The Last Days of ‘Eating on Less than $5 a day’

by on May 15, 2017 · 2 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Dave Rice

The finish line is approaching – for the last week, my family has been participating in the San Diego Hunger Coalition’s CalFresh Challenge, winding down on Friday. It’s actually finishing a few hours early for me, as I’m sure to blow my meager $58.52 weekly budget (that’s what a family of three receiving a state food allotment gets to spend for four and two-thirds days of meals) and then some taking my wife and daughter out to celebrate our 10 year anniversary as a family on Friday night.

[Ed.: Here are the first two installments of Dave Rice’s journey, number 1 and number 2.]

“It’s such an effective program for feeding people. There’s no way that charities could take the place of SNAP assistance,” San Diego Hunger Coalition executive director Anahid Brakke told me before beginning the challenge. In previous articles in this series, I’ve highlighted both the need for, and common misperceptions related to, the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in our home state as CalFresh.

“One of the things we see when people don’t understand why we need a program like SNAP, they’re applying their own experiences from 20, 30, 50 years ago, when they were trying to become self-sufficient and make their way in the world,” Brakke adds. “Well, the world is very different, and opportunities present much fewer and further in between.”

This view presents itself in the facts, including a statistic that indicates three-quarters of CalFresh recipients in San Diego are gainfully employed, but still unable to make ends meet on their own.

Day Four

Breakfast – Dave $0 (we’re out of the bananas I’ve been eating, as I’ve given them up to Mackenzi as after-school snacks), Christina $1.39 (one mango, one cup of yogurt), Mackenzi $0 (public school hot meals, which I’m not counting as CalFresh recipients likely qualify for free school meals)

Lunch – $0 – I’m sharing last night’s leftover beans, rice, and chicken with Christina, Kenzi again is eating at the school cafeteria

Dinner – $8.38 – tuna sandwiches with oven-baked fries and steamed veggies, carrots and green beans (left over from Monday night’s dinner)

Samples of what Dave Rice’s family have been eating.

Again, today wasn’t too bad – I was absolutely ravenous after skipping breakfast and spending the morning in the field, doing some electrical work at a North Park apartment building my family manages. But last night’s leftovers were filling and, surprisingly, better reheated – this could have been the hunger talking, or my relief at avoiding any more processed turkey. My green (brown) beans were in pretty sad shape after a week in the fridge, though, and the carrots needed a heavy rinse/scrub to remove a bit of watery/slimy buildup that Chris won’t learn about until she reads this and Kenzi will hopefully never discover. Nothing a healthy dose of Tapatio (I put that shit on everything this week) doesn’t fix.

One more day to go…

Day Five

Breakfast – Dave $0 (yes, we have no bananas), Chris $1.39 (same mango and yogurt as all week), Kenzi $0 (same)

Lunch – Dave – 92 cents (ugh, turkey sandwich, and 1 serving of Triscuit crackers as the chips have run out), Chris – 92 cents (same as Dave), Kenzi $0

Dinner – $127.96 ($150 with tip)

I entered the final day of the challenge with $1.24 in reserve – but I’ve failed. Even before the big anniversary dinner, my playing fast and loose with the Hunger Coalition’s guidelines made coming up short all but certain.

“We want to encourage people, even if they don’t complete the challenge, to talk about it,” Hunger Coalition communications officer Liz Faris told me at the outset. “That helps raise awareness about how hard it is to live on a limited food budget. Even if they complete it, it’s great that someone can live for one day or five days, but it’s just as important to talk about why some people may not even be able to do that.”

So, that’s what I’ve been doing, what I’d set out to do all along – talking about it.

Many of us don’t feel comfortable talking about living on the edge. But more of us than one would suspect have done it, and not in a “let’s raise awareness and feel good about ourselves” manner, but in a way that’s much more real. When I was 18 and left home much to the consternation of my parents Jared Fogle, sandwich-pitchman-turned-child-porn-enthusiast, was just beginning to tout his “Subway diet.”

I joked that I had a Subway diet of my own that helped me shed 40 pounds – I pretty much lived off “sandwich artist” employee meals granted for shifts of five hours or more while the rest of my earnings went toward rent and other bills. In my late twenties, laid off from a junior executive position in banking but still carrying the financial obligations one would expect of a foolish young professional with a six-figure salary, Hamburger Helper helped my family get through two or three days of every week for more than a year.

Even today, years removed from these earlier incidences of actual borderline food insecurity, I still try to eat like I’m poor – credit cards carried us through the last downturn and we’re still paying for our misfortunes and poor judgment six years later, though slowly clawing our way out. That made it easy to plan out a week’s worth of cheap meals – most of the things I served my family this week are in fact household staples – though the actual penny-pinching involved in meal planning has been a revelation that will stay with me for at least the foreseeable future.

Back to my cheating during the challenge – Chris wanted a few sodas to drink during the week. $6 for a case would have put us over budget. Mackenzi, game as she was to help Dad with his experiment, got some free candy from friends, and was taken out to dinner by friends after lacrosse practice Wednesday night, stretching our leftovers to the point I was able to eat the next day. And again, if the challenge had included days where she wasn’t being fed at school, I’d have had to greatly scale back on the dinners I was able to provide.

I’ve been a mess as well. I let work pay for water all week (challenge rules: don’t accept freebies), I’ve drank several beers left in the fridge purchased with last week’s budget (don’t consume anything you already have on hand – I’m sure this especially means no alcohol), I haven’t adequately accounted for the oils, spices, and accoutrements that have made my food edible (attempts have been made to rectify this, but they’re likely inadequate); any of these would have pushed us past the spending threshold. I’m sure there are more transgressions.

I’ve also been lucky – I haven’t been called in to work late at all this week and had to rely on take-out, and the advantages I’ve got baked in – access to a car and a variety of relatively local grocery options have helped tremendously, as I visited three different stores to get the food I needed at a price I could afford.

So, that’s it – my week attempting (and failing) to live on a CalFresh budget. I applaud everyone else who’s taken the time and effort to bring much-needed awareness to the very serious issue of food insecurity that’s foisted upon literally hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, and I hope that my stories will do at least a tiny bit to create a brighter tomorrow.

As with every piece in this series, which I’m grateful to the OB Rag (where I was privileged to “pay my dues” in establishing a writing profile) for hosting, I’ll end with a shameless plea for donations, which I’m still willing to match 2-for-1 until the end of the campaign. Thanks for reading!


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie May 15, 2017 at 11:58 am

I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice the juxtaposition of the two articles – one scrimping on CalFresh and the other lunch that cost $42 for 3.


Frank Gormlie May 15, 2017 at 11:59 am

And no, that’s not of typo on Dave’s dinner costs for Day 5 – that’s the real bill for him and his partner’s 10th anniversary dinner. Congrats Dave and Christina. We also have a 10 year one coming up.


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