Omar's Journey on the CalFresh Challenge

My wife and I joke that we are the type of travelers who think about food adventures for the next meal while wrapping up the current one. I even occasionally write about experiences with food in my free time.  All this focus on food not just as nourishment but as recreation, bonding time, and exploration might seem a bit over the top, and maybe it is, but it is a part of life I enjoy quite a lot. 

My flexibility to enjoy great food is a luxury and a gift, and I participate in the San Diego Hunger Coalition’s CalFresh Challenge to help remind others and myself that hunger is real. Even in a place like San Diego. Poverty and near poverty are serious issues that make getting a complete meal – especially for poor children in the summer when school is out – a very big deal. I set out to participate in this challenge – to eat on $4.27/day, which is the average amount a San Diego resident receives on CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) – because I believe that if more San Diegans are aware of the issue, we can do more to help. If more people know that almost half of CalFresh recipients are children and that the average person uses CalFresh for less than two years, then maybe we will collectively demand more of the officials who administer these programs, our business community whose workers often receive these programs, and each other as we look to waste less food that others could eat.

The long-term solution involves education, economic opportunity, and self-sustaining wage careers, but if you are a person living with food insecurity right now that long-term solution can be hard to focus on.

I decided I’d try to shop in three-day increments. This gave me $12.81 to buy my food. I bought tortillas, beans, a few veggies, eggs and a tray of pork that was on sale for $3.39.  I used to be a devotee of the T.V. show Chopped, so I spent most of the night envisioning myself turning these random ingredients into various tasty meals. This is my third time doing the CalFresh Challenge and the two constants are that I never feel like I’ve had a complete meal and you can pretty much throw variety out the window. 

I realized this time there are a few other things that happen when you barely have enough money for food. First, you stop eating out. I wondered briefly if I could turn my $4.27 into a hearty set of dollar menu items at a fast food place. I think it might actually be possible, but what kind of food would I be eating? Second, you stop having people over because you can’t afford it.  Unless you invite someone to bring a dish, there’s really no way to plan for feeding a few extra mouths off such a small amount of money. Third, you have to give up on at least some healthy eating habits because they cost too much. I love what community gardens like Mount Hope are doing to create food entrepreneurship and opportunities for people to grow food to feed themselves. Our cities in San Diego County should make it as easy as possible to follow in every community to establish such gardens and sell the produce.

I don’t have any false sense that participating in the CalFresh Challenge lets me know exactly what it’s like to live in poverty or near poverty. That would be insulting. In fact, I tripped up a bit just trying to get through the Challenge because, honestly, it’s hard. And since I know I’m not really stuck with little or no food choices, I really struggled this time around. I did manage to sit through my wife’s Mexican food combo lunch while eating my boring black beans, pork and corn tortillas, so there’s that. But even struggling to stick to the Challenge was a good reminder that other people don’t get to opt in or out of their hunger on a whim.

I’m doing this because it is a reminder to me personally that when I feel hunger pains I just go eat something but for many people – many children – their solution is just to think about something else. I write and talk about the experience and the associated social problems that create chronic poverty and food insecurity because if I can convince some of the people in my extended network to think about CalFresh and food programs a little differently I hope they’ll be less likely to call for cuts to these programs and more likely to see them as part of a solution to a really big problem.


Omar Passons is a San Diego native and North Park resident. He is Vice President of Community Development & Policy at Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Follow Omar on Twitter.