Food Stamp Challenge, Day 7: On End Times
Hunger and stress don’t mix too well. The last three days have evidenced that. I spent Friday night packing my belongings in cardboard boxes and Rubbermade totes after a long week of eating on $5 per day, as per my food stamp challenge, to get ready for a Saturday/Sunday move of residency. I stayed in on Friday night, ate pasta with butter, got sort of full, and watched The Omega Man when packing got lame. I’d never seen it. I woke up Saturday without a hangover — I had not set aside money for alcohol throughout the week — packed some more, and brought five or so carloads of stuff to my new house. Throughout the process, I stayed hungry, and had very little with which to fulfill that hunger.
I’m basically moved into my new place (per a pact I made with myself on a moving day several years back, I hired Mambo Movers for the big stuff; they were extremely professional, courteous and fast). But after six full days of this diet, I’m more irritable, tired and am finding it harder to focus.
It’s my last day, and there is only peanut butter and bread left (the last of my coffee was gone this morning, my last banana was Saturday’s breakfast, cheese was lost in the move, my last pita and the rest of my tomato sauce was last night’s dinner). I’m planning my Tuesday night dinner as I write this: take-out from Ekta on Girard, and a few beers.
On Saturday, PW senior writer Tara Murtha sent me a link to a PostBourgie blog regarding Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker’s food stamp challenge. In it, blogger Gene Demby notes it’s hard to really see what life on food stamps is like, since “it’s important to remember that all of the caveats about this exercise really matter.” He lays out the large-scale ramifications of food stamps and poverty more fully than I possibly could after a mere week of eating cheaply:
It’s hard to look for work or pay attention in school when you’re malnourished. It’s hard to keep food refrigerated if you can’t pay your electric bill. It’s hard to keep your food your food if you live with other people who are hungry too and who maybe can’t be trusted.
We know now that poverty saps people’s abilities to do effective cost-benefit analysis in all types of decisions; poor people already have to make too many of those least-terrible-option decisions each day, which means they simply choose not to make some decisions at all. Booker is a Rhodes Scholar and the mayor of a major American city. It’s hard to overstate how much it matters that there was always a discrete end to this for him, that he waded into the tunnel with the light at its end clearly visible, and that there were constraints on the tolls it could exact on him. Poverty isn’t just economic. It’s existential.
That’s basically the end point to this, and perhaps the reason food stamp challenges are often labelled cheap stunts. To the point above, sure, I have remained hungry all week and, at times, a little light-headed. But for those who depend upon food stamps for real, that food budget is not at all a complete, self-contained manifestation of poverty. My house is not being foreclosed upon. I’m not trying to scrounge up cash to pay for electricity or gas. I have access to the Internet and a car. I spent cash throughout the week on movers, a trip to Target, a locksmith, gas and electricity. And I’m already looking forward to an awesome dinner when this ends.
On Wednesday, I know I will feel less malnourished and may have the energy to do some exercise, which — other than transporting myself to and from places by bicycle, which doesn’t really count — I have skipped for the last six days.
The fact that any of this is a thing I am mentioning means this experiment doesn’t even scratch the surface.