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The Hunger Challenge Experience

My Hunger Challenge Story

Written by: Blain Johnson
Media Relations Manager for San Francisco and Marin Food Banks
Participant in the 2013 Hunger Challenge

Day One
Day Two
ay Three
ay Four
ay Five

Other 2013 Hunger Challenge Experiences

Renee Frojo, Reporter for the San Francisco Business Times
Ryan Pollnow, chef de cuisine for Central Kitchen
Anna Roth, Food Editor, SF Weekly

Today was the start of the Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge, a 5-day advocacy campaign that asks participants to live on food pantry groceries and a $4.50 a day, per person food stamp budget. What struck me most today was the number of people, both general participants and “people of influence,” who were willing to participate in this social experiment.

It’s one thing to give your money, or even your time, to a cause that you believe in. But it’s another to devote 15 meals to increasing your own awareness of hunger issues. So far we have about 50 VIP participants (chefs, elected officials, major donors) and 75 general participants from all walks of life. Though sometimes it feels like people are more interested about the next restaurant opening than about social issues surrounding food – the turnout to our pantry event this morning shows me definitively otherwise.

Last night I stopped by Safeway to do my grocery shopping for the week. I knew ahead of time what foods we would receive from the simulated food pantry, so I planned around those. With a $22.50 budget for five days, I quickly realized I couldn’t even afford canned tuna. Meat was out of the question. For protein, I settled on a half dozen eggs and a small container of cottage cheese that I could mix with the fruit from the Food Bank. I rounded that out with a loaf of bread, peanut butter, strawberry preserves, ramen, pasta, pasta sauce and oatmeal. A chef, I am not.  

I was struck by how strong my preferences were, despite my being on a strict budget. Not having a lot of money to spend on groceries didn’t suddenly make me like grape jelly, even though it was on sale. It didn’t make me forget that the reduced fat version of peanut butter was filled in with additional sugar – even though it was 50 cents cheaper than the full fat version next to it. I imagine this awareness is multiplied when trying to feed a family of picky eaters – just because something is on sale doesn’t mean it’s good for you or that your kids will eat it.

There are so many factors that go into what we decide to eat on a daily basis – taste, convenience, familiarity, nutrition. Price, for me, was relevant, but it didnt lead my decision making process. Now, it’s at the top of the list.

Stay tuned for daily posts about how the Hunger Challenge is generating awareness that one in four people living in San Francisco and Marin are at risk of hunger. Also, check back for updates on what the Food Bank staff and I are eating as we walk a mile in our food pantry participants’ shoes.

Yesterday was the first day of the Hunger Challenge and I already feel the effects. It was a busy day for me as we rolled out the Hunger Challenge. I attended a mock food pantry at the San Francisco warehouse, a similar event at our Marin location and a media op after that.

I received some amazing groceries from the simulated food pantry we created for the Challenge, but I didn't have time to prepare the groceries because I was too busy working. I didn't have money to buy lunch out because I was on a SNAP budget. I ate lunch on the way to the Marin event, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the passenger seat of my coworker's car.

At first it tasted pretty good, like childhood in a sandwich, but by the time I was halfway through, all I could taste – and feel – was the overwhelming sweetness of the strawberry preserves. I felt sure that the bread was quickly turning to sugar in my bloodstream, too. My rudimentary understanding of nutrition tells me that eating sugary things isn't a great idea when you're hungry. From a non-scientific standpoint, eating PB&J made me feel headachy and tired. 

“Bootstraps” and Other Myths
There's this whole narrative in our society about "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" – that if you just will yourself to be successful, and try hard enough – you can climb out of poverty and into the middle class. I've never quite believed that was the whole story – and participating in this Challenge is confirming for me that hunger and poor nutrition make planning for the next day even harder. 

How is a person supposed to strive for a better future when their available nutrition barely allows them to make it through the day? What part of carbs, carbs and more carbs (the cheapest available calories) gives a person's brain and body the energy it needs to seek out a better paying job or additional training? 

You need certain tools and opportunities in order to circumvent difficult life circumstances, and among those tools is good nutrition.

Yesterday I got a little riled up about the injustice in the world (I may have been a bit “hangry,” which is what happens when your hunger makes you angry), so today I’d like to shine the spotlight on something fun and interesting – what the Food Bank Hunger Challengers are making for lunch in the Food Bank staff kitchen! About 20 Food Bank staff from the Programs, Development and Advocacy departments are personally living the Hunger Challenge this week.

Our executive director Paul Ash and the Food Bank board are participating, too. What a passionate group of people!

Below are some shots of what we ate on Wednesday, the halfway point for the Challenge. Our groceries are a mix of those provided by a simulated Food Bank pantry – onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, strawberries, plums, cantaloupe, watermelon, pears, eggs and rice – and groceries that staff bought with their $4.50 daily SNAP allocation.

Whenever I chat with our pantry clients, they tell me about the delicious and creative meals they make with the food from the Food Bank. Turns out our staff are pretty good cooks, too. Check out my “eggs in a basket” (second row to the right). I’m branching out from PB&J.


The main reason we started the Hunger Challenge was to raise awareness of hunger issues in our community. One of the ways that goal has been realized is though all of the great media surrounding the challenge. Hunger Challenge participants have been lending their voices to the conversation around hunger and talking about how their own experiences have made them more conscious of the hardships faced by low-income households in San Francisco and Marin.

To that end, Thursday night I participated in a live studio interview with Upside, a news show that airs on SF Comcast Channel 104 to an audience of 2 million viewers in the Bay Area. The questions asked by Upside reporter Karli Mullane really got to the heart of the Challenge and shined a great big spotlight on the fact that 1 in 4 residents in our communities are at risk of hunger every day. Thanks, Karli!

Before I started the Hunger Challenge, I considered myself reasonably knowledgeable about hunger issues and food insecurity. But now that I’ve lived this Challenge for five days, a lot of the things I knew in theory have sunk in through experience.

Take what we call the twin problems of poverty and obesity. I generally understood that obesity accompanies poverty because a salad is more expensive than a Big Mac, because food deserts exist in low-income neighborhoods. But it hadn’t occurred to me that when you’re hungry and time-starved and cash-strapped, that $1 double cheeseburger from McDonalds feels like a godsend. That point really hit home when I ate that cheeseburger this week, and then bought a $1 chicken sandwich to eat for breakfast the next morning.

Appreciating the food pantry
It also hadn’t occurred to me the depth of what it meant when our food pantry participants told me things like “I don’t know what I would do without the food from the Food Bank.” It warmed my heart to hear those words, but sometimes I wondered if they were overstating the impact because I was a Food Bank employee. I now know that they weren’t.

If this Challenge were my daily life, rather than a 5-day food justice experiment, my world would revolve around the once-a-week groceries from the Food Bank. I would wake up at 6 am and stand in line in the rain for those groceries. They likely would be my only source of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Cutting SNAP = bad economy
It's easy to think that hunger in the U.S. has been solved because people here aren’t dying of malnutrition or starvation. But that doesn't mean our neighbors aren't eating so poorly that it's affecting their health and their prospects.

Our country's leaders worry about our economy and yet many in Congress want to cut SNAP by $40 billion. Aside from the multiplied effect that giving people money for groceries has on the local economy, some in Congress seem not to realize that providing people with healthy food enables them to work harder at their jobs, come up with innovative ideas, stay out of the emergency room (indigent care costs due to diabetic emergencies, heart attacks, high cholesterol), and have the energy to create better lives for themselves and their families.

I think it’s time that we all took a closer look at the collective effect of nutrition on the health and forward progress of our society. If everyone in Congress spent a week on the Hunger Challenge, I hope SNAP might be one of the last places they looked for budget cutting.