A lemon never looked so good.
Erik Talkin stood in the center of the multipurpose room at Isla Vista Elementary on Thursday afternoon, using his cell phone to take pictures of produce and other items the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County CEO could take home on a tight budget.
This month he’s eating on just $6.46 a day — the equivalent of a single person’s monthly food stamps allotment — and since he already blew nearly half of his budget in the first week at Trader Joe’s, he visited the Isla Vista Healthy School Pantry for the free food his organization provides to those in similar situations.
In Santa Barbara County, where the cost of living is high and where one in four residents use the Foodbank’s services, Talkin is far from alone.
A cordial line of locals wrapped around the large room onto the sidewalk outside, with a heartbreaking number of strollers.
“A lot of people in America give up meals to feed someone else in their family,” Talkin said, which is why he symbolically fasted on Sunday before embarking on his 30-Day Food Security Challenge Monday.
“Mothers will systematically not have breakfast. People have very little money even if they’re working a number of jobs. Food always gets squeezed out.”
More than half of households are forced to choose between eating and paying for utilities, he said, or paying the rent or mortgage.
Talkin took part in the one-man, one-month challenge for the first time last year and lost eight pounds in the process — an outcome he hopes to avoid by exercising more and staying away from cheaper, processed foods.
For breakfast, he had oatmeal with water and nuts. Lunch was an egg mixed with vegetables. He had sunflower seeds for a snack, and at the pantry he searched for a lemon, spinach, carrots, anything he could make last.
Because so many county residents need food help — the Foodbank served more than 140,000 people in 2014 alone, 50,000 of them children — Talkin wasn’t taking any food. He bought equivalents elsewhere.
The IV Healthy School Food Pantry consistently serves 150 families, allowing them to take what they need from meat, produce, diapers and more once a month, said Kyli Gallington, the Foodbank’s program and event manager.
The event also requires recipients visit different booths with information on resources and about CalFresh, the state’s food stamps program.
“What you’re seeing here is very symbolic of what the Foodbank is trying to do now,” Talkin said. “It’s tough being hungry. I couldn’t make it. I’d be begging on the streets. I couldn’t survive without these types of programs.”
During this year’s challenge, Talkin will focus each week on a topic, including how to sign up for CalFresh, learning how to grow and cook his own healthy food and taking a broader view of hunger nationwide.
“My feat is so small,” he said. “There are so many people living like this. Everyone is a couple of paychecks away from disaster.”