Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hunger Challenge -- Not Quite a Wrap Up

I'm still not quite finished with my Hunger Challenge posts but I thought I would start to try to wrap up and bring some closure. Yet to come is a post with recipe about the uses of cottage cheese (which the organizer of the challenge asked we tackle since so often cottage cheese is available to San Francisco Food Bank clients) and perhaps some more cabbage recipes (ditto).

Also, Gayle Keck, the Hunger Challenge participant and SFFB organizer of the event), is holding an information sharing meeting with the challenge bloggers and food bank staff, and I'm likely to report back on that.

I'll be sharing some of my experiences and some of my conclusions about the experience. I'll also be including the thoughts of those who left comments on the various Hunger Challenge posts. If you would like to make sure the San Francisco Food Bank gets your thoughts about the challenge, about what's needed locally to help combat hunger or to help food bank clients, please leave a comment on this post (or email me through my profile) and I'll be sure to pass your thoughts along.

If you would like to volunteer at or donate to the SFFB or your local food bank, you can find info here. If you would like to see what else I've written about my experience -- including menus, recipes, shopping lists, etc., please click here.

The key to the Hunger Challenge was to eat for a week and/or create menus and recipes for a week as if all you had to eat was what a food stamp recipient had: $1 a meal a person. I planned and cooked meals for a family of 4 so I had $84 available to me. I spent $83.98.

Here are my concerns and suggestions/ideas based on my experience.


What worked well for me was planning a menu based on what I saw in the stores and advertised and even online at a supermarket chain that delivered. That really helped me know my prices and choices. Would a food stamp client have access to this info? Well, I used for research and that is certainly available if someone has internet access, but that is hardly a given. Libraries do have free internet access, but I don't know if that is doable for most.

Since I cook, plan menus, create recipes and sometimes cater, I have a good sense of quantities and amounts and the like. Someone without that experience may have had a harder time putting together a menu and being so flexible with choices and using up leftovers. It was also time consuming since I was continually reworking it and it was mentally tiring.

I ended up shopping in three or four types of store to get the best deals. I don't know if others have the time or means to do this.

While I wanted to keep meals healthy, I also wanted to make them filling. I found there was a huge trade off between quantity and other concerns. I could not afford as much fresh fruit, whole grains and other such items as I liked. I tried to make my week's recipes varied and remake familiar foods to make them appealing to a family's tastes and interest. Since I tried to focus on avoiding pre-prepared foods and overly packaged foods, I did save money (and sodium, sugar, chemicals, etc.) there, but even with my menu planning calling for cooking once and eating the results for two or three meals, I really don't know if most food bank clients have time, expertise or equipment to do so. (On a another Hunger Challenge site, one commenter pointed out about the expense of plastic storage containers, for example.) Accordingly, my recipes were designed for kitchen with two stove top burners, a microwave, and four pots and pans -- a large and small fry pan and a sauce pan and a large pot big enough to boil spaghetti.


Explore ways to reach and educate food bank end-use clients since usually it's the agencies that serve those folks who deal with the food banks directly. Ideas include flyers in weekly grocery boxes with education, preparation and other tips, materials to go to schools to go home with children receiving free or reduced costs breakfasts and lunches, outreach through the agencies as well as outreach through cultural, religious and other associations and groups that would come in contact with end use client. Ultimately I like to see workshops offered on cooking skills, recipe alternatives, menu making, nutrition and even political activism.

Perform a cooking skills and cooking equipment survey with end-use clients (I have a number of thoughts on ways to do this). Based on this survey, reach out to retailers and manufacturers and create programs to decrease the reliance on less-than-healthy food options. I'd love to be able to have a program to provide basic cooking equipment to those who need it at no charge. To be honest, I'm not sure how many folks have access to a real kitchen at all. Just like groups sponsor community gardens, I'd love to see community kitchens with a paid staff (jobs could go to participants) to clean up and manage them. In my Utopian ideal, recipes and basics (such as flour, oil and spices) would be available and participants could come in a cook up a big batch of chili or soup or whatever and then package it up in (free) reusable containers they can take home and put in their fridges for healthy, low-cost meals during the week.

Make food shopping easier and "level out the playing field." -- Some ideas -- increase internet access to online resources, distribute info on weekly specials (supplied by supermarkets ahead of time, highlights of which to be put in weekly outreach flyers mentioned above), taxi vouchers to enable larger or farther afield shopping trips, agency-centered van shopping trips). I'm not sure if food stamps are accepted at farmers' markets so I don't know how to work that in, but if it could that would be a good addition. I know of at least one Whole Foods that has a tour of its store focused on "budget" cooking. Perhaps similar tours could be developed for other, more mainstream and/or accessible markets.

Develop a system for the clients themselves to share information, challenges and successes. In the end, I lived the Hunger Challenge for just a week. These are the people that must do it day in and day out. What works for them, what doesn't. What would they like to learn or have access to? How would they like to be communicated to? What would they like to say to others also facing the same challenges and to those of us who want to help? In the end, they are the experts. I am humbled by their hard-won expertise and their daily experience on the frontlines of hunger.

About the photo: Boxes waiting to be filled with food donations for clients of the Alameda Food Bank. You can read about my experience here.

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