Wednesday, April 20, 2016

April 3 [Day 3]: Distortion

7am: Remember how I described oatmeal as a blank canvas that I can dress up with all the colors and textures I desire? Today, it is like a piece of loose leaf, served up with a gnawed no.2 pencil and an assignment to write the same sentence seventy-seven times: "My breakfast is an off-white bowl of drudgery."
An hour later, I'm headed home on the train. I take the opportunity to put my calories for yesterday into MyFitnessPal and see where I netted out. Normally, I need ~2500 to sustain my daily lifestyle. Yesterday's run burned an extra 1700, greatly increasing my caloric needs, especially in the form of high-quality carbs and protein to aid muscle recovery. 
So, with a target of 4200 in mind, I enter my final food item for the day (an extra half tablespoon of PB just before bed), and the app displays my result: 1635. 
I blink. 1635? Meaning, my calorie intake was 60% below my needs?
But I felt fine on the run itself. Heck, I was even cheery, carrying on conversation while climbing 3000 feet! I was confident I could carry on my training with minimal hitches, confident I could scrounge enough calories to refill the tank. 

6:30pm: As part of the Challenge rules, we agreed to allow for food obtained at religious events to not count against the daily budget. So when I found out my church was hosting a dinner event, I made absolutely sure to block off the time, even arriving early to help cook (and discreetly direct a few scraps to my mouth). When dinner is served, I want to dance as I heap my plate embarrassingly full of chicken and mashed potatoes. Someone had brought homemade cookies, and I take two from the plate, an obvious choice over the apple slices displayed next to it. 
Wait - how did I overlook the apple to quickly? I enjoy a good cookie every now and then, but downing two at once (we'll overlook the third I stashed in my bag for later) was out of character. That after I'd gone up for seconds on the dinner plate, equally rare among my measured intake habits. 
But I don't know if I'll have this kind of opportunity again before the Challenge ends. The only logical conclusion, then, is to feed myself until it's uncomfortable, with the highest-calorie foods I can reach. Right? 
And so it is that just three days in, I see my levees of healthful discipline have caved to a surge of desperation. The scariest part is, I don't even feel guilty for the amount I ate. I feel relieved. My relationship with food has been distorted from one of conscious enjoyment to one of hoarding for survival's sake, and I can't help but wonder if this is how metabolic diseases begin. 

April 2 [Day 2]: Mercy

7am: Enjoying the oatmeal, PB (we're on a nickname basis now), and banana that will fuel me through a long training run in the Marin Headlands. Context: I'm an athletic and outdoors junkie. For me, the feat of running up a mountain or swimming in open water isn't merely physical, it's cerebral. I may (correction: I do) fall the first 15 times I try a new yoga inversion, but when I finally stick it, my courage is rewarded. I've empowered myself to aspire - and that translates directly to how I interact with the world through my work. The virtuous and addicting cycle of aim, reward, aim higher compels me to push my limits. If I never do, I'll always think I have them. 
One of the experiments embedded in this Challenge, then, is how readily a body can participate in this cycle of physical challenge and reward while being fed the scantiest of fare. For if the answer is it can't, then perhaps, neither can that person gain the self-confidence I do from summiting Mt. Tamalpais, nor  the social access that comes with it (eavesdrop on a group of cyclists enjoying a post-ride coffee while their carbon bikes rest nearby, you'll know what I mean) - and I get both, simply because I have the nutritional means to do so. Extrapolate that across years, and perhaps you'll agree that the ability to pursue physical challenges is more than a matter of personal health - it's a matter of personal economics. Could I make it through? 14 miles and 3000' of elevation later, I'd know.

9:15am: On the trail, 7 miles in, homemade granola bar in hand, overlooking the Pacific. This beats $25 brunch any day.

6:30pm: I've spent the past 24 hours in San Francisco and am getting ready to go home to the Peninsula, where a bounty of beans and a beautiful cantaloupe are sounding their siren song from my kitchen, when my fiance tells me he's not feeling well. 
Invariably, the right thing to do is to say, "Of COURSE I will stay", and immediately go retrieve takeout chicken soup so that we can spend the evening contemplating which documentary to watch about outer space. Yet I can't extend that offer - I can't afford to. But it's not just that...I'm out of food. I want to go home to my cantaloupe. I need to go home to my cantaloupe.
No no, I say to myself, his needs trump a hunk of fruit. "I'll stay here," I offer with ill-concealed hesitation, knowing that I have to say it quickly or else teeter into temptation again.

7pm: He wants fresh air, so we go for a walk. We chat. And about every thirty seconds, my thoughts get interrupted by a bowling ball-sized piece of produce, clamoring toward any focus I might have going and knocking it to the floor. Cantaloupe. Cantaloupe, cantaloupe, cantaloupe. It is shackling my thoughts.
Strangely, I'm not even hungry at this particular moment. And yet I feel my face crinkling, my eyes straining, my brow furrowing. Why? Why is a piece of fruit intruding on my time with someone who needs me, why is it keeping me from being present, and adding further strain to his situation as a result? All of this while I don't even feel hungry!
And as I'm growing visibly upset about not being able to get to that piece of food, I realize my frustration isn't about wanting's about wanting control. I am witnessing myself become a captive to food, and I feel threatened - threatened because I'm watching this experience seize a possession I thought was invulnerable to any outside force: my mind.
I resolve that I must do something to gain power, to commit some act that will put control back in my hands. The best I can come up with, ironically, is to ask someone else to do that for me: to beg.

7:56pm: I casually enter unnamed coffee chain. I did my homework: I know the store closes in 4 minutes, I know they serve fresh food, and I know that food has an expiration date. I'm hoping that date is today. I do one final rehearsal of my lines and approach the counter.
Barista: "What can I get for you?"
Me: "Um, hi. I have a somewhat strange request. I know that you have to get rid of the fresh food when it expires, and I know you close in 4 minutes. Do you have any items expiring today that you'd give to me?"
Barista: "Um..." she moves quickly down the counter and rummages through a paper bag. "Yeah, I have a parfait, do you want that?"
A whole parfait? Good gracious, YES! I take it and fumble through some expression of gratitude: "This is huge. Like, totally huge. THANK YOU!" No doubt she wondered why the girl in the Nikes and Marmot jacket was begging for food, but I was too ecstatic to linger. I literally ran home to show my fiance my trophy. Never mind I'm partly lactose intolerant and would normally cringe at the prospect of consuming this sugar-laden indigestion inducer; today, I won. And I don't mean the parfait - I won someone's mercy.

As I savor the sweet spoils of shamelessness, I review with my fiance where my head has traveled over the past two hours. To his unending credit, he not only supports me in this experiment (how many people would simply say, "Ok" when you tell them you're going out to beg for food), on this night he sets aside that he's feeling lousy and seeks to understand what I'm experiencing. 
"It's frustrating," I say. "I want to be fully present with you, I knew it was the most important thing I could have been doing at that moment, and yet a cantaloupe was intruding on that. A cantaloupe! How stupid is that? It's like...I felt trapped."
He doesn't miss a beat: "Now add a drug addiction, scabies, and a disavowed family, and maybe that's what poverty really looks like." 
He's right on. I am only experiencing a fraction of poverty's challenges. And if this fraction is any indication, poverty is a trap indeed.

April 1 [Day 1]: Brown out

7am: Oatmeal is my go-to breakfast. Normally it's a blank canvas onto which I happily deliver the spoils of my latest visit to the Whole Foods superfoods shelf: goji berries, chia seeds, maca pwder, cacao nibs. Today, the only ornament I add is a glob of peanut butter. But woe to the challenger that threatens my daily coffee making ritual...although there is some irony in using a V60 to brew McCafe.

9:45am: Hunger hits, also not abnormal for this time of day. The trusty peanut butter jar that will become my sidekick for the week is ready for action - one spoonful of the crunchy stuff and I've kicked distraction for now.

12pm: Lunchtime. Normally, I'm a regular in the salad bar line of the on-site cafeteria - but today even the smallest container would break my budget. So today, I'm dining on the most popularly referenced budget lunch there is: rice and beans. The diversity of flavor is roughly on par with the diversity of colors I see on the plate - so I wander innocently into the cafeteria, and what do you know, when I leave there's one less tablespoon of sriracha in their inventory. Stealing? Leveraging resources? Lines blur quickly.

4pm: I'm hungry. Peanut butter will be my saving grace.
4:15pm: Why did I spend $2.50 on romaine lettuce, which has the caloric density of paper?
4:16pm: My professor is discussing tax implications of various forms of stock-based compensation. Here's some math: if peanut butter is $0.13 a tablespoon, how many more calories could I get from selling that dumb romaine on the street for 80 cents on the dollar? (By the it abnormal to feel resentment toward a vegetable?)

9:30pm: Another chromatically stimulating meal (eggs and sweet potatoes). My normal relationship with food - one of discovery, appreciation, and play - has been replaced today with interactions I can best characterize as utilitarian. When I head to bed, I feel fed; but I don't feel full.

Friday, April 8, 2016

March 31, T-1 days: Not your average (Trader) Joe shopping

Normally, my grocery store excursions follow this storyline:
  • Lock bike to rack, often more crowded than parking lot due to high local bourgeois index.
  • Beeline to produce. Fill basket with enough green to put Jolly Giant to shame.
  • Spot persimmon promo. Ooh, pretty. Quickly, though, I flashback to consumer behavior class at fancy business school and hear Dan Kahneman's voice: come on now, use your frontal lobe. Walk away. 
  • Test herbed quinoa sample while perusing the latest in natural protein bars. Off with you, filthy whey imposters!
  • Line up - gee, how did two persimmons appear in my basket? - and lament with cashier that if only everyone used Apple Pay the checkout would be a better place.
Got that picture? Good. Now set it on fire, and get ready for the cultural adventure that was shopping for SNAP week.

3:45pm: It's been ~6 years since I set foot in a big-box, low-price American grocer. Not out of disdain, mind you - I'm all for thrift - but as a function of proximity. Since 2010 I've lived only in urban environments, where the coexistence of space constraints and philosophically-driven consumers (looking at you, fellow yuppies) promote high-quality, high-cost grocery offerings.   

Which means that before I even walk in the door of big-box suburban retailer on this particular day, I notice disparities against my normal experience. 
  • Size of parking lot > size of store footprint 
  • The first shopping carts I see have cushy built-in child seats - two, in fact (subtle promotion for the replacement rate?)
  • Two vending machines serve as greeters: one for water, one for soda. Guess which is cheaper.
3:50pm: Armed with my laboriously crafted list, I follow my habit and gravitate to produce. Only, unlike Whole Foods, the produce isn't the first thing you see in this shopping environment - or the second, or the third. No, I have to walk by a Lays chip promotion, children's clothing, and two children celebrating the discovery that a soda liter costs $1 before I reach my destination. 

3:53pm: Wow, produce aisles can be uninspiring after all. I'm given almost no opportunity to express my preferences as a consumer. Apples? Three kinds. Potatoes? 5lb bag or nothin'. Kale? What means kale? I do record a small victory when I notice that the Granny Smiths are sourced from both Chile and Washington, and dutifully pluck out the fruits that were *not* shipped 6000 miles so that consumers could completely overlook the fact that foods are seasonal.

My one tiny expression of values: USA-grown apples

3:56pm: I'm almost done with produce when...oh my gosh, did I just see the word "organic"?! It's true - a lone row of broccoli presents itself for a $0.75 premium to its conventional cousin. $0.75? No sweat. This crowny cruciferous has a home.   

4:02pm: Since when is there such a thing as gallon tubs of Mrs. Butterworth's? And was that the sound of a baby crying? I can't remember the last time I heard that in a grocery store. I guess babies don't come to Trader Joe's at 8pm when I bike home.

She's real, folks

Things I don't see at Whole Foods #77: Nabisco corporate HQ

4:12pm: As I put each item in my cart, I add it to a google spreadsheet (which has added several minutes to this excursion), and I'm rubbing shoulders with my $31.50 budget. Yet, there's one critical element left to procure: coffee. Ordinarily, I am a proud coffee snob who subscribes to the ritual of fresh grinding her single-origin roast for her daily V60 pourover, and celebrating when Philz goes on sale for $12/lb.
Thus, my face falls as I scrutinize the options in front of me. Starbucks is $7/lb - dream world. Instant coffee is cheapest, but I can't let it come to that. Yet, there's hope: if I can find $2 in my budget, I can afford the inviting, suddenly aspirational bag of Ray Kroc's finest McCafe.
I stare into the cart. Beans and potatoes are a must. Apples are locked in too. I can get the smaller cheese package, though it was higher cost/oz, but that's only $1.50. Then I see the broccoli, peeking innocently from underneath the rice. "Would you really put us back?" it pleads. "What about your values?" Well, I silently respond, Today, values mean something different.

4:20pm: I hadn't the foggiest idea there were so many tabloid options. But really, what pairs better with mini donuts, who neighbor them on the shelf in the checkout line? Gone are fair trade chocolate and running magazines, in are a different kind of impulse-buy.

4:30pm: I guess this shopping trip wouldn't be complete without solicitation in the parking lot on my way out. No thank you, I would not like to donate to an ambiguous unnamed charitable cause. 

4:50pm: Through rush hour traffic and finally home. 90 minutes sunk on shopping. And now, somewhere between returning this car and finishing 2-3 hours of work, I have to cook.

11:30pm: Yes, that's right. And all I've managed to cook is a pound of beans and a pan of granola bars. 
Having heard my kitchen activity throughout the evening, one of my roommates walks in. "Hey, I'm going to bed, do you think you can finish this later?" I haven't even started the minestrone, which is supposed to supply a third of my meals. Sigh. Defeated and tired, I close up shop for the night, treating myself to one last Ghirardelli square before I wake up to seven days of oatmeal, peanut butter, and the constant preoccupation of what and how I will eat.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

March 30: Planning ain't free

March 30, 3pm
All the SNAP Challenge resources I read suggested planning the week's menu in advance. Normally this exercise takes a grand total of about 30 minutes/week for me - the time it takes me to go to the store a couple times and buy my staples. I've already spent two full hours on it this week and I'm not even done yet.

Being on a budget, I decide to look at store specials. Safeway has a promo on cheese, but Walmart's eggs are cheaper, and I don't have time to go to both. And what about Walgreen's? Grocery Outlet? By the time I decide on Walmart I realize I've spent 30 minutes looking at flyers. I wish there was a service that would let me put together the shopping cart I want and then tell me which store could sell it to me cheapest that week. 

I peruse Walmart's online grocery selection - which proves VERY useful because they publish price per ounce. I put together my cart and realize I qualify for free delivery - especially useful given I don't have a car, and can use that time to complete more work. I have to leave for a meeting but I'll schedule a delivery time when I'm finished.

Shoot. No delivery spots left for tomorrow. And the price of oatmeal went up. Double shoot.
Now I have to solve the procurement puzzle. I have no car. It's too far on my bike. I look up bus routes - 30 minutes each way? Who has that kind of time? 

I start appealing to friends: "Hey, any chance you're going grocery shopping tomorrow?" Repeated nos. I look into zipcar, which would cost a $70 annual membership and $7/hour. Ha! As if my budget would fit that. 

Finally a generous friend comes through and allows me to borrow his car, saving me the hour round trip bus tour. I've now spent three hours on the shopping list, and a full hour on the transportation quandry. That's 8x my normal time spent grocery shopping - which, at minimum wage, is $40 of lost opportunity for income. And I haven't even bought an ounce of food yet.

Monday, April 4, 2016

March 29: "So you're a privileged yuppie pretending to be poor?"

So mused my father when I told him that for the first week of April, I and a dozen classmates had pledged to take the SNAP Challenge: eating on the equivalent of SNAP (food stamp) benefits, $4.50/day.

My answer? "Yep."

Among those privileges is that I get to, and do, rejoice in the experience of food - an experience that extends beyond eating to discovering, sharing, receiving, experimenting, understanding, and respecting. When it comes to what I spend to access that experience, I am conscious, but not constrained. 

Food is not just calories to me. It's a social medium. Fuel for my athletic goals. An inexhaustible entry point for indulging my perpetual curiosity about human behavior.  

So why am I setting that aside?

Cynics would say this is an exercise of luxury: an advantaged, educated professional pretends to live in poverty for a week to make for heart-wrenching fodder at her next dinner party, or perhaps motivate TED to send that invitation she's been waiting for. 

What I say to those cynics is the same thing I said to my father: bingo, you're right (yeah, the TED part too). 

I enjoy being involved in food so much that I've made it my career, as a member of the food and agriculture industry. I chose to join that industry for two main reasons:
1) I see it as a basic human right that all people should be able to procure for themselves nutritious, sufficient, sustainable, and dignified food (which is not the same as simply having enough calories)
2) I am ashamed of the modern food system's inability to deliver on that. Sure, we produce a lot of calories. But if you place yourself at that point of production, and take a look up and down the supply chain, you'll see fault lines:
  • The quality of those calories is highly variable
  • Systemic incentives often encourage us - producers and consumers - to deprioritize quality
  • Major distribution problems collectively cause 30-40% of the food we produce to go uneaten*
These are tractable problems, and I intend to help solve them, because I see public health as one of the biggest economic threats of my generation. 45 million Americans today use SNAP, meaning 45 million lack that access and dignity I spoke of. Lack of proper nutrition = impaired mental performance = insufficient education = loss of economic production, times 45 million. We NEED to solve it.  

And if you want to serve your customer's need, well, you have to go on her journey.  

Will this deliver enlightenment, empathy, and marvelous insights? Will it be like any other week, just with more Tupperware to wash? I'll come to see. 

But I already believe this: that we cannot comfort the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable.