So you think you can live on the food stamp budget for a month? Good on you! Do you think you could do it for two months? For three? For a year? Forever? How long til your preferred brand of fair trade, shade grown, organic decaf whole coffee beans runs out? How long til you slip a little and buy regular celery and regular apples and regular lettuce because it’s on sale, instead of 3x the cost for organics? How long before you buy a cheaper loaf of bread, a generic cheese instead of an artisanal brand? Two gallons of store-brand milk instead of one carton of organic vanilla soy?
When will you weigh whether you could feed your entire family for one night for $1, or $26, and choose the $1 pack of hot dogs? If your EBT card was loaded with just $25 a month to feed both your disabled son and you, would you still buy the organic “happy-meat” hot dogs? If your food budget was limited to what was left over after paying for your transportation and your housing, and you had to choose between food or medicine, which would you buy? Answer truthfully, Grasshopper.
Would you shop at Walgreen’s or CVS or Rite-Aid with the sale paper, and the little coupons, and the $1 aisle? Would you check out the Dollar Store to see what kind of food $1 can buy? Would you visit ethnic grocery stores? Would you venture in the Mission District or Chinatown or Little Saigon to try to save money on produce? Would you ignore the media horror stories about tainted foods (with lead, mercury, insects, pesticides or e Coli) from other countries because imported foods are cheaper at this store or that?
Would you lie to feed your kids? Would you steal food, if it didn’t really hurt anyone? If no one would notice, or if they could afford the loss? Would you do something illegal — maybe deliver a message? Help a friend buy some weed? Trade your EBT card for cash? Help out a 20-year-old who offered you $5 to buy him some beer? What if he was 15 instead of almost legal?
Would you take home the extra crackers on the table? Pocket the jelly packets and the sugar? Drink the cream out of the coffee service before leaving the table? Would you take a piece of fruit hanging over a fence, whether you knew the owner of the tree or not? Would you try to get away with expired coupons, or claim a product was defective in order to get it for free? Would you attend an event just for the food (happy hour, a retirement party, a wedding you weren’t invited to)? Would you offer your body (for scientific research? for a survey? for sex? for — whatever?) if there was a promise of food or cash? No?
How many nutritional risks are you willing and able to take with your own health and your kids’ or elderly relatives’? Would you buy Kool-Aid instead of juice? Would you buy the no-name “drink mix” because it was cheaper than Kool-Aid? Would you eat leftovers or day-old bread? Would you look into a Dumpster to see if there was food? Would you take it if there was? Would you eat it? Would you tell anyone that’s where your food came from?
Have you ever been hungry? Have you ever felt envy toward someone with two refrigerators and a Costco card and all the boneless, skinless chicken breasts you ever wanted? Have you refused when someone offered to pay for your lunch or drink, even though you desperately wanted or needed it? Have you made do?
Would you go to the food bank? Would you suck up your pride and your (whatever) class values and silence your inner Calvinist with the sermon about manifest destiny and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and ask for help? Would you pray? Would you suffer in silence? Would you be a martyr? Would you martyr your kids, your spouse, your disabled senile grandma, your pets, too?
Where does “I’d never do that” collide with your hungry child? With you, yourself, at your innermost lonely self? Do you know if any of this is true or is it all just academic? Guess what? Most of the above has either happened to me, when I was a hungry single mom (1985-89, 2001-2006), or to others who have contacted me while I’ve been doing the JFSC (June, 2010). Hunger is a great leveler, and a very strong master.
You’d never do any of that, if you were hungry? Really?
Breakfast: Boys: generic Cheerios and milk; Simone: homemade breakfast bars, oatmeal; Patrick: oatmeal. Julia: smoothie (plain yogurt, banana, milk).
Lunch: Simone: tuna sandwich, carrots. Patrick: leftover salad and chili. Julia: 2 scrambled eggs, 2 pieces toast, rescued nectarine (leftover from a lunch), water
Snack: Julia: coffee, chocolate (from baseball snacks).
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward. Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others. Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.