Living on $4.38/day Day 3: Turning the corner


The story of my third day wasn’t the struggle with pangs of hunger, as these sort of settled in and started to become an unpleasant normal part of my day.  On my third day the most important things I noticed had more to do with lifestyle differences when you have only so much money to allocate for food.  It reminded me of when I was little and a few friends of mine – none of whom I would have classified as poor in my child brain – would get into trouble if they ate food that was earmarked for an upcoming meal.  So let’s get into day three.The day started, as many of my days do, with more of those Puffins I had on the first day. At .55 cents/serving, the only real problem I had was the potential of running out.  I don’t love the monotony, but during the week breakfast is really just about providing some fuel.  I muscled down my Puffins and headed off to work.  As I arrived, my new normal routine of quickly grabbing some tea kicked in – it’s super cheap and does not require any added costs for things like cream or sugar.  Plus, the flavor makes it feel like I’m having something like food.

A fancier version of the split pea soup - a staple of our challenge week

A fancier version of the split pea soup – a staple of our challenge week


For lunch it was a return to the split pea soup (photo courtesy of this blog, whose author we’d almost certainly be friends with if she lived on the street). It’s $1.33/serving, so still well under our allotment for the day. A friend brought up a reasonable point about whether food aid means that’s all a person typically spends on food or if it’s just a sort of augment to what it typically costs to address food needs.  I’m hoping to dig into that research a little later in the week.  For now, my hypothesis is that every dollar of non-food stamp cash that is spent on food probably makes other needed items harder to achieve.  We’ll see. Moving along, something interesting happened on the way to dinner. Something worth discussing.

Before dinner I had a group of neighbors over to talk about a project in the area.  I live in a part of San Diego in which many of the neighbors will engage in community issues if given the chance.  So we started working on this project to make a safer route for neighborhood kids, parents and others to make their way down Redwood Street, which is one of the few streets in the North Park community in San Diego that pretty much crosses the whole area once you get south of the top of Balboa Park. I got excited what a proper team working together could accomplish.  I served them beer from my beer room – a weird experience as I realized I hadn’t even been in this particular room in four days – and wine and water.  My wife helped out by putting out a little spread of cheeses and other snacks.  The first thing I should mention is how odd it was to try to hide my longing look as crackers and cheese and beer all passed my hands on their way to new friends who cheerfully savored the fancy Humboldt Fog and Comte and selections of red and white wines.  It wasn’t like I’d never foregone food before, but to do it in such an obviously social setting in which I’d had a very small caloric intake already felt obvious. I wondered if not being able to do the things that are customary around you in the work or social setting just adds insult to the hunger-induced injury.  This isn’t just about food insecurity, it bleeds into a bigger picture about being poor.  How much harder is it to move up an economic rung on the ladder if you can’t really engage in the social customs that build opportunities to connect and the professional chances that can come along with them?

I had these thoughts in a fleeting moment because, as I mentioned, there was a community meeting to be had. And despite having gone without more than several glasses of water in nearly seven hours, it was time to set that aside and get the thing done. But before I leave this little journey of introspection, the other issue that struck me is you really can’t afford to have people over if you are on a super thin food budget.  Seriously, what would you even do?  I would have had to plan the whole week’s food differently if we had to account for even one extra mouth, let alone 15.  Don’t get me wrong, these actual guests in our home weren’t an inconvenience. And because we do entertain more frequently than most, we just pulled some stuff out and kept things moving.  But what if? Do we just not offer anything to guests?  And we have several couple friends we like to have over for dinner.  In this reality we’d have to find a non-embarrassing way to get them to bring some food with them.  Maybe the truth is that people faced with this issue just keep a mental scorecard of who cooked food for whom so that it all evens out. Maybe you just end up making the decision not to have people over for meals.  I don’t have the answer, but it’s definitely one of those things I’d taken for granted that was worth thinking about. Let’s get back to the food.

The magic of brining chicken comes to life

The magic of brining chicken comes to life

For dinner we had a farro salad and half a chicken breast.  I’ll edit this post with the recipe and cost per serving once I’ve got them. The farro salad is a surprisingly filling and healthy medley of farro, raisins, chickpeas, broccoli and some other stuff I’ll have to ask my wife about. If you haven’t had it, farro is like slightly dense, severely overweight brown rice. Only it tastes better than brown rice, a food that in my mind confirms the existence of a devil. Apparently, farro is pretty good for you. I got so inspired by the bounty that is farro, I found this interesting farro dish on a blog from a baker named Joy. A random find, I know, but Joy seems kind of cool, so have a look.

Anyway, back to my dinner.  If you have not learned to brine your meat, please put that on the top of your list of things to do. Trust me on this. My whole experience of meat growing up would have been immeasurably changed for the better had someone alerted my family to the art of brining. My mom, bless her heart, has many wonderful qualities all of which cause me to love her dearly.  However, either she was incredibly shrewd and realized that our own food challenges would be easier if we didn’t like food very much, or cooking was just not her thing.  Well, we all have strengths.  Getting back to the chicken above, two things stuck out.  One, that extra flavor imparted by the brine was a wonderful and inexpensive complement to a day of very bland food choices.  Two, to make the chicken stretch into our budget we cut it in half and shared it. This part was lame. I am almost always able to find a silver lining or a saving grace in any situation, but this one even put me to the test. I was hungry, the food was good, there just wasn’t enough of it. Thank goodness for the water I drank beforehand! Well, the challenge is about half over and I’ll spend some time the remaining days also writing about alternative ways to eat on the cheap. Thanks for reading.

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