Over the past month, I’ve visualized passing the finish line of the CalFresh Challenge with both fists in the air, enjoying a self-righteous ego boost.
But only nine hours into day one of the CalFresh Challenge, I failed miserably.
Maybe it’s just in me - or maybe it’s in all of us - but I have a natural inclination to think I’m a little bit better than everybody else. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. I think I’m a little bit smarter, that I work a little bit harder, that I’m a little bit stronger and more resilient than average. Of course, I’m not actually any of those things. This is just a side effect of being hopeful and optimistic that can have some ugly consequences.
One consequence is thinking that if something bad were to happen to me, I’d deal with it better than most would. I started the CalFresh Challenge hoping to experience a taste of a different life that would make me appreciate the opportunities I’ve had and motivate me to do more to give back. But also, deep down, I really wanted that ego boost. I wanted to overachieve the CalFresh Challenge and come out a self-righteous winner.
I designed my meal plan using the cheapest foods that offered the most nutrition per dollar (because of course, I’m smarter than most). Then I selected for the most sustainably produced food, the most environmentally friendly packaging and the most worker-friendly brands (because of course, I’m also a better person). I felt pretty good about myself. My meal plan even came in ten cents under budget. I could already feel my elbow rising over my head for the glorious pat on the back to come.
Then, the Sunday before the CalFresh Challenge, I started to feel a tickle in my throat. Then came the sniffles, the headache and the nausea – all the signs the flu. I panicked and choked down all the fancy vitamins and organic veggies I could before the clock struck midnight.
In the morning, I woke up feeling like a truck hit me, but the Challenge was on. I managed to skip my usual coffee for the banana allotted in my meal plan. I stayed home to work in my quarantine, watching my email inbox fill up with Monday’s deadlines.
By lunchtime, I was already behind schedule with work. My head was pounding. I was hungry. I squinted at the can of sardines I had planned for 1 p.m. Those sustainably sourced, nutritious nuggets in BPA-free packaging, with their disgusting taste and the bones you’re supposed to eat, scowled right back at me. I opted for rosemary tea instead – made from my own rosemary bush. It was kind of against the rules, but I felt it was clever enough to let slide. It didn’t make me feel any better.
As the day went on, I got more sick and more of life’s little problems piled up: a long to-do list, family and friends that needed attention, bills that needed paying and a dog that needed walking. I caved and gobbled up twenty bucks worth of Dayquil, wine and pizza by 6:30.
Even with all the motivation I started out with, I failed this challenge that is only the smallest imitation of daily life for the one in eight people in San Diego who don’t have access to enough food.
Of course, I felt ashamed of my previous confidence. But I’m glad I failed. Now, I’m much more ready to learn from this experience. On Tuesday, I decided to try the CalFresh Challenge again – with a much more humble state of mind.