invest scarce funds in food rather than state-of-the-art client management software…

I was lucky enough to be showed around by Rescue Mission Manager Jill Wallerstedt before I took my place in line.

Jill Wallerstedt in the chapel, which features a  service from a different denomination each night

Jill Wallerstedt in the chapel, which features a service from a different denomination each night

I had some chicken and rice, soup and salad and virtuously turned down the pastry that was offered me. All the food had originally come from the Foodbank, and it was great to see it being put to such pressing and valuable use.


So, I had managed to find three square meals, because I live within 15 minutes of SB’s two homeless shelters, and so I could supplement my diet. If I was on the Westside or in Goleta, I might be out of luck.

This is the safety net, and posing as a modestly scary-looking single man (would you start something with someone with a hat like that? He might go psych0) I was able to access these services. Do I want to bring my wife there and kids there? A much harder call. There were some kids at the Community Kitchen lunch but none at the Rescue Mission.

So, what better to finish off my day then with a night on the town. Or a night in my car on the town to be more precise. The current recession has seen more and more invisible homelessness with people living in their cars as a way of dealing with crippling financial problems.

It is illegal to sleep in your car in Santa Barbara, and so my only option to get some small experience of what this is like was to get in touch with the Safe Parking program, run by New Beginnings. I met with Nancy Kapp who runs the program, when she was down at the Foodbank getting food for the program.

Nancy Kapp (she actually took off her sunglasses for the shot)

Nancy Kapp (she actually took off her sunglasses for the shot)

They have over 100 designated parking spots spread throughout Santa Barbara, where you can park if you receive a permit from the Safe Parking Program. We have five outside the Foodbank on Hollister Ave. I can often remember working late at the warehouse and seeing the cars begin to pull up for the night, some a lot nicer than you imagine. The windows would be covered with shades in the hope that they would offer some privacy and keep some heat in.

I took my spot around 9pm and tried to get cozy. Most people come later than this, trying to find somewhere else to be before having to submit to dropping temperatures and being confined in a metal box for the night.

Yes, even grouchier than usual...

Yes, even grouchier than usual…

Santa Barbara is not Chicago, yet nevertheless it does feel pretty cold at night, and it is amazing just how quickly the temperature in a car begins to get near the outside temperature. I could have switched on the engine and let the heat blow for a while, but with the price of gas that would not be a smart option. Anyway, as soon as the engine is switched off the cold returns quickly. The leg nearest the door is the one that remains cold all night even though I have pajamas under my clothes and wear a coat and hat and scarf.

At first it is just like camping. A novelty. But then you begin to remember why you hate camping so much. I find it hard to get to sleep because of lights outside and I have no way of covering the window. Eventually I fall asleep, but the crick in my back from my reclined seat begins to build, no matter what position I wriggle into.

I begin to scan the horizon for any sign of daylight. Any sign that I will be able to start a new day and forget about this cold, miserable night. When it gets to 5am I drive off. I’m a member of a 24 gym, and an hour on the elliptical followed by a hot shower sounds like the best offer I’ve had in years.

Imagine doing that every night. Imagine it with a child. The adventure would wear off pretty quickly. The beauty of this program is helping to keep people safe, with what may be the last asset between them and the street -a safe place to park while New Beginnings provides services and case management to help them get back on track.

I’m now into the home stretch of my challenge. Stay tuned for my final report.

1177 – A Number to live by?

7 Feb
The mystery unravels...

The mystery unravels…

1177 is a heptagonal number.

1177 is the maximal number of regions into which 48 lines divide a plane.

1177 was the year in which the Peace Treaty of Venice was signed by Emperor Frederik I & Pope Alexander III.

1177 is also $11.77 which is the total amount of food stamp money I have left for the last full week of my challenge.


A lot of the support that the Foodbank and our 300 member nonprofit agencies in the county provide is to people who reach a similar kind of situation, typically later in the calendar month. Bills have been paid, money spent and there ain’t nuthin’ in the cupboard.

This is out of date, it's already over 300

This is out of date, it’s already over 300

I’m lucky, because I still have a good amount of food in the cupboard. Here is a photo of what will probably be the final significant food purchasing I will do. Someone play ‘Taps’ on a trumpet as a tear drops silently onto my depleted EBT card:

The Last Shop - An emotional moment

The Last Shop – An emotional moment

I went shopping for vegetables, rice cakes, yoghurt, fish, canned tuna. Straightforward stuff. No more licorice allsorts for me, sunny Jim.

I have still been getting by on preparing large quantities and freezing it. I made a particularly good pasta sauce with a ton of fresh vegetables pureed into it, including kale from the garden (the perfect way for us non-kale groupies to consume the nutritious little weed…)

Never in my life did I imagine I would be posting pictures of kale from my did I get here??

Never in my life did I imagine I would be posting pictures of kale from my garden…how did I get here?? Why did my life travel down a pathway like this?

It was a great way of me using up all the cauliflower and carrots and onions and other vegetables that I had received from distributions, but which were about to go off if I did not act. I have also benefitted from some great salad stuff from my garden:

You'd feel all dry and tired if someone kept you in a bag for days on end. Which is why the greens from my garden are bursting with color and freshness.

You’d feel all dry and tired if someone kept you in a bag for days on end. Which is why the greens from my garden are bursting with color and freshness.

Yet despite all the Rachel Ray moments, there has been a lot of monotony. Like the last of the Chili below:

No it's not an outtake from the 'Walking Dead,' that's my dinner!

No it’s not an outtake from the ‘Walking Dead,’ that’s my dinner!

At this point in my study, I thought it was time for an expert to weigh in with some comments on what I’ve been up to in my challenge. The Foodbank is lucky to have an experienced dietician, Serena Fuller PhD, RD (and doubtless enough other acronyms to fill up a twitter post) on our staff. Serena’s job is to be our Health Evaluation and Education Manager, and to help us keep our community healthy.

Serena Fuller

Serena Fuller

I have tried to be a good boy, and I remained hopeful that Serena would not rap my knuckles for nutritional misbehavior and so it largely proved. I have certainly made major improvements over the last six months in terms of what I am eating, how much exercise I am doing, as well as giving up drinking and trying to moderate my McConnells and black licorice and Cadbury’s Flake (a British chocolate bar) addictions.


Serena did encourage me to look at my fiber intake. Serena explained that Americans in general have poor fiber intake, with the average being 12 grams a day, when adult males need 30 grams and females 25g. I have been using a lot of different beans as a way of getting fiber, but have not been making use of oatmeal as I could. It can be cheap bought in bulk and used in baking or sprinkling half a cup in a sauce so that you never know it is there.


Our conversation mainly focused on the challenges that our client families face living on a small amount of money for food, year in, year out. A major danger is the monotonous diet I have sometimes grappled with in my month. Also the fact that people are drawn to prepared foods, which at the cheaper end have a high sodium content and poor nutritional makeup.

The way to get by is by being able to buy and cook and store in bulk. There are a number of barriers to doing this: having the skills and confidence, the time to cook, the place to cook, the utensils to cook with (large soup pot, slow cooker, blender etc) and then a place to store both ingredients and completed meals. These can be huge barriers with many clients living in a hotel or sharing a garage. There is simply nowhere to store or save things.

The Foodbank is focused on helping provide the skills and confidence to encourage families to take the steps to equip themselves to be able to look after themselves like this.

There are also good resources out there. Serena suggests checking out:

She also says that in any State the University Extensions are great resources for classes on cooking, nutrition and food preservation with a focus on the low-income client.
And of course there are those of us who need the Web MD to tell us what to do. So you could check out:

I am hoping I will be able to get through my last week, because I will also be accessing services for those who might be homeless or living in their car or otherwise without a kitchen.

If you want to see a grown man try and defrost chili with a car cigarette lighter, stay tuned for my report

Hungry in the Windy City

2 Feb
Beautiful and cold...

Beautiful and cold…

Chicago has to be one of the most vibrant and impressive cities in America. Lots of amazing buildings and culture and great restaurants…

Oh yeah, great restaurants, that won’t be of much relevance to a food stamp tourist like myself. I was in the city for three days for meetings of the National Advisory Council of Feeding America (the nationwide network of 202 food banks) which meets five times a year to help make a success of our food security efforts both on a local level (of getting as much food and support as possible in our direction) and on a national level (sourcing food, training and advocating to protect food stamps, federal commodities and the like). Also I wanted to check out the food stamp situation in a big city.

Leaders in the field of nutrition - and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

Leaders in the field of nutrition – and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

We had great discussions, working on issues like the contract that binds food banks together, issues of diversity, food sourcing and all manner of complex issues. Still, everyone had a delicious mexican lunch to keep their brain working…

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

That’s right, everyone except me. Despite the suggestions of some readers of this blog, I didn’t take advantage of all the free food that was offered to me, so as to make the Food Security Challenge more realistic. I had one free cooked dinner on Monday, because I had been flying and traveling all day and had virtually nothing to eat and was about to collapse. I got to Chicago late and couldn’t buy any food. I also took one free sandwich on one of the other days. Otherwise I existed on soup and sandwiches, like below:

Note the 'we accept EBT' sticker at 7-11

Note the ‘we accept EBT’ sticker at 7-11

Still, even the cheapest sandwich I could find, for $3.69 still blew my budget of figuring $2 per meal per day. I made it because I skipped breakfast. But being without the food I had amassed at home was a huge problem. I couldn’t buy a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to bring back on the plane, and so waste. So I had to sandwich it.

That is until my last day, when I visited the Marillac Center Food Pantry on Chicago’s West Side. I was interested in seeing how the level of services would compare from SB to Chicago.

Marillac Center on W Jackson

Marillac Center on W Jackson

The Marillac Center has been around for a hundred years providing services and a place to meet for the local community. The Food Pantry serves about 1200 families per month representing over 4100 individuals. It’s open 3 days per week for a couple of hours. Clients can only come once a month.

Whitney, the Program Director.

Whitney, the Program Director.

The good thing is that it has a waiting area where people can congregate until it is their turn to visit the pantry. In this area they will have blood pressure screenings and cooking demonstrations (though nothing was happening when I visited).The waiting area is great, because in Chicago in January, it SNOWS and everyone would freeze to death while they were waiting. Or maybe just wimpy west coasters like me would freeze. Anyway I was glad not to find out.


Take a number from Robert, a long-term volunteer

They let about 6 shoppers into the pantry area at one time.

The pantry didn't look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

The pantry didn’t look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

And there are volunteers to help with your shopping which is what is called client choice, which means that you can choose what you want from a selection of items.

Lauren - volunteer. Likes it because of the 'characters' she meets in her work.

Lauren – volunteer. Likes it because of the ‘characters’ she meets in her work.

The amount you can receive is also based on family size. The food is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository and includes pasta, beans, meat, vegetables, canned goods, bread and some dairy. As a single person I would be able to get enough food for maybe 4-5 days. My trouble was that in a strange town with no cooking facilities I wouldn’t be able to eat too much. (As in SB, I didn’t actually take the food, but bought an equivalent). So I was able to get some soup, which I heated up in my hotel room.

I would say that the level of services is broadly similar in Chicago – less fresh produce obviously, and more need for a lot of hot food to stop you freezing.

In my next post I’ll give people an update on where I am with my money and my meals.

It’s good to be back in sunny Santa Barbara!