Six dollars a day.
That’s what Foodbank of Santa Barbara County CEO Eric Talkin is spending on food for the next three weeks.
It’s all part of the Food Security Challenge, a month-long exploration for Talkin about what it takes to stay healthy and nourished while facing the hardship many in Santa Barbara County confront after the loss of a job or discovering that low-wage employment won’t cover expenses.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker took the same challenge for a week in December to protest cuts to the federal food-stamp program, or SNAP.
Expanding on Booker’s challenge, Talkin will be adding three weeks to the time period, but the concepts are the same.
Talkin will have to spend the equivalent of what he would receive in food stamps, Foodbank distributions and the like if he qualified.
During the next three weeks, he’s not actually taking food from the Foodbank or from food stamps, but buying the equivalent with his own money.
Jan. 14 was Talkin’s first day on the new budget, and he started by going to down to a Foodbank distribution center at Franklin School on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside.
Talkin said he was able to pick up a 10-pound chicken, some potatoes, spaghetti sauce and other items.
“It came to about $80 worth of groceries. … That’s huge,” he said.
Even with the food given out at the distribution, Talkin still had to wait an hour, which would be a problem if someone were working and couldn’t take time off.
Noozhawk caught up with Talkin this week as he shopped for basics to fill in the gaps from the distribution center, and was looking for items such as rice, beans and cooking oil.
At that point, he’d had only a pear for breakfast.
To find the cheapest prices on basics, Talkin had a spreadsheet on a clipboard, comparing prices from Chapala Market, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and Trader Joe’s.
He looked at a bag of brown rice, and found it to be cheapest. Eating healthy on this type of a budget is difficult, and the temptation of cheap calories is a difficult one to overcome.
Talkin examined peanut butter, a cheap nutritious source of protein, and found that a small jar of the all-natural stuff is a good $3 more than a jar mixed with jelly and loaded with extra sugar.
A couple of aisles over, an entire shelf of Ramen noodles loomed over him, but Talkin said resolutely, “I’m going to make my own soup.”
He recounted a time going through a divorce when his own money was tight, and he was forced to buy food on a strict budget.
He recalled his mother drying teabags in college so she could use them a second time, and said that the reality of survival with the high prices of food is a stark one.
Just mentioning the words “food stamps” is incendiary in American culture, he said, and touches off discussions about individualism, welfare and self-worth.
But food stamps are value neutral, and the rules to get them are tight, he said.
“We want to begin the discussion,” he said. “It’s scary for a lot of people, because then they start to think, ‘I could be in this situation.’”
For others, it conjures up fear and suspicion about people taking advantage of the system, he said.
In Santa Barbara County, many people who qualify for food stamps aren’t enrolled in the program, because of pride, or because they don’t have time to take on the “bureaucratic maze” that they sometimes involve, Talkin said.
That adds up to a loss of millions of dollars of federal money not being spent in the county, he said.
Talkin encouraged people who want to get involved in ending hunger in Santa Barbara County to donate to the Foodbank’s Virtual Food Drive, where people can donate money, which than can be leveraged exponentially since the Foodbank can purchase food items often at pennies on the dollar.
Click here to track Talkin’s progress with his challenge.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.