The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
The mayor of Newark, N.J., is putting his money where his mouth is. Or rather, he’s putting less money in his mouth. (Okay, fine – it’s not a perfect analogy, but hey, I haven’t been getting my greens.) Last week Cory Booker, who took office in 2006, spent a week eating on $4 a day – the average amount received by an American on food stamps. The goal was to raise awareness of the predicament faced by the 47.7 million Americans who are on food stamps. In Canada we have a different system, but given that food-bank use is at an all-time high, the issues are the same.
Meanwhile, the gainfully employed are spending increasingly exorbitant amounts on self-sating. A survey conducted by Visa earlier this year revealed that Canadians spend an average of $9. Between delivery, eating at restaurants and unbridled spending at the grocery store, I don’t even want to guess how much money goes straight into my tummy every month. It’s certainly a lot more than $20, which is the budget I gave myself to eat for four days (the actual U.S. number is $4.44 – I rounded up).
The beauty of Beefaroni
As far as palates go, I’m all over the place and don’t discriminate between haute and hoe-down chow – I love fancy restaurants, but I enjoy the unctuous taste of Beefaroni as much as the next guy, which is good because a can of Chef Boyardee costs only $1.79. The problem with these cost-friendly food staples is not how they taste, but that they tend to have little or no nutritional value, and often a lot of calories, fat and sodium.
You don’t have to be Michael Moore to draw a connection between poverty and obesity. As fresh and green food like arugula, avocados and bags of baby bok choy do not come cheap, I stocked up on beans and legumes (they are among the best cheap sources of protein, fibre, iron and potassium). I eschewed the plump and shiny cherry tomatoes at the store, opting instead for the canned version. I got some granola bars on sale (breakfast!) along with (cringe) instant coffee. A young butcher happened to overhear me telling my mom about the challenge, and suggested I try Kraft Dinner with ground beef. While skeptical, I was also sort of charmed by his puppy-dog enthusiasm. I picked those fixings, along with frozen spinach, which I bought even though I had no idea how I was going to incorporate it into my modest meals.
Soup that eats like a meal
For dinner on night one, I made a pasta e fagioli soup using one can of chickpeas ($1.39), one can of red kidney beans ($1.39), a chicken-broth cube ($0.40), two scoops of tomato paste ($0.20), a quarter can of diced tomatoes ($0.30), a dash of hot sauce and two handfuls of pasta shells ($0.25). I ate it for lunch the next day, and the day after that, bringing the cost per serving down to something like 50 cents. I even served it to a friend who is a food editor and married to an Italian and it got her seal of approval. (Or maybe she was just being kind.)
The deliciousness of my food is, in some ways, beside the point. I undertook this challenge to better understand what it feels like to eat on extremely limited means, and I guess what I realized is that while simulating a constrained budget is easy, simulating the hardships and stresses of poverty is not something you can achieve over a few days. Things that were not so hard: Drinking instant coffee, which triggered happy memories of my 2005 trip to Panama; enjoying cheap food (the Kraft Dinner casserole was a huge hit) and feeling full. With all of the restriction came a certain amount of liberation, sort of like how wearing a uniform makes getting dressed in the morning a cinch.
Things that were not so easy: Having to pass on a dinner out with friends, not being able to go work at a coffee shop, the possibility that I could be developing scurvy. (I never did figure out what to do with that frozen spinach.) Ultimately the challenge was a good reminder that flushing so much money into something so temporary is sort of silly. Of course food is fun and social and is inextricably linked with many good memories, but its joys are fleeting. Tonight I’m having friends over for dinner and will serve a traditional Swiss raclette (the money I spent on cheese would require almost two weeks of stamps!), but tomorrow morning I will skip the latte and choose instant instead.
The next challenge:
Do you best to banish holiday stress: Go for a walk, write in a journal, remember the many reasons you have to feel comfort and joy. And of course, pass on your best anxiety-busting advice at fb.me/globelifestream.