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Hunger Action Week, day 4: eating out

For day 4 of Hunger Action Week, I decided to try a different tactic. I ate fast food.

This technically does not count as part of the hunger challenge, since food stamps cannot be redeemed on meals in restaurants, hot foods, or foods that will be eaten in the store.

Still, many Americans do turn to fast food as an inexpensive source of nourishment; low income people who either do not qualify for food stamps or don’t qualify for the full amount need to look to other sources, and fast food is cheap.

In addition, many impoverished urban areas lack access to fresh food, earning the nickname “food deserts.”

Now, vegans don’t do well in the fast-food world of quarter pounders with cheese, “all white meat” and “4 times the steak!”

Plain and simple: vegans hate fast food joints. We abhor them. We loathe them.

That’s a gross stereotype, but I can’t think of anyone who likes going to a restaurant that offers the choice of lettuce or french fries. Plus, who wants to support an industry derived entirely on cheap meat, i.e. cruelty?

But I thought this experience was valid too– is it possible to be vegan and live off of inexpensive, fast meals?

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to eat vegan in dining establishments for less than $7 a day. I warned David and my coworkers ahead of time that Thursday might not be pretty.

I stopped at McDonald’s on my way to work for some hashbrowns.

Hasbrowns were not as cheap as I had thought — $1 each, plus $0.10 tax, for a total of $2.20. Though they were only 300 calories, I felt like I had gained about 10 pounds after eating them. But they were tasty.

I scarfed down the hashbrowns at around 7:30 a.m., and by 10 I was browsing food blogs and practically licking my monitor as my stomach growled.

I bought a day old bagel at Elliott Bay Cafe (yes, not fast food, but still convenient), thinking it would be cheap. It was $0.97 — just $0.02 less than a fresh bagel at Noah’s. I ate half for a morning snack and half in the evening.

So I was already more than $3 down, leaving me with $3.83 for the rest of the day. I had already failed.

I figured Taco Bell would be the best lunch option. And dinner option, because half of lunch would need to become dinner to risk going over budget any more. But Taco Bell was too far away. Taco Time, on the other hand, was only a 13 minute bus ride.

People on the 12:30 p.m. bus from downtown to Rainer all seemed fairly low-income — just making judgements, people. I noticed that several had ziplock baggies full of homemade sandwiches that appeared to be little more than a couple of slices of meat between bread, accompanied by an orange or two. This is what people on food stamps really eat, I thought.

I spent $6.37 for a veggie and bean burrito at Taco Time. Lunch and dinner. They did give me a free soda because they were testing this crazy new machine that allows users to customize their corn-syrupy carbonated beverage experience (I picked Coca-Cola raspberry). I know we’re not supposed to accept free stuff on this challenge, but if I were hungry and poor and needed the calories, you bet your @$$ I would take it.

So, I ate half a burrito for lunch, and then the other half at 5 p.m. because my blood sugar dropped after all of the carbohydrates I’d eaten went through my system (or something like that).

By 7 p.m., I was starving again. I was in my ceramics class, glazing stuff, and I was really, really hungry. Someone had left a big box of personal-sized chips, and my classmates were munching on them. Though someone on food stamps would not be able to afford a ceramics class, making it unlikely they would be in this particular situation with these particular free chips, I broke. I ate them. And I was still hungry — all those empty calories throughout the day really didn’t stick.

And, since I had already failed, I went home and ate a bunch of stuff. And drank some scotch. I just wasn’t strong enough.

Daily intake:

  • Two hashbrowns: $2.20
  • 1 day-old bagel: $0.97
  • 1 veggie burrito at Taco Time, no cheese or ranch dressing: $6.37
  • soda: $0.00, in exchange for WOM marketing.

Total: $9.54 … plus more to have enough to eat.

Takeaways:

  • Fast food, particularly vegan fast food, is not as cheap as it’s made out to be — taxes add a fair expense too.
  • Preparing your own food is the way to go. It’s cheaper, healthier, tastier, and probably less likely to give you diabetes.

Lesson learned: as cheaply as you try to eat, as a vegan, at fast food restaurants, you’re going to spend a lot more money than if you cooked from scratch, and feel much less satisfied.

Also, something I thought about as I was on the bus: I paid $2.25 to ride the bus to (hopefully) get a cheap burrito. I could have gone to the Taco del Mar down the street, and really not paid that much more. Or anything more, in fact. And it would have tasted better. And I wouldn’t have spent $2.25 on the bus instead of food — things you don’t really think about on a daily basis.

Hunger Action Week, day 3: eating cheaply for those who can’t cook

If you don’t like or have time to cook (or don’t have a real kitchen) but need to eat affordably, where do you go?

Trader Joe’s is the first destination for many, and Trader Joe’s does accept food stamps. I set out to Trader Joe’s for the 3rd day of Hunger Action week.

Because many people on food stamps have neither time nor kitchen, everything I bought needed only a microwave, a fork or spoon, or a bowl + hot water to prepare.

My trip was blissfully short; browse a bit and move on– no need to calculate cost of ingredients or serving.

Dinner was easy. I love (love, love, love) TJ’s black bean and corn enchiladas, and know that $1.99 gets you a radiation-warmed tray of Mexican-flavored deliciousness. Eating these was no sacrifice.

Selecting lunch was eye-opening. At one point, I waffled between a bowl of soba noodles and a bowl of vegan pad Thai, which (I thought) were the same price. The soba noodles had 250 calories a serving; the pad Thai had 600 and twice the protein.

While I typically would not buy something labelled with so many calories (I only eat high-cal foods in restaurants and the like, when there aren’t concrete numeric values attached), I went with the pad Thai just to get more bang for my buck; I didn’t want to commit to the soba noodles and then find myself starving at 9 p.m. with no money in my budget for a snack. It also ended up being $0.50 cheaper, which definitely would have swayed me.

The pad Thai was good. Not good like ‘Thai food from your favorite restaurant’ good, but ‘pretty tasty for frozen food’ good. Slightly spicy, a little tangy, rather peanutty. I was hoping for more food for my 600 calories though.

I also made a critical decision at breakfast: I went with maple-flavored instant oatmeal with added vitamins and calcium instead of the cheaper maple-flavored instant oatmeal without added vitamins and calcium. The reasoning was just ensuring complete nutrition throughout the day.

Snack was an apple and some red chile and garlic edamame, which promised (and delivered) an exotic kick to the day. I brought a minneola to work, thinking that I would eat it as a snack, and then elected to save it for dessert.

But I forgot it.

I had enough in my budget for another packet of maple and brown sugar oatmeal (again, or so I thought), so I substituted that instead, but I really felt the loss of that piece of fruit.

Daily intake:

  • Packet of oatmeal: $0.37
  • Tea: $0.06
  • Apple: $0.69
  • Vegan Pad Thai: $2.29
  • Edamame with red chile and garlic: $0.56
  • Black bean enchiladas: $1.99
  • Minneaola for dessert: $0.69 — wait, no, not so much. Still part of the day’s sum though…
  • Another packet of oatmeal: $0.37

Total: $7.02 — crap! I completely miscalculated that last packet of oatmeal.

Takeaways:

  • When you’re on a strict budget, there’s no room for error. You can’t just forget stuff and then buy more– you go hungry instead.
  • Not cooking is really, really easy.
  • Arithmetic is hard.

Trader Joe’s is great for people on a budget who can’t or don’t want to cook, but not for those who can; it’s mostly boxed and pre-packaged goods, with no bulk section. Half of the produce comes wrapped in shrink wrap.

Prepackaged foods are not always super-healthy, either, as they can be high in sodium and other bad stuff, and I felt incredibly wasteful all day throwing out trays and packages.

Plus, there’s not much of a selection, particularly a vegan one, at Trader Joe’s; one would be eating the same frozen meals over, and over, and over, and over, and over…

Also, a colleague at work was teasing me for reusing my teabag– “it’s like 3 cents!” Well, had I reused my first bag more and not used a second bag, I would not have gone over my budget (well, I could have just not eaten the oatmeal, but yeah). Small things do add up.

Hunger Action Week day 2: compromises

On day one of Hunger Action Week, I challenged myself to eat entirely foods from the local food co-op to see if it’s possible to eat organic for $7 a day.

It is.

On day two, I decided to test a hypothesis that eating conventionally-grown food from a chain supermarket, thus compromising my nature-loving, tree-hugging hippie values, would be cheaper.

In addition, since today is about compromises, the meals I prepared only required a microwave or skillet, since I’m guessing people on or below the poverty level will not have the fancy kitchen equipment I am fortunate to have.

Note, the control would be to make every dish I made yesterday a second time, but I didn’t do so. (Though since I ate an apple for a snack both days, I did literally compare “apples to apples” in that regard. Oh I am so clever.). Therefore, my little “experiment” is flawed. I know.

One difference between the days is that I made liberal use of sale items when shopping for this day. Sales are the best! $4.99 for 4 pounds of peanut butter… awwwww yeah.

I’m a paying member at Madison Market, but didn’t buy their sale items on day 1 because they’re mostly just for members and I figure someone on food stamps would not be able to afford a $60 membership. It’s free to join at QFC– all you need to do is give them personal information (like your purchasing habits).

Breakfast started well; oatmeal and aforementioned peanut butter, with a midmorning snack of a large Jazz apple.

However, I completely underestimated lunch and my afternoon snack; I thought the fiber in broccoli, protein in tofu and sugar in an orange would fill me up, but I was wrong. By the time I left work at 6:30 (looong day), I was light-headed and cranky.

Fortunately, dinner made up for it: a hefty tofu and mushroom scramble in a tortilla. I flavored the scramble with just garlic, oil, salt, pepper and a bit of soy sauce, and it wasn’t the tastiest supper (the distinct soy flavor of tofu undercut every bite), but not terrible — filling, certainly. I missed the turmeric, cumin and chili powder I usually add, but it got the job done.

For dessert, some peanut butter Captain Crunch.

Not bad.

Daily intake:

  • Conventionally grown oatmeal and Kroeger brand peanut butter: $0.12 + $0.04 = $0. 16
  • tea: $0.06
  • Jazz apple: $0.54
  • Broccoli and tofu: 1.5
  • Navel orange: $0.63
  • Tofu scramble burrito: 2.76
  • Peanut Butter Captain Crunch: $0.23
  • total: $5.82

But then I cheated. I still needed to do some work, but was not being productive at home (David needed to clean the apartment), so I headed to Starbucks for a small coffee with soymilk — an extra $1.65 — that I needed to buy to use their Internet. Google “miserable failure” and you’ll find me instead of George Bush. What gets me even more was that the fall from grace was not for a beer, not for a cocktail, not even for a nice juice, but for coffee. Coffee.

Take aways:

  • Both today and yesterday, I’ve found myself using oil to flavor things more than usual — it’s cheap and you need it to fry stuff anyhow.
  • You can coax a ton of flavor from soy sauce, garlic and black pepper.
  • Generic creamy peanut butter is better for oatmeal than the gritty natural stuff.
  • Buying packaged ingredients, conventional or organic, adds a ton to the price.

Eating from the grocery store was cheaper than the food co-op, and I put less effort in, but, these meals weren’t as delicious as my couscous or seitacos — I felt a little deprived eating them.

It could just be that I wanted the first experience to be better, but even had I wanted to recreate my co-op adventures, I wouldn’t be able to. For one, QFC does not sell bulk wheat gluten for seitan. Their bell peppers are massive and expensive, not small and economical. I’m not even sure if they have bulk beans (they must, but maybe not). Madison Market wins as the best choice for thrifty vegans just off of their intense bulk foods selection alone. Dried beans and homemade seitan > tofu any day.

Tofu scramble burrito:
serves 1

  • mushrooms, sliced: $1.08
  • 1/2 package of tofu: $1.00
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped: $0.10
  • 1 tsp soy sauce: $0.08
  • enriched tortilla: $0.50
  • total: 2.76
  1. Heat oil in skillet. Add mushrooms. Add tofu. Add other stuff, minus tortilla.
  2. cover tortilla with damp paper towels; microwave for 40 seconds.
  3. Wrap scramble in tortilla. Eat.

Broccoli and tofu:
serves 2

  • ≈1 lb broccoli, chopped: $1.23
  • 1/2 package of tofu: $1.00
  • 1 clove garlic, diced: $0.10
  • 2 tbs soy sauce: $0.50
  • 1 tbs canola oil: $0.17
  • pepper, to taste
  • total per serving: 1.5
  1. Heat oil in skillet; add garlic and tofu and saute until garlic starts to brown.
  2. Add broccoli and cover with a lid. Steam a few minutes, and add soy sauce. Stir so that it doesn’t burn, and put lid back on. Cook until broccoli is tender.

Hunger Action Week day 1: organic and vegan for $7 a day

I’m vegan (obviously) and aspire to eat local, sustainable and organic food as frequently as I am able. Is this possible on a $7/day diet?

For the first day of Hunger Action Week, I decided to find out.

Many people think that food co-ops, Whole Foods and other natural foods stores, and farmers markets are overpriced, but this is not always the case, particularly where local and organic foods are involved.

I think this comes from the fact that stores like Safeway and QFC screw really consumers over with organic and vegan specialty goods — if it’s expensive at Safeway, it must cost twice that at Whole Paycheck!

Not always so.

Conventional items at a mainstream supermarket cost less than conventional at Whole Foods, but organic at a mainstream supermarket often costs more. I am always shocked to see that an Amy’s frozen dinner sells for at least a dollar more at QFC than Madison Market.

And there are always deals. I have finding deals at “pricey” places down to a science:

  • Balance the inexpensive finds from the bulk bin (beans, grains, flour, sugar, etc) with produce.
  • Look for sales.
  • Make it a point to stop by the discontinued shelf and the deli and bakery for deals on food that is about to expire.
  • Make liberal use of coupons, even if it makes you feel like your grandmother.
  • Most stands at the Farmer’s market have “seconds” — bruised or otherwise ugly produce — which can save you, the consumer, tons of money; many stands sell their produce for a price competitive with natural foods stores.

Ecoblogger Jennifer Grayson has more on this in a video on the Huffington Post — it’s a great watch.

Therefore, while some might laugh at the idea of eating on $7 a day with items purchased entirely from a food co-op, it’s really not that far-fetched. With a little elbow-grease and ingenuity, anything is possible.

So, I headed to Madison Market.

I spent about an hour browsing the store, looking for deals, searching for recipes on my iPhone, going back and forth between the bulk bins and the produce section so many times that I started getting strange looks from the one seemingly nice person who works in the place. (Madison Market is great, but some of the staff need a refresher in customer service. I work in customer service– I can say these things.)

I decided to make seitan tacos. Corn tortillas are cheap, and the One Dollar Diet folks (also vegans) made liberal use of seitan during their adventures. Cabbage, that favorite of peasants across the world, was cheap, and the store had taken the consideration to cut some of the heads in half– a good candidate for a coleslaw-y side salad. My friend Toni makes a delicious Peruvian cilantro-flavored rice, so I went with an imitation of that too. Bam. Dinner.

Oatmeal makes an inexpensive, satisfying, and filling breakfast. Add a TBS of peanut butter, and you have yourself a proverbial breakfast of champions.

So, I had dinner and a cheap breakfast, but what about lunch? What about snacks? What about my favorite meal of all, the one my father’s nightly ice cream ritual taught me to believe is what the whole day leads up to — dessert?

Lunch hit me in the bulk aisle: couscous with garbanzo beans (henceforth to be called chickpeas, for alliterative purposes). Add some roasted cauliflower (again, balancing the cheap grain and the expensive veggie), sauteed onion, and raisins for contrast, with some simple spices, and you have yourself a meal, friend.

I still had enough in my budget for dessert: a small Sjaak’s peanut butter bite.

Intake for the day:

  • Oatmeal + peanut butter: $0.13 + $0.21 = $0.34
  • Pink lady apple (snack): $0.70
  • Two bags of Kroger-brand Pekoe tea (not from the food co-op, but it’s going to be a rough week at work even with caffeine mainstreamed into my blood supply, so I had to cheat): $0.06
  • Chickpea and cauliflower couscous: $1.42/serving
  • Clif bar (snack): $1.00
  • Seitan tacos with coleslaw: $1.62/serving
  • Cilantro rice with black beans: $0.59/serving
  • One Sjaak’s Peanut butter bite: $0.69

Total: $6.41 (with $0.59 margin of error– see below)

Takeaways from the first day:

  • Fresh chile peppers are an excellent way to add flavor and spice for very little dough.
  • It’s hard to budget for something like 1/4 tsp of cinnamon. I know it costs money, but you can’t just weigh out 1/4 tsp cinnamon on a kitchen scale like you can weigh 1/2 cup of beans to determine cost. So, for my cinnamon, cumin and nutritional yeast, I just estimated that the cost they would add would still put me under $7 for the day.
  • It takes a lot of work and planning to eat creatively on this small of a budget.
  • Having extra equipment, in this case a blender (a VitaMix, no less), and a rice cooker, really increases how much you can cook. A VitaMix is very pricey, but a regular blender and a cheap rice cooker are not. The rice meal below, with canned beans instead of dried, would make an easy meal for someone without a kitchen but with $50 to invest in devices that just need an electric outlet.

I was never hungry throughout the day, or at least any more than I would be on a typical day.

Breakfast was full of fiber and protein to fill me almost to lunch (I’m hungry by 11 a.m. regardless of what I eat for breakfast), and the afternoon Clif Bar added some extra vitamins, calcium and protein. All of it was all flavorful enough to keep my interest. I made enough that I, as a single person, would need to eat the same thing lunch everyday (couscous) and then the same thing for dinner (tacos) for a week, but it was so delicious that this prospect doesn’t deter me (and I’m a bit OCD, which helps).

Recipes below.

Chickpea and cauliflower couscous:
serves 4

  • 1/2 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight and cooked (1 cup cooked beans): $0.41
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced: $0.37
  • 1 lb cauliflower: $3.31
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon:
  • 1/4 tsp cumin:
  • 2 tbs canola oil: $0.34
  • 1 cup couscous: $0.82
  • raisins: $0.42
  • salt and pepper, to taste.
  • total per serving: $1.42
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut cauliflower into small florets and coat with 1 TBS oil in a large bowl; mix in cinnamon and cumin. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove to a large bowl.
  2. Place couscous in a medium-sized bowl. Pour 1 1/4 cups boiling water over it, stir, and let sit 10 minutes or until grains are fluffy and all water has been absorbed. remove to the same large bowl as the cauliflower.
  3. Sautee onion in the second TBS of oil until brown. Remove to same bowl as cauliflower and couscous, and add remaining ingredients. Stir until well mixed and place in refrigerator to chill.

Seitacos with coleslaw
serves 4

  • 1 small green bell pepper, cut into strips: $1.12
  • 1/2 yellow onion, cut into strips: $0.37
  • 1 package tortillas: $.99
  • serrano chile, diced: $0.05
  • gluten: $0.96
  • Thyme: $0.09
  • Nutritional yeast:
  • soy sauce $1
  • 1/2 head of cabbage, shredded: $1.49
  • 2 tbs lime juice: $0.27
  • 1 tbs canola oil: $0.17
  • salt and pepper as needed
  • total = 1.62
  1. Combine shredded cabbage, lime juice and 1 TBS canola oil in a large bowl. Set aside.
  2. Make seitan following VegWeb’s directions; slice into thin strips
  3. Sautee onion, bell pepper and and serrano chile in 1 TBS oil until starting to brown. Throw in seitan strips and saute a few minutes more.
  4. Warm tortillas in the microwave on a plate covered with a paper towel. Fill with seitan mixture and top with coleslaw. Garnish with cilantro left over from making cilantro rice.

Cilantro rice with black beans
serves 4

  • 1/2 cup black beans, soaked overnight and cooked (1 cup cooked): $0.32
  • 1 bunch cilantro: $1.39
  • rice: $0.52
  • 1 tbs lime juice: $0.14
  • total: 0.59
  1. Blend ≈4/5 of the bunch of cilantro in a blender with 1 cup water and 1 tbs lime juice until well blended. Add enough water to equal 2 cups.
  2. Place rice in rice cooker with cilantro water, salt and pepper and cook.
  3. When rice is finished cooking, stir in beans.

Hunger Action week is March 21-25, 2011

With so much tragedy in the world right now, I’ve been feeling much less enthusiastic about blogging.

Granted, I’ve still been posting, but feels callous to broadcast something as trivial as what I’m stuffing in my face when many people half a world over have lost everything.

However, just because something new and terrible happens doesn’t mean all the old and terrible stuff goes away. Some people close to home have lost as much in their lives as those in Japan.

United Way of King County provides the following figure:

Consider this shocking national statistic: one out of every six adults and nearly one out of four children struggle with hunger. Here in King County, record numbers of people—our neighbors, co-workers and friends—don’t have enough to eat. People have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries, and children are going to bed hungry.

That’s why I am very pleased to be participating in UWKC’s Hunger Action Week’s Hunger Challenge.

I will feed myself on $7 a day from March 21 to 25; seven dollars is the maximum food stamp benefit for an individual in Washington State.

The rules are as follows:

  • Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner spending only $7 per day.
  • Salt and pepper don’t count but all other seasonings, cooking oils, condiments, snacks, drinks, and everything else do.
  • Don’t use food you already own.
  • Don’t accept food from family, friends, coworkers and others. Not even the free samples from Costco!
  • Try to include fresh produce and healthy protein each day.
  • Keep track of expenses, food choices, and recipes

United Way asks participants to ponder the following considerations:

  • Can you feed yourself for only $7 a day?
  • If you had to make a choice between buying groceries and paying your rent, how would you choose?
  • What compromises will you need to make?
  • Will you be able to provide much variety or will you need to eat the same thing allweek?
  • If you don’t know how to cook or don’t have much time too cook, does this make the challenge more difficult?
  • What if you don’t have access to a kitchen? What types of meals could you have?

I’ve had to eat cheaply before, but can’t say I know what it’s like to be completely limited to $7 a day. In grad school, I made do on a very modest income, but always had a safety net– my parents, who bailed me out on several occasions (for which I am very grateful).

However, now that I have a job, I’m more liberal with my food spending, though by no means exorbitant. My favorite sandwich on the face of this earth, the Highline Reubender, is $7– pretty reasonable for a meal in a restaurant. While I am certain it has a days’ worth of calories, consuming a Reubender means no food for the rest of the day on the $7 diet. Eat a few Reubenders a week and you’re looking at a substantial chunk of change (and probably a heart attack).

So, while saying that I am looking forward to this challenge would be in poor taste, as subsisting off of $7 a day is an unfortunately reality for many, I’m hoping that it will give some insight into what is a reality for some of those around me.

I’m participating — and you should too.

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