Why I am Not Finishing the CalFresh Challenge

“I’m starving, and I’m exhausted,” my partner said arriving home around 7pm.  In the kitchen, this week’s home within my home, I mock rolled my eyes before looking down to see his hand tremble.  Eating 700 calories over the last 12 hours was not enough.

We cooked up our frittatas and then fried an extra pair of potatoes w/ oil and salt to fill up.  Sitting at the dinner table, we got serious and went through our meals, counting calories as we went:

Breakfast: ~300 calories (oatmeal and fruit w/ occasional yogurt)

Lunch: ~400 calories        (beans and rice or chicken, egg and rice w/ tomato)       

Dinner: ~500 calories      (quinoa, chicken and veggies or veggie frittata w/ extra potatoes)

The last meal of the Challenge

The last meal of the Challenge

Our final verdict: we should have bought donuts.  We were full.  We laughed.  Maybe a week of donuts would not be ‘ideal,’ but we should have created healthy meals that were higher calorie and more filling.  Sounds like a great idea, a no-brainer, right?  Thirty minutes of joking about ‘just how many beans is too many’ later, neither of us had solved hunger.  We agreed that CalFresh can’t be “enough.”  Don’t get me wrong; CalFresh is amazing!  Each year, CalFresh lifts more than 1 million Americans above the federal poverty line, increasing their household budgets by an average of over $2,000 annually.  CalFresh (SNAP) is our nation’s strongest line of defense against hunger and poverty AND it is not enough.

The past five days I’ve felt exhausted, lethargic and unmotivated.  I’ve had enough energy to work out once, compared to almost daily, and have woken up almost every morning with a headache.  In an attempt to maintain a “healthy” diet, we’ve denied ourselves the calories we need to be healthy and functioning.  As a result, we both lost at least a pound of body weight.  The irony was not lost on me as so many poor Americans struggle with chronic health conditions spurred by overweight and obesity.  The foods which fill also kill. 

Not wanting to “give up,” I pulled up a list of local food pantries within my work zipcode, maybe we could supplement??  Two of 12 food pantries on the list were open on a Friday.  I called both and found out the foods being distributed today were: potatoes, oranges, bread, ramen and pastries.  Gluten free leaves me with (more) potatoes and oranges; helpful, but still probably not enough. 

I thought about taking advantage of Saturday’s City Height’s Farmer’s Market “Fresh Fund,” an awesome program that allows CalFresh and WIC recipients to ‘double’ their produce purchases any six weeks out of the year (up to $20), but we don’t have any money left.

While a silly, ego driven part of me is disappointed in not being able to “life hack” this challenge, a deeper part of me realizes that this is a challenge that cannot be ‘won.’ In our society, poverty is all too often reduced to a series of bad decisions on the part of the impoverished, stripping those more fortunate of any responsibility.  For me, this experience was one important step on a path towards better understanding and connecting with a deeper sense of community.  I will continue to challenge myself to connect with experiences and individuals that draw light to my privilege and that provide me opportunities to interact and give back to making our community more just.   

For anyone reading that is wondering what they can do, I challenge you to create your own way to connect.  Try the Challenge for a day, for 3, for a week if you can and donate whatever additional money you might have spent that week on fighting hunger.  As we enter the increasingly circusesque elections, pay attention to and consider voting for candidates committed to building a strong society that includes provides opportunity and access to basic resources for all.  

The Real Challenge: Eating Healthy on a Budget

The Purchase

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went grocery shopping for the week. I didn’t go with a list, but I had some general ideas of what I wanted. $30.67 isn’t much, so I started by doing a lap of the store, writing down prices and attempting to balance my limited budget. I quickly learned that carbs are cheap and would be filling, but are clearly not as healthy. I cut out pasta sauce to buy cucumbers and I dropped grape jelly to add on bananas and a few more apples. I relinquished my coffee addiction. And with every item I bought, I stopped to examine if there was a cheaper alternative.

At the end, I had calculated in my head that I was at $30, give or take a few. And that’s when I realized how stressful it is living on this budget. If I got to the register and my total was $31, I could afford to just buy the extra food and remove an apple from my stash for the week. But the 450,000 people in San Diego who do this every day are faced with this same experience, and they may not be able to afford the extra cucumber or the 2lb bag of carrots. They may have to ask the clerk to return an item, stall the line, etc. I was surprised to feel some of that fear and anxiety as I approached the register. I left with $1.07. It was the most conscientious I have ever been while shopping at the grocery store and it was a clear reminder of how thankful I am for my food security.

The Challenge

The week, as a whole, went pretty smoothly. I never felt like I was going to have to skip a meal, but by the conclusion of my Sunday dinner I will have only 2 extra potatoes, 1/3 of a box of pasta, and a few slices of bread remaining. I only got hangry once, so I call that a win, but I didn’t give myself much wiggle room on my budget. There were a few really difficult aspects to my meals, the first being the repetition. Every breakfast consisted of a bowl of cereal with milk and every lunch consisted of a peanut butter sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a small portion of vegetables. Dinner was more variable and was always the meal I enjoyed most.

After a long day of work the last thing I want to do is cook. During a typical week, I’ll make something easy like grilled cheese or pick up something on the way home. This week, I didn’t have that option but the temptation was always there. It often felt like there was less time in the day because I was spending so much more time worrying about my meals; making lunches, measuring portions, and cooking every night. Again, I realized how much more conscientious I was about what and when I was eating.

The Conclusion

Eating on a budget is manageable. Eating healthy on a budget? That’s a bigger challenge. As a health professional, it was an eye opening experience to the challenge of finding cheap, fresh vegetables. If I was a diabetic and I was trying to limit my carbohydrate intake, I would have drastically failed my diet this week. My core staples at every meal were cereal, bread, potatoes, and pasta; carbs, carbs, and more carbs. They were filling, and as a non-diabetic, made this challenge a little more manageable. I was able to find cheap fruits, but those are high in simple sugars that I advise my patients with diabetes to avoid. I successfully included less expensive, lean meats in my diet, but my week was lacking in bright, fresh, green vegetables. That is the issue with the limited amount of money provided to CalFresh users; either we need to work towards increasing the monthly CalFresh allotment or decreasing the price of healthy options. Easier said than done, certainly. But I have hope that Hunger Action Month and this week’s CalFresh Challenge have raised awareness to these issues and that we may continue move towards ending food insecurity. 

CalFresh Challenge & Living on a Limited Income

Could you live on a food budget of $4.38 per day?

For many Californians living on CalFresh (food stamps) or a limited income, this seemingly impossible budget represents a harsh, day-to-day reality.

Some, like seniors living on supplemental security income (SSI) and state supplementary payment (SSP) face an even greater challenge: Their benefits make them ineligible to receive the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the stipend they do receive barely covers their living expenses, such as rent, transportation, and any medications they need. Day-to-day life is an immense struggle for them, signaling a need for change.

From Sept. 21 to 27, the San Diego Hunger Coalition will run the CalFresh Challenge, an anti-hunger initiative designed to generate exposure and innovation for those struggling to receive daily ample nutrition. For the challenge, you set a daily food budget of $4.38—the amount afforded by CalFresh (food stamps)—for a week, writing down and sharing your experiences along the way.   

You’ve no doubt heard that living a day in someone else’s shoes provides a valuable exercise in empathy and compassion, and the CalFresh Challenge is an extension of this fact, helping people understand the challenges of those living on food stamps across California.  

Even without the Challenge, though, it’s a good exercise to think about the ways people adjust their eating habits when faced with budgetary restraints.  

  1. Buy food you can repurpose for several meals. Fresh produce like lettuce, peppers, and an onion can be used for several salads throughout the week, while a multipurpose starch, like a bag of long-grain brown rice or a bag of potatoes, can also last a week or longer.
  2. Get a rotisserie chicken or roast your own whole bird. You can get a whole rotisserie chicken or an uncooked whole chicken to prepare yourself for about the price of just one pack of boneless, skinless breasts or thighs.
  3. Prepare your meals ahead of time. Meal prepping can keep you from needing unnecessary snacks throughout the day or making a stop at a fast-food joint for a quick meal. If your meal is already done and portioned, you’re less likely to splurge and cut into your budget and food supply.
  4. Leftovers! Don’t waste any food. If you didn’t finish a meal, save what you didn’t eat in a resealable bag or container and reheat it later.

Now, think about these points.

It’s already hard to eat well in a fried-and-fast-food society, but restricting your budget adds another layer of difficulty.

Is it realistic to meal prep when you may be juggling two jobs, children, and the rigors of a normal family life? For many, this is simply not an option. The long-lasting starches, such as rice and potatoes, offer little nutritional value on their own, so while they may help fill you up, you’re getting little in return without coupling them with a more expensive protein and/or vegetable.

That $1 meal quickly turns into a much more expensive plate as you boost its nutritional value.

For many living on a limited income, though, these are the realities they must endure. Prevention.com recently published a blog post titled “7 Ways to Eat Healthy for $4 a Day,” shedding some more light on the issue.

Read the post here and think about the tips. Would you be willing to make these changes? Could you, faced with a real need, limit your food budget to $4 a day and still lead a healthy, happy life?

It’s a real challenge, and it’s worth our time to brainstorm ideas and solutions for those who truly need it.  

In an effort to better understand this struggle, our Program Officer, Michele Silverthorn, is taking the CalFresh Challenge herself. She’ll also be share her experiences here on the AHF blog, so stay tuned for more updates on the CalFresh Challenge.

How do you get your money’s worth at the grocery store? What are some ideas you have that could impact the lives of the millions of hungry citizens living on food stamps across California?  

Leave a comment or connect with us on TwitterFacebook, Google+, or LinkedIn and let us know. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.

– Nancy Sasaki, Executive Director, Alliance Healthcare Foundation. For additional entries, please visit the AHF blog here

Feeling Good?

I think about food a lot. Usually, it’s with excitement. My day dreams consist of dinner brainstorming, making lists for my next grocery store run, and what new things I could do with cookie butter. 

These past few days I’ve been thinking about food even more. 

And my thoughts haven’t been too pleasant. 



For the most part I have been satisfied with my meals. For breakfast these past two days I’ve had oatmeal which is a usual part of my diet. I do miss, though, the raisins and walnuts that normally accompany it. 

For lunch yesterday I made a rice bowl from Monday’s leftovers consisting of black beans, green peppers, tomato and some jalapeno. I snacked on carrot sticks too. 

Dinner was a bit of a struggle. 

Yesterday, fall hit New York with full force. It looked like a handful of trees turned colors overnight, and the day was overcast with a nippy breeze. Throughout work I kept thinking about how nice it would be to change into sweat pants and have a hot bowl of soup. But then reality set in and I remembered that I didn’t fit soup into my budget. Even if I could whip up a broth with the veggies I had, I would be out of food for the rest of the week. 

It looks like CalFresh doesn’t take into account spontaneous cravings. 

Dinner Day 2: yam with rice

Dinner Day 2: yam with rice

For dinner I ended up baking some yam with rice, creating a creamy pilaf that was suitable for welcoming in Fall, but it wasn’t quite the same…

The forecast for today was warmer than yesterday, so I felt that a kale salad for lunch would be appropriate. 

Day 3 lunch: Kale Salad

Day 3 lunch: Kale Salad


Dinner, today was a deconstructed potato taco. 

I am used to satisfying my food cravings and whims without giving them a single thought.  If I want soup on a chilly Autumn day, I can stop by the grocery store or indulge in Panera take-out (and pick up a warm latte while I’m there). If I change my mind, I know I have enough food in my fridge and in my pantry to make a number of satisfying replacements. If I’m not in the mood to cook anything at all, there are four different delivery places programmed in my phone. 

The restrictions of this challenge are suffocating. 

And I still really, really, want soup. 

Learning to Get Creative

CFC Day 2:

Breakfast: 6oz low-fat yogurt w/ 8 blackberries = $1.04
Lunch: Penne (½ cup), pasta sauce (2oz) and 1 chicken tender = $1.65
Snack: n/a
Dinner: Whole grain pita with hummus, chicken, feta, green onions, and cucumbers = $1.74

Daily Total = $4.41 = 1,443 calories

Challenges: I skipped my afternoon snack today so I would have more wiggle room to budget my dinner. I ended up going over the daily allotment by $.03 and realized how much every single item counts. Normally, when making meals, I tend to snack on the veggies as I chop them but I knew that if I did that, I would not have any to put on my pita. My self-control was definitely tested. 

Lessons Learned: I found myself becoming very creative with the ingredients I had. Instead of looking up recipes that may require me to go out and purchase additional items, I just took a look at what I had and chose to go with a Greek theme and just threw this together. A week ago, I probably would have purchased an item such as my pita creation for $5+ on the go. Now that I know I can make one for under $2, this will be added to my weekly lunch schedule. Plus, I made an additional one for lunch tomorrow!  

Nutritional Information Courtesy of MyFitnessPal App

Blog entry from Jaqueline Hess from Feeding America San Diego. Jacqueline is taking the CalFresh Challenge for the entire month of September! To access all her entries, you can visit her site here

Day 3: Food without pleasure.

Food is such an inextricably linked part of my world, my aesthetic – heck, my husband is a chef and I have a Master’s degree in Food Studies. You can imagine why the magical internet linked our online dating profiles together that fateful day, and you can further imagine how much of our pleasure derives from sharing food and cooking.

Yesterday morning and afternoon were fine, as I generally do not eat extravagant or terribly exciting foods during my work day (though sometimes I do since we work in a vibrant Mexican, Vietnamese neighborhood of San Diego), but when I got home I began to stare down the monotony of another dinner of pasta, rice, or beans as its main component. I haven’t been really hungry, per say, because I am filling myself with foods that satiate, but my palette is screaming for flavor and my heart misses that from which I derive pleasure: the creativity of dreaming up my next dish, the excitement of culling together the ingredients and making them meld into a wonderful treat. When you work really hard all day, and life is hectic, sometimes the most fulfilling moment in that 24 hours can be a great meal and a lovely glass of wine. At least for me it can be.

I am writing a book on prison food and I write a lot about the monotony of repetitive meals and the deprivation of choice. I am very, very slightly glimpsing toward that feeling of having simply meals that fill the belly rather than ones that delight. I have read that with poverty comes a huge amount of boredom, and I am beginning to see how detrimental to spirit that can be.

Food is a true pleasure. Almost universally people find happiness and community in it. It is the one thing we are forced to do every day to keep ourselves alive that we can also turn into moments of sheer happiness. All of that changes on food stamps.

Get Ready for the CalFresh Challenge!

Hi CalFresh Challenge Participants!

Happy Friday! Thank you so much for signing up for the 2015 CalFresh Challenge! We’re thrilled to announce that elected officials Senator Ben Hueso and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez will both be participating in the Challenge, along with Social Service Advisory Board member Carol Lewis and Kathlyn Mead, CEO of the San Diego Foundation!  

As you start thinking about next week's challenge, we wanted to share with you:

  • Quick video about SNAP/CalFresh facts
  • Shopping tips and sample meal plans for the CalFresh Challenge
  • Quick reminder to share your pictures and insights with us!
  • Invite you to our Fête to Fight Hunger event on September 30th

SNAP Facts vs. Myths
As you embark on the CalFresh Challenge, we think it’s important to have some information about the CalFresh/SNAP program! 

Shopping Tips and Meal Planning

An important part of the CalFresh Challenge is recognizing the challenging nature of meal planning. For tips and resources, please check out our “Tips” section on our site.

This year, we also have partnered up with an intern with UCSD Center for Community Health to create sample meal plans for the week of the Challenge that meet this year’s food budget of $30.67 per person and we are looking for help testing them out! Please consider using one of the following meal plans and let us know your thoughts!

Reminder to Share Stories!

One of the biggest pieces of the CalFresh Challenge is sharing your experiences with your friends and peers! We are looking for:

  • Pictures/short videos of your meals and experiences at the supermarket!
  • Submit your stories to us at marcia@sdhunger.org and we will post it on our blog. Please submit any blog entries or pictures by 10am and we will have them on our site by 1pm.
    • Entries should include what you ate, the cost of your meal, any challenges you encounter, physical or emotional experiences, and any insights you’re having.
    • For examples of our previous blogs, you can check out blog entries here!
  • Sharing any of your “aha! Moments” or other surprises with us through our Facebook and Twitter. This year, you can use the #CalFreshChallenge to share your experiences with other participants.

Consider Joining Us at our First Annual Fête to Fight Hunger!

Fête to Fight Hunger will be held on Wednesday September 30th from 5:30-7:30pm at Draft Republic in UTC. Please join us if you can to close out Hunger Action Month, share stories among those that took the CalFresh Challenge, and mingle with fellow anti-hunger advocates while enjoying some amazing food and drinks!
For tickets and information, please visit our event page. For those that are participating in the Peer to Peer fundraiser, if you are able to raise at least $100, you can attend the event for free!
Thank you again for taking the CalFresh Challenge! I look forward to hearing stories about your experience and to take the Challenge alongside all of you!

All the best,