Raising awareness: Hunger in America
|September 16, 2011||Posted by ameliaps under Awareness, challenge|
Hunger is real, it’s here –in the U.S., one of the richest countries of the world, and it’s all around us. It affects 21 million kids in the U.S. More than 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. Striking isn’t it? This is not remote Africa. This is here in the land of plenty, everywhere (urban, suburban, and rural areas alike), and now.
I usually do not incorporate politics or heavy issues on my blog but this really is an important matter, especially because it affects so many children, and it is about food. Feeding America (a U.S. hunger-relief organization) states: “The problem of childhood hunger is not simply a moral issue. Child hunger hampers a young person’s ability to learn and becomes more likely to suffer from poverty as an adult.”
Sadly, 1 in 6 children, adults and seniors struggle with hunger every day (according to the WSJ “nationwide 14% of the population relied on food stamps but in some states the percentage was much higher”). That is a staggering number for a country –the U.S. – that seems to have it all. For most us, food is not a worry… we actually enjoy thinking about what’s next on the menu. But for many others, this struggle is daily and it is a health risk (when you are malnourished, you have a hard time fighting illness).
Hunger is humiliating. Hunger is debilitating. Hunger is a reality for way too many. Even in America.
This week, Sept. 11-17, I have been taking the SF Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge. The idea is to eat on only $4.72/day, the value of a food stamp in California. This exercise is a bit artificial –I am the first one to admit it – and I had my doubts about doing it: I even felt pretentious to try this by choice (the speculation of the privileged cannot ever come close to the reality of the poor)… BUT it has been extremely helpful because it raised my awareness ten-fold (and hopefully it will raise other’s awareness too). I have been reading and thinking about hunger. I spoke about it with my children, who seem to be deeply touched to know that other children might be hungry. I spoke about it with my husband and we discussed what we can do as a family. He is a scout master and has created a day for the young scouts in his pack (including my two boys) to help make sandwiches for a local food bank. And there’s more we can do.
Could I eat on a food stamp budget: just $4.72 per day (this includes all meals, snacks and drinks)? To see what it feels like I decided to take this challenge, as a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, even for just a week… and put my reality into perspective. I am already learning so much. Experiencing hunger for a short period of time –certainly to some mild degree, and entirely by choice – does not even come close to the constant struggle for food that goes on for so many. I am humbled and have regained a new sense of respect. I am also left with a few questions: Is a change in American diet, propensity, habit and attitude due? Is it possible to go back to the original way of eating food (before the advent of advertising and chain groceries)? Is it possible to shift the attention on education and training around eating habits and food shopping (teaching to fish rather than providing the fish)? Food stamps are fine to supplement but they are no way to feed the hungry.
If you would like a heartfelt perspective on the issue, read Brooke’s (from Food Woolf blog) Hungry in America post. She highlights that American childhood hunger is tough because people who are affected don’t always fit stereotypes and shame can be a hardening, humbling factor.
Here are a few things you can do to help alleviate hunger next door (a little goes a long way – please don’t let another child go to bed hungry tonight):
- Donate to the SF Food Bank and -because I live in Atlanta- to the Atlanta Community Food Bank
- Donate to Share Our Strength -an organization looking to eradicate childhood hunger in America- ($25 can help feed a child three meals a day for a month, $100 will give 25 full grocery bags of healthy food to a hungry family)
- Become a champion to end hunger (a USDA program)
- Volunteer with Cooking Matters – courses to teach less fortunate families how to cook and eat better
- Raise awareness: take a hunger challenge (like the SF Food Bank Hunger Challenge I am taking), talk/write/blog about hunger.
- Visit ShoppingMatters.org – a guided grocery store tour that helps families make healthy and affordable shopping choices
- Take a look at this Witness to Hunger project, in which 40 mothers share their real life experience of hunger
- Start a coin bank in your house to help your kids save money for other children in need.
- Check if your company has a matching program for hunger relief charities and organizations
- Start an annual tradition within your organization (company, school, scout troop, etc.) to volunteer as a group at a food bank (or similar hunger relief place) or run a food drive
- Raise money for a family in need on the crowd sourcing – a social media fund-raising site, Crowdrise.
- Donate your time (not only food) to a local shelter or soup kitchen. In Atlanta visit City of Refuge.
- Bring food or donate money to your local food bank. Find a list on Feeding America
- Sponsor a family in need or just simply make a care package for a person in need. Check with your local faith and community-based organization (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.)
- Read about hunger: it will make you thankful for what you do have. US Hunger facts, World Hunger facts, The state of food insecurity in the World.
- Watch this ABC video: Hunger in America: how to help
- Read blog posts by the people who are taking the Hunger challenge. Here is a blogroll. Also, follow #HungerChallenge on twitter
- Create your own call-to-action item… there’s no lack of ways to help.
In order to make things more manageable for this challenge I needed to do some planning. I run the numbers: $4.72 per person, per day, for my family of four means a $132.16 per week (and that includes everything: you have to factor in food & drinks, as well as pantry items and spices you might already have on hand. Only salt, pepper and water are considered “free”). I decided I was going to stick to my heritage and make it an all-Italian menu, the way Italians would do it, without thinking about it twice. After all, we Italians have survived for centuries with limited access to ingredients. My father used to tell me many stories of hunger during WWII. He even wrote a book: “L’Immaginario e’ servito” (Imagination is served), in which he recounts inventive solutions to food scarcity: like a seafood soup with “escaped” fish, made with seaweeds, salt water and sea stone as the main flavor enhancers; and like a coffee substitute made with toasted chicory. Those years are only a generation away from me.
So, after all those thoughts of this exercise being somewhat futile, I still decided to post below my menu for the week (scroll all the way down for my shopping list*) because I thought it provides a good look inside how a real Italian household would approach a week of food (much differently that an American one):
Legend: B=Breakfast (Colazione) / L = Lunch (Pranzo) / S = Snack (Merenda) / D = Dinner (Cena)
Day #1 (Sunday) – B = “pane e marmellata” (Bread and jam) + Latte e caffe’ (milk and coffee) / L = Spaghetti alla carbonara with eggs and pancetta (make extra for Monday’s left-over lunch) / S = plums / D = Pizza night (store-bought dough – but you can make your own for cheaper, if you wish- , tomato, mozzarella) + gelato affogato (ice-cream “drowned” in coffee)
Day #2 (Monday) – B = Lemon-olive-oil cake + orange juice / L = 5-egg frittata with left-over spaghetti / S = pinzimonio (veggie sticks to dip in oil) / D = pasta e fagioli (Italian bean soup – make extra for Tuesday’s lunch) with crusty bread + a peach
Day #3 (Tuesday) – B = Lemon-olive-oil cake + orange juice / L = left-over pasta e fagioli soup / S = grapes + apples / D = Fettuccine alla Bolognese + steamed green beans with vinaigrette
Day #4 (Wednesday) – B = “Uovo al tegamino” (sunny side up egg) with toast + milk / L= “Fave e cicoria” with toasted croutons (this is a poor but satisfying Italian dish made with pureed dried beans and greens sautéed in olive oil – make it ahead the night before: you can use canned cannellini) / S = peach + boiled egg / D = bruschetta + Risotto (made with medium-grain rice) with shrimp + crema (Italian custard – make more for Thursday’s snack) with berries
Day #5 (Thursday) – B = biscotti Maria (thin, buttery cookies) with Latte e caffe’ (milk and coffee) / L = pressed panino with cheese and roasted red peppers (you can find these jarred) / S = crema / D = lentil soup with kale (you may substitute spinach, if you prefer) topped with a poached egg
Day #6 (Friday) – B = “pane e marmellata” (Bread and jam) + orange juice / L= Penne with cauliflower, anchovies, and toasted breadcrumbs (this is a quick one to prepare ahead in the morning, if needed) / S = grapes / D = Chicken Marsala (I have the whole chicken separated in pieces and use the breasts pounded very thinly for this dish, save the thighs and legs for roasting, and the cage / wings / skin / etc. to make stock another time) + sautéed mushrooms (you can substitute mashed potatoes here) + salad
Day #7 (Saturday – week-end meal) – B = jam “crostata” (my usual version has chocolate in it, but you can omit…) + milk / L= Flounder “alla mugnaia” (flour, butter and lemon) / S = more crostata (hey, it’s the week-end!) / D = slow roasted chicken (use the pieces left over from cutting up the whole chicken yesterday) with potatoes, onions, parsley + wine (you don’t have to be fancy here)
A few observations (in random order)
- Being Italian, I grew up with a spirit of frugality and food was never wasted. I learned many different ways to “stretch” ingredients (e.g. making meatballs with a 50-50 ratio of ground meat to bread: oh, and they taste even better, BTW), re-use bits and pieces, cook every part of an animal, lean on greens and vegetables to fill you up fast (and make you healthy), and preserve what nature offers during bounty for times of scarcity.
- One of my favorite Italian sayings is: “colazione da re, pranzo da principe, cena da povero”, which means “have breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”.
- Another great Italian saying has the English counterpart: “una mela al giorno toglie il medico di torno” and translates to “an apple a day keep the doctor away”… and should I say fills you up in the afternoon when you need a snack! I apply this saying to any fruit.
- In Italy we typically never have anything to drink other than water, milk, coffee or wine. No soft drinks, no sodas, no power drinks. This cuts on sugars and cost. At most, a fresh squeezed orange juice in the morning.
- Growing up in Italy, I learned to stay local and in season, which makes for more delicious, more nutritious, and more reasonably priced produce (tomatoes in December –flown in from who knows where- cost a lot more than in July, when they are at the peak of their production next door).
- We never ate processed foods, which are so unhealthy. And that is also why I typically do not clip coupons (they are mostly for processed foods).
- Michael Pollan has the right idea: ”eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. If you stick with his motto, your challenge is half the way done. He means eat “real” food (not processed), not too much (eating lighter is healthier… it’s scary to think that the Western world is generally over-fed and obesity and diabetes rates are climbing, even in children), and finally “mostly plants” (which means focusing on vegetables and eating meats on occasion, not every day).
A few tips
- Do plan your menu ahead of time: a little effort upfront will save you tons of money and time (not to mention avoid waste and on-a-whim-impulses)
- Shop staples in bulk, especially when there is a sale (freeze if need be)
- Sometimes the frozen vegetable section with have 1 for $10, or even less. Take advantage. Frozen vegetables are as good as fresh ones. Peas, spinach, green beans.
- Stay Mediterranean: it is one of the healthiest (it’s medically proven!), most ancient and more affordable diets
- Prioritize a few ingredients that you want to be healthier: I don’t skimp on milk, eggs and chicken (I like mine to be hormone free and organic) and I like my flour to be unbleached
- Try to preserve your own foods (jams are a great way to store the season’s fruit for the winter and enjoy a delicious breakfast)
- Try to cook from scratch (it is cheaper and healthier, albeit a little more time consuming: but does not have to be if you know some tricks)
- Drink lots of water between meals (it will keep you full and it is one of the healthiest things you can do)
- Make greens, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), and pasta (or rice) your focus
- Spread (throughout the week) and stretch (allow to make more than one meal or make one meal bigger) your proteins
- If you can, buy your staples and non-perishable all at once and then head to the grocery for fresh items a couple of times during the week so you can get the freshest
- Keep this items in your pantry for quick, affordable meals: pasta, rice, anchovies, olives, breadcrumbs, capers, tomato sauce / whole / paste, dried beans, lentils, roasted bell peppers, tuna (in oil: best flavor), jam
- Keep these items in your refrigerator: carrots-celery-onions (you can dice these three ahead of time over the week-end to save up time: you will be using them as the base of many dishes)
*My shopping list for the week (total cost: $126.92)
The total ended up being really, really close to the amount set aside, with just barely a small margin for taxes. I realized that this type of shopping takes a lot of practice and definitively requires planning (which is possibly something that the “food insecure” may not have the luxury for…). The experience really helped me put things into perspective and appreciate my freedoms. I feel very lucky that I do not have to go through this struggle weekly. However, even working with a very tight budget, all in all I stuck with a healthy, Mediterranean, mostly non-processed diet, and even managed to sneak a few organic items. But then again this is one week…I can’t imagine doing this every week.
(Note: my list does not include any coupons nor loyalty card discounts.)
Produce: 3 lemons (for the lemon cake, the flounder and the green beans vinaigrette) = $1, 1 cauliflower head = $3.99, 1 package mushrooms = $1.98, 4 onions (for the carbonara, bolognese, bean soup, lentil soup, and risotto) = $1.23, 1 big pack carrots = $1.49, 1 big pack celery = $1.99, 1 lbs green beans = $1.99, 1 bunch kale (for the lentil soup) = $0.77, 1 red bell pepper (for snacks) = $2, 1 bag potatoes = $2.49, 2 lbs plums = $2.56, 2 lbs peaches = $2.87, 2 lbs grapes: $3.98, 1 bunch Italian parsley (for the shrimp risotto, for roasted chicken) = $0.33, 1 bag greens (for the “fave e cicoria”) = $1.78, 1 head of garlic = $0.49
Dairy & fridge: 1 gallon of milk = $2.79 (for breakfast, for the crema and for the Bolognese), 2 packages shredded mozzarella $5.98, 24 eggs (for the frittata, to poach for the lentils, for sunny-side-up, for the lemon cake, for the crostata, for the crema) = $5.18, 1 box vanilla ice-cream (for the affogato, and for whenever you have a sweet craving) = $2.75, 1 carton orange juice = $2.69, 1 pack of butter (you will not use of it all this week, just some for bread and butter if you wish, to make the crostata, for the risotto, and for the fried eggs) = $2.50
Pantry: 1 bottle olive oil = $7.09, 1 bottle red wine vinegar = $2.47, Chicken bouillon cubes (for the risotto, and if you wish to add to the soups) = $0.98, 1 bottle of wine (for Saturday night and some to make the Bolognese) = $5.99, 1 bottle of cooking Marsala or Sherry (for the chicken Marsala) = $2.83, 1 can baking powder = $1.99, 1 can anchovies = $1.29, 1 can of coffee = $4, 1 box cookies (Maria or biscotti) = $1.99, 1 lbs. lentils = $0.99, 1 lbs fried white beans = $1.61, 1 small can tomato paste = $0.99, 1 regular can tomato sauce (for pizza night) = $1, 1 can cannellini (or white kidney) beans (for the “fave e cicoria”) = $0.99, 2 jars of jam (1 for breakfast and one for the crostata) = $6.18, 1 jar roasted bell peppers (for the pressed Panini) = $0.99
Carbohydrates: 5 lbs. flour = $2.39, 5 lbs. sugar = $2.28, 1 lbs fresh pizza dough from the bread section (for pizza night) = $1.99, 4 lbs. pasta (spaghetti, ditalini, fettuccine, penne) = $5, 1 lbs. medium grain rice (for the risotto) = $0.79, 2 loaves of bread (1 sliced, 1 whole > use the ends to make breadcrumbs which you will use for the cauliflower pasta) = $5. 98
Fresh protein: 1 whole roasting chicken (have the meat section cut it in pieces for you, they will do it if you just ask!) = $5.36, 1 lbs. ground beef = $3.69, ½ lbs. shrimp (for the risotto) = $3.99, 4 thick slices of “pancetta” or bacon (for the pasta carbonara and for the Bolognese) = $2.53, 1 ½ lbs flounder (or tilapia or other white fillet fish) = $5.99