For 30 days, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County CEO Erik Talkin explored the reality of living on food stamps and other food and nutrition assistance, and reported out to the community on his “Food Security Challenge” in a series of articles, blog and social media posts.
While challenging himself to better understand the food insecurity that Foodbank clients face, Talkin was also on a mission to spark communitywide dialogue around hunger, food security, food literacy, and the advocacy and action needed around these issues.
One in four Santa Barbara County residents receives food support from the Foodbank, through its direct programs or through food distribution and education programs provided through the organization’s 300 agency partners. There are only 11 more counties in all 58 California counties that are more food insecure than Santa Barbara.
“Thirty days felt like a long time to me, but for some of our friends and neighbors in Santa Barbara, this is the reality year in and year out,” Talkin said as he began his challenge in January. “My experience could never replicate what they face, but it would help me understand and share what are the stakes around the issue that the Foodbank grapples with every day.”
Each week, Talkin explored a different aspect of living on food stamps: from signing up for CalFresh (California’s name for the Food Stamp program) to finding the nonprofit services available to him in his Eastside neighborhood; from learning how to grow some of his own food, to seeking resources to help him eat healthy with limited funds. During the final week, he lived for a couple of days in his car, turning to services that people and families who have recently become homeless might experience.
Working families throughout Santa Barbara County make up a significant percent of those eligible for food stamps and local programs. While losing a job may precipitate a crisis in food security, the high cost of housing in Santa Barbara County, transportation and other factors needed to stay employed can leave families unable to afford enough food.
“The ‘safety net’ is straining,” Talkin said. “When people support the Foodbank and our ability to help local nonprofit member agencies provide critical services, it helps the entire community stay strong.”
Talkin had wanted to participate in this type of challenge for some time, as other food banks have held variations on Food Stamp Challenges throughout the years. With recent threats to the federal food stamp program (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) at the national level, Talkin saw this as a time to get people focused on the issue.
Talkin concludes that food or food stamps alone are not a solution to hunger, but that the skills to use that food must be accessible to enable families to move “from hunger to health”:
“That food stamps (CalFresh/SNAP) by themselves are not enough to prevent a person sliding in expensive, destructive ill health. They need to be supplemented by other sources of food, distributions by the Foodbank, and by the ability to grow some of your own food,” and that “the food itself is not enough. Without the skills and empowerment about how to plan, shop, cook and store that food, you might as well toss away all that fresh produce. It means a family making the effort to find the time to cook and eat together, to find the space to cook and the cooking instruments (blenders, slow cookers) that help them stretch their food resources.”
Talkin finishes his challenge with a stronger commitment than ever to the Foodbank’s role in ending hunger and transforming the health of Santa Barbara County through good nutrition.
“This goal is vital, it’s possible and it’s joyful,” he said. “There’s not much else that makes life worth living than sharing a healthy, delicious meal with those we love.”
After being on the receiving end of assistance and support for 30 days, Talkin’s last blog entry describes the final moments of his challenge, giving back and giving thanks as a volunteer:
“My month ended at exactly the place it needed to. Not at a rendezvous with my old pal McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip, but with a morning spent volunteering with the Foodbank’s ‘Brown Bag’ grocery program for seniors. I had been helped by the community around me through Foodbank food distributions paid for by so many members of that community. I had withdrawn from that ‘bank’ when I needed to, and now it was time for me to make a deposit – time, money, support it’s all needed.
“To be able to pack together healthy fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen hams and canned and dry goods, to break down boxes and clean up, all of it was a wonderful form of nourishment for me. Those men and women who came to the Westside Community Center to receive that food really needed help. The food itself was the main course, but the sweetest dessert of all was for them to know that the community cared enough about them to provide that food.”
The Challenge Continues, the End as a Beginning
Talkin is now back to his regular blog, Hunger into Health. His first post-challenge post encourages others to create their own week long Food Security Challenge and offers advice and resources to make their challenges into opportunities for the community.
— Candice Tang Nyholt is a publicist representing the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.