It’s suddenly autumn here, & for cruel, inexplicable reasons the air now smells of coffee & doughnuts every morning. I had planned on making english muffins with peanut butter & apples for breakfast Saturday morning, but after discovering that every single apple I had bought was laced through with brownish veins, I scrapped the initial plan & ran out for a box of plain instant oatmeal ($1.99/8 packets) & a bag of frozen mixed berries ($4.09 – ouch). Add in the box of tea I snagged ($1.99/36 packets of ‘orange pekoe’ tea) & tax, & my weekly tab was up to $41.09. Not the most promising tally.

The soymilk was gone by Saturday night, & when faced with the cost of replacing it, I got a 79 cent can of garbanzo beans instead, blending them with a tablespoon of my peanut butter, some spices & olive oil to make hummus (it should be noted that, since the spices & olive oil had already been in my cabinet for some time, I felt free to use them rather than buy new things & add that to my weekly tally). As I ate my hummus I stared longingly at a recipe for Bill Granger’s corn fritters, wondering how much a bag of rice flour would set me back. Fact: staring at a screen of deliciousness will not bring it to life. Fact: on a lonely Saturday afternoon, this truth did nothing to stop my prayers, and I stared at those fritters with catatonic intensity, breaking my tantric pose only when the screen, wobbling slightly, grew damp with my own slobber. Fact: Applecare does not cover water damage.

By Monday the english muffins were gone, as was most of the peanut butter & all the vegetables (though they were sad & few to begin with). I had my oatmeal & berries for breakfast, but was hungry within an hour so I – again – turned to my boss’s plentiful supply of biscuits & tea. I purchased a quarter pound of pasta salad from C-Town later that afternoon for $1.67 which, along with the dregs of the yogurt & the last of the berries, provided me with a weird, vaguely plastic-y & mostly indigestible lunch. Starving by seven, my dinner was kindly provided for me, a wondrous gesture as my cohabitants have been very helpful in my sticking with this cockamamie scheme. (aside: how much do I love calling my life a cockamamie scheme?)

I woke this morning with $4.24 to make it through the day. Cabinets empty & schedule tight, I held out until 1pm when I made my way to a Park Slope bodega offering pb&j on raisin bread for a staggering $3.25, eating my high-priced delicacy on the F back to Manhattan.

I sit here now, Tuesday night, the last night of my hunger challenge, sipping tea & jangling change in my pocket, wondering how I might have done this differently. Could I have stretched my $47 better? How do other people make it work? How do other people make it work for entire families? I realize that “supplemental” is the key word here – the food stipend offered by the government is not intended to provide complete coverage of an individual’s food supply. Still, with the other costs of living, it is an amount that many heavily rely upon. With 99 cents & no food left at the end of the challenge, I do not envy those who do.

The hunger challenge truly lived up to its name, pushing me in economic, physical and psychological ways. The real question, though, is did it live up to my personal purpose: did this exercise work to make me more empathetic to those living on supplemental government aid? Well, yes & no. Yes, I can now appreciate the challenges of a fixed income in a way that, prior to this experiment, I could not. Yes, I realize the difficulties of eating well, or just eating healthfully, on such a restricted stipend, one which is accepted only at specific locations. At the same time, however, I could have quit this experiment any time I wished. Were I to have used up all of my funds & food within the first, say, day, I could easily abandoned the hunger challenge & run out for more groceries. Good groceries, too – I would not have been limited to shop only at those locations accepting food stamps/SNAP debit cards.

Ultimately, I’m glad I carried out the experiment. I realize that I will never wholly remove myself from my own world, regardless of how deeply I immerse myself in this challenge or that. This is, however, no reason to not at least try. With so many ships sailing around these seas, it’s helpful to know where some of them are sailing from.

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