The Hunger Challenge: Not Going Anywhere, Not Eating That

So, I cooked up this idea, and it suddenly dawned on me that I’d be a total weasel if I didn’t do it, too. I’m talking about the San Francisco Food Bank Hunger Challenge, wherein I convinced some of the Bay Area’s best food bloggers to eat for just $1 a meal. Why? To shine a light on the thousands of people who are forced to live on that meager sum – day in, day out. The $1 figure is significant, because that’s the average amount a family receiving food stamps gets per person, per meal. Think about it: only $21 a week for all your food. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I started fretting last Wednesday, when I pounced on the two grocery store inserts that came in our newspaper. I studied them like I was prepping for a final exam, instead of just glancing to see if perhaps there was a killer deal on wild salmon. I even dug through the recycling to rescue those same two ad sections after my husband gave them a toss. As I lectured him about keeping his mitts off my food ads, I realized it was going to be a stressful few days. Poor me. There are people who can’t even afford the price of a newspaper to scope out food deals. Normally, I shop for produce at a farmers market and hit Trader Joe’s for the rest – but this weekend my schedule didn’t allow me to go to any of the three farmers markets held in San Francisco. So on Saturday evening, after making a sketchy shopping list, I set out to buy my week’s rations, clutching my precious advertising sections. I started at Safeway, the area’s major grocery chain. A greeter welcomed me and right off I saw the Bartlett pears for $.49 a pound, which I’d already noted in the store’s ad. I weighed out seven for about $1.50. “A pear every day! This isn’t going to be so bad,” I thought. Surfing my bargain-pear high, I grabbed a bunch of asparagus, on sale for $1.79, and headed for the mushroom section. If I spent $10, I could use a coupon to get a pack of fresh mushrooms for just $.69. But, oh, no! The shelf where the $.69 mushrooms were supposed to be was empty. That agitated me. I was counting on those bonus cheapie mushrooms! I found a produce guy and demanded my fungus. He scuttled off, while I stared at the oodles of $2 mushroom packages and pondered whether there were any more “coupon” mushrooms left in the back room. Fortunately there were – but the guy was surprised when I only took one of the “limit two” cartons he held out to me. I probably should have taken them both, but I was being conservative. Onward to meat. The 7-bone chuck pot roasts were advertised at $1.89 a pound. When I finally found them in the case, they were huge – and ribboned with thick fat, in addition to being studded with bones – not to mention being stickered with price tags in the $10 range. I desperately scanned the section, looking only at the price per pound on the packages, not even paying much attention to what was inside. Then I spied some well-trimmed beef stew meat that was close to its sell-by date, tagged with a 30% off sticker. At the sale price of about $2.80 a pound, I decided it was the best I would do. Oatmeal. I like the stuff, it’s a whole grain – and it was on special as “buy one, get one free.” I would rather have had just one for half price, but I put two cartons in my basket. Yes, you can save a lot by buying large “family” packages or stocking up on multiples – unless, of course, you don’t have the investment capital. Should I have corralled one of the other food bloggers to be my shopping buddy? Could we have agreed on what to purchase and share? Too late for my mini-buying club idea, and logistically probably not so easy, either. Pasta. A pack of whole grain spaghetti was on sale for $1.49. Sweet! I’d make some quick pasta sauce, using the $.25 per can tomato sauce I was going to buy at my next stop. Then I got nervous about the asparagus. Was it too extravagant? I wanted milk and eggs, too, but those items seemed so pricey (I could buy one 18-count carton of eggs for $5.99 and get a second for free – a decent price per dozen, but no way did I want to be out six bucks and stuck with 36 eggs!). I put the asparagus back, and poked through my basket, adding up the price of everything. I was $.26 short of the $10 total I needed to use the mushroom coupon. What to do? I wanted those mushrooms. They had become some odd, obsessive symbol of luxury and I was GOING TO HAVE THEM. I grabbed a can of diced tomatoes with basil, on sale for a dollar. Checkout. I watched every item ring up, and then mentally validated each discount as it deducted. Wait. There was something wrong. The mushrooms rang up as $2.99 and $1.30 was subtracted. They were overcharging me a dollar for the damn mushrooms! I pointed out the error to the checker, who did the math and then handed me a dollar bill from the cash register. Wahoo! A dollar! I felt like I’d won the lottery. Then I wondered if somebody with a couple of kids might have been distracted and not even noticed the error until it was too late. Or how about people who lack the language confidence to challenge a checker? I had spent $11.29 – and according to Safeway’s calculations, I’d just saved $13.43 off the regular prices by buying only sale items. Without the discounts, I’d have already blown my $21 budget. Onward to Foods Co, a place I’d never shopped before. On the way, as I drove past clutches of stores in the Mission District with produce displays on the street, I scanned the prices. Yes, if I had time to wander up and down, perhaps I’d get some produce deals – but not with my schedule this week. Foods Co was grim. Cracked concrete floors, bare-bones displays. A marked contrast to the bright, shiny Safeway experience. This is the sort of place where people who are really on food stamps might shop. I was here for the $.97 a pound chicken breasts, and grabbed one of the last two Foster Farms packs in the case. It was $4.20, and I took it, wondering if I would be cheating to use only half and apply just $2.10 towards my $21 maximum. I postponed my moral dilemma by telling myself I could convince my husband to join in the Hunger Challenge when he returned from his business trip later in the week. That would give me a cash infusion of – gosh – a whole $9 over three days! And a big, hungry guy to feed. Carrots, $.69/pound. Broccoli crowns, $.98/pound. Milk, $2.08/quart. Eggs, $2.18/dozen. Four cans of tomato sauce. Tomaot paste, $.78. I paused to consider the packs of ramen, 10 for $1. Nope. I’ve forsaken organic for the week. These eggs are no doubt from chickens that were caged and fed god-knows-what. I am not stooping to eat the list of scary artificial stuff in these puffy little ramen packs. I’d rather gobble oatmeal for lunch. So, here I am, stocked up for the week. I’m so intimate with everything I bought and what it cost that I have each item memorized, along with what I paid. I didn’t have to look at my register receipts once to write this. I’m going to “sell” myself a tiny jar of instant espresso, an onion and a head of garlic that I had on hand. I’ll hope I’m not bending the rules too much by costing out small amounts of flour and oil that I plan on using. I seemed oddly obsessed with protein when I was shopping. I don’t know if that’s because meat was the most expensive line-item, or if I was worried about going hungry. I’m light on vegetables, and those trophy mushrooms have all the nutritional value of a wad of wet paper. The funny thing is, I love vegetables. I’ve been gorging on heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, chard and stone fruits this past month. What am I doing with this alien batch of groceries??? It starts Monday. I figure I can survive anything for a week. Too bad the real folks on food stamps don’t have that organic-heirloom-grass-fed-didn’t-notice-the-price-‘cause-I’m-worth-it light at the end of the tunnel. GET INVOLVED! ♥ Learn about the San Francisco Food Bank ♥ Join the Hunger ChallengeDonate and receive a special thank you gift! 1. Click on donate to go to the donation page. 2. Fill out the necessary info and make a donation of $50 or more. 3. About 2/3 of the way down the form, look for a header that says, “Food Drive/Event Information (not required)” 4. Use the drop-down box to select “Bloggers Hunger Challenge,” so we’ll know you are participating. 5. Be one of the first 12 people to donate $50 or more and you’ll receive a brand new free cookbook as a thank-you.

2 Responses to The Hunger Challenge: Not Going Anywhere, Not Eating That

  1. Genie September 24, 2008 at 7:44 am #

    A buying club…that is a great idea! That didn’t even occur to me, and probably would have made the whole shopping process much, much less stressful. I’m so impressed that you asked the check-out guy for the mushrooms — it’s the kind of thing I would have quivered over and then, well, not done. I was obsessed about protein, too, but managed not to get any meat — I am so jealous of those of you who found some that fit within the budget!

  2. Gayle September 24, 2008 at 3:20 pm #

    I was a woman obsessed! And talk about a nerve-wracking shopping trip, I had to hit $10 to get the deal on the ‘shrooms, but everything I bought had to count.

    I’m actually wishing I had more veggies. Broccoli and carrots are getting pretty tiring.

    Everybody’s insights have been hugely helpful, and I’m sharing them all with the Food Bank.

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