Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting back on board.

Well, obviously I never finished writing about the experiment. I'm thinking about taking a new direction for this blog - writing about eating cheaply and well. As you all know, a large portion of the population eats on a three dollar a day budget. And while I wanted to explore the truth of living on that sort of budget through this blog, the fact of the matter is that writing about "suffering" (in the sense of having to deal with understaffed and underfunded public transit, walking to work, things of that nature) tend to feel very self-indulgent to me.

What doesn't feel indulgent is sharing information. What doesn't feel indulgent is educating people about their options - how to cook cheaply, eat cheaply, and more importantly eat WELL. Anyone can eat on a three dollar a day budget - but do it for a few years without any guidance or suggestions and tell me how your health problems start stacking up. The difficult thing is eating things that are relatively HEALTHY while eating on that kind of budget, and that's a trick and a half.

So. Whether there's interest out there or not, I'm probably going to start blogging about that soon. Look for a revamp of this blog shortly.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What a night.

I'll accept with poise, with grace / When they draw my name from the lottery - Jimmy Eat World, "Big Casino"

I've got a story to tell you that is only tangentially food-related, but I think you'll enjoy it and it does make sense in the context of this blog. It's all about my day yesterday and how, if I were the type of person who really was living on three dollars a day, the events of yesterday would have affected me far more profoundly than they have affected me. (For new readers: I have not yet begun the experiment. The "eating on three dollars a day, using my bicycle/public  transportation to get everywhere"part starts in June.)

I started out the day yesterday attending a luau at work. Yes, I got "lei'd" by someone from Human Resources, a joke that surely never gets old - but I had a good time talking to people from my department in a more casual setting and the food was good. Like, really good. When I mentioned eating free food in an earlier blog it was events like this I had in mind. The food was plentiful and masterfully cooked and it took some real willpower not to go back for seconds (or thirds!).

Anyway, after all the food was eaten we had a little raffle giveaway. Now, I'm sure this is confirmation bias or something similar, but I've always held myself as being uncommonly lucky. I've been to casinos dozens of times and only lost money once, and then it was only $2.50. I win games of chance more often than the average person, or at least it feels that way. So when I was chosen to pick the first winning ticket out of the raffle - well, it came as no surprise to me that I picked my own name. I won a twenty-five dollar gift card to Publix, a regional grocery store, and I immediately thought of this blog - after all, twenty-five dollars would buy almost two weeks' worth of food on a three dollar a day budget - but when a colleague who doesn't own a car won a twenty-five dollar gift card to a gas station, it only made sense to trade.

With my new, free gas in my car, I thought it'd be nice to take a trip over to Tampa and specifically to hit the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. After all, I was having a lucky day, it makes sense to try and make a little money while I'm at it, right? (I promise this isn't a story about how much money i won or lost; I wouldn't really brag about that unless it was enough to pay off all my bills).

To cut through a long story involving me winning money, at the end of the night I'd turned sixty dollars into two hundred dollars - or so I thought. As I reached into my pocket to put my newest shiny hundred dollar bill into my wallet, I noticed that my wallet was missing. Long story short, it appears some sly person stole my wallet while I was gambling. I've reported it to the police and so forth, but I started thinking: the biggest things I lost were the hundred dollar bill and my driver's license. (I also lost a professional license related to my job, but that's of lesser concern at the moment.) I've already hopped online and ordered a new driver's license (the state of Florida makes that surprisingly easy, much to my relief) and, truth be told, I won't miss the hundred dollars - it was money I'd won, after all, not earned.

But what if I had no internet access? I'd have had to go to the DMV to get a replacement license, possibly having to miss work in the process, something few people can really afford to do.  What if I'd been gambling with my rent money (as more than a few people are prone to do) - how bad would that have sucked, to have that stolen out from under me by someone who's likely a professional thief?

Even a small setback like getting your wallet stolen can be a major stumbling block for someone on a limited budget, even more so if you tend to carry cash (as many people I know do - poor credit leads to them being unable to get a "regular" checking account and so they simply cash their paychecks and carry the cash - which, of course, means they never establish proper credit and the cycle continues.)

Anyway, that's all for today. Here's hoping none of you get robbed this evening, it's a real bummer.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Take me out to the ballgame

and i can tell you my love for you will still be strong after the boys of summer have gone - Don Henley, "Boys of Summer"

Let's talk about how we interact with food, shall we? I'm really just going to be covering one portion of that subject tonight, but I feel like it's an important aspect (and one that I'll go over in a more specific way in June).

There are lots of places that exist solely to sell you food, and many more that have the option of selling you food. This Saturday I was fortunate enough to attend a Tampa Bay Rays game, my first professional baseball game in around fifteen years. While the Rays didn't return me the favor by winning (or indeed, scoring), I was a little interested in seeing the food offered. You see, certain stadiums have a reputation for being particularly good gastronomically, others have a reputation for sucking. Tropicana Field is known for featuring some authentic Cuban food (by way of being located in Tampa Bay, which is a hotbed for that sort of thing).

On my way to my seat, which was excellent, I was assaulted by the choices offered. Along the first base side I was offered barbecue, pizza, burgers, and Cuban sandwiches (made, inexplicably, in the Miami style) before even getting to my seat. And once I got to my seat? The chorus really never stopped, even during at-bats. "Peanuts, getcha peanuts here!" "Carvel ice cream!" "Beer here! Ice cold beer here!" The only item genuinely tempting was the beer, and since it was what Greg of Stone Brewery would call "fizzy yellow beer" (Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Light - so, four american pale lagers? What diversity!), I never even reached for my wallet. But time and again I watched people buy food when I'd just seen them eating, food I was certain they weren't genuinely HUNGRY for. They were eating because it was something to do during the game, they were eating because it was socially acceptable to eat.

That's the heart of the matter for a lot of us: we eat because we can, because we want to, not because we need to. I know I'm guilty of it, I suspect we all are. It's an attitude I'll have to change if I hope to successfully get through June.

Monday, May 9, 2011

From point A to point B

I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like - Queen, "Bicycle Race"

Perhaps the most challenging part of the June experiment is my desire to avoid using my car. It's certainly the part of the challenge that has received the most attention from people, as most of us consider our cars as indispensable as our lungs. The fact that I'm going to be doing this in June, when it will be roughly as hot as hell outside, in an area that is not completely bicycle-friendly means that this will be an interesting challenge indeed.

I wanted to take the time to introduce you to my bicycle. Unless things change tremendously in the next few weeks, this little guy will be my primary transportation throughout June. (While I will take my local public transportation at times, the bus schedule is not entirely friendly to unusual schedules - and my working schedule will be fairly unusual during that month.) It's by no means the ideal bike for the job, but it will have to do.

It's a Huffy Cranbrook, which, as far as I can tell, is no longer in production. It has exactly one speed, has cruiser brakes and I've outfitted it with a bell (yes, a bell), a headlight and a flashing taillight for safety reasons. On it, I can make my way to work from my house in just under one hour, though the process is less than pleasant.

You see, while there are bicycle lanes along most of the major roads here, people here are openly hostile to bicyclists. Between shouted insults and thrown objects, it's obvious that riding on the road - at least on a less-than-optimal bicycle - is not the greatest idea. Luckily for me, there's an almost continuous sidewalk between my house and work. Unluckily for me, riding a bicycle on those sidewalks is, technically speaking, illegal. So what's a man to do? Do I ride in the street and stay in compliance with the law or do I ride on the sidewalk and break the law?

Man, what a stupid rhetorical question. I will do in June as I did a few weeks back when my car broke down: I'll ride on the sidewalk. Yes, I'll be consciously breaking the law in this respect but I don't care. My safety is the most important part of this experiment, and this is clearly the most unsafe part of what I'll be doing. Eating reduced portions? Hell, that's downright healthy. Riding in traffic with drunks and crazy people? No thanks.

Perhaps when this experiment is over I'll use my experiences to try and change the public perception of bicyclists around here, or to get the sidewalk law changed to be more permissive for bicyclists. For now, though, I'm just focused on preparing for the experiment and getting through the month of June.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rules and regulations

Y'all know the rules, we don't fuck with fools man - Method Man, "Rules"

So, I'd like to talk about rules for a bit. I am approaching this as an experiment after all, and without rules any experiment is doomed to failure.

If you've read through the old blog, you'll see that at one point, I was tortured as to what to do regarding "free food".  If you live and work in certain environments, free food is remarkably easy to come by. At my evening job, for example, it's not uncommon to find free sodas, free catering leftovers, things of that nature just lying around - and I don't mean half-eaten food or anything a normal person would find gross, I mean full meals that are waiting in a refrigerator for someone to eat them. In another, more social sense, free food is even easier to come by - most reasonable people, if they are able, will occasionally treat a "down on their luck" friend to a meal out somewhere. The main problem with this is that it obviously would skew my meal budget to an average of more than three dollars a day, even if I weren't the one spending the money. Take, for example,  a recent trip to a seafood restaurant with a friend, who'd graciously decided to take me out in response to NASA's most recent shuttle launch failing to launch. (I am an enormous nerd and have been waiting my entire life to see a shuttle launch "up close", and every time I've actually traveled to Titusville to watch one, it's failed to launch. Such is life.)

I ordered one of the average-priced entrees, split an appetizer with my friend and got a margarita. Glancing at the menu for the restaurant, I discover that I spent around thirty-seven dollars including my share of the appetizer. Thirty-seven dollars, for one meal! That's twelve days worth of food for someone living on a three dollar a day budget, wasted over the course of about an hour. (To make matters worse, I didn't even enjoy the meal.) Obviously, accepting free food like this would skew the average well above the accepted daily average.

But herein lies the conundrum - if someone actually on that budget were to be presented with a nice meal by a friend, would they accept it? Four years ago, I decided the answer was "yes", and I'm standing by that now. If someone offers me a free meal out, I'll take it, no questions asked. But I won't seek such things out. I won't attend functions to get free food unless I'd already be there. But if a meeting happens at work and there are doughnuts, screw it. Everyone else, regardless of budget, is eating them. I don't want to draw attention to what I'm doing, which brings me to my next point:

No one I interact with on a daily basis will know about the experiment. When people know you're doing something like this, something that requires self-control or a deviation from the norm, there's a segment of the population that wants to screw with you. There's also the idea derived from quantum mechanics that observing an experiment changes it - while that's not strictly applicable in this case, I don't want the people around me mentally tabulating what my lunch cost.

So, to sum up:
  • If I'm offered free food, I'll take it. I won't seek it out, I won't ask for it, but if it occurs naturally in a situation, I'll accept it to avoid drawing attention to what I'm doing.
  • I will not tell anyone I see on a daily basis that I'm doing this. While some of my blog readers know me "in real life", I don't see these people that frequently, and so they won't be tempted to change their attitude towards me and food. I wouldn't want to skew the results, after all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Motivation for amputation

Daddy pays for the wedding with a fistful of dollars, costs as much as the state of Guatemala- Sheryl Crow, "Motivation"

I want to take some time to explain my motivations a little bit. You see, for me this is an experiment - a month long experience in the reality that faces an ever-increasing number of Americans. Forty million Americans nationwide are on foodstamps, a number that equals the populations of Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and all of Florida with room to spare. In some major areas, like New York City, as many as one in five citizens are on foodstamps, which has lead New York City's Mayor Bloomberg to take the contentious step of attempting the use of food stamps for soda purchases - an attempt to regulate health concerns that rankles both consumers and producers of the sugary beverages. (For more information, check out this Gothamist article) Foodstamps are a public concern, and they are part of the public you live in whether you realize it or not.

Poverty, and its impact on the lives of people, is by no means a new topic. So long as there has been the exchange of goods and services, someone has been on the low end of that scale. In some cultures it has been codified and regimented, in others it's simply a social taboo. In American culture, thankfully, the effects of poverty are less pronounced than in what we would call the third world. In America, it is very hard to die from starvation. (Dying from being poor is entirely possible, thanks to the way our healthcare system is run, but that would be the subject of a whole different blog.) In America, while there are absolutely physical effects to poverty (such as obesity, increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and a myriad of other problems that we will discuss later), there are a preponderance of psychological issues that go along with being impoverished. While I certainly will talk about the physical effects of hunger, exhaustion, etc. that the experiment will undoubtedly have on me, I want to really explore the psychological effects.
However, as some of you know, I've done this experiment before, in June of 2007. Many of the results will be unsurprising to me; I've been through them before, though I did not blog about the entire experience. Certainly some things will be different; pretty much everything has gone up significantly in price since 2007, so making wise food choices will be more of a challenge now than it was then. What I'm really hoping to do is to impact all of you, either through my words or by getting you to join me in the challenge.
There are lots of ways you can join in. The biggest (and hardest) way would be to do as I do - eschew your car, eat on three dollars a day, do it for the whole month. I'm not asking anyone to make that sacrifice. A more reasonable request would be to ask you to follow the Congressional Food Stamp challenge - simply put, that you eat on three dollars a day for one week. It's an enlightening experience, one worth having.

Lastly, if you think this experiment has any validity at all, if you think something will be learned here that is worth learning, I ask that you share it with others.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A new introduction

What if this was that moment, that chance worth taking - history in the making
                        -Darius Rucker, "History in the Making"

It's hard to know where I should begin in describing this experiment. I suppose a little background information is in order. In May of 2007 I first heard of the Congressmen's Food Stamp Challenge, when a handful of Congressmen and a Governor decided to live on a "food stamp budget" for one week, which at that time was decided to be three dollars a day for food. I really liked the spirit of what they were doing, but a few things about it seemed off to me.

First, I've never heard of a government program that doled out money weekly. It's always a monthly or semimonthly program. Ask anyone who grew up in the ghetto (which I was fortunate enough to avoid) - they know when welfare checks are supposed to arrive. They know when their food stamps are supposed to come. Life in those communities ebbs and flows around these dates. This made the experiment undertaken by the politicians a bit flawed on its face, because while they would be shopping on a reduced budget, in a way they were limiting themselves even more than someone who was actually on foodstamps - they were going to the grocery store with, at most, half of what the average foodstamp recipient would have to use! (While their amount per day remained the same, it's often cheaper in the long run to buy good foods in bulk - something that would be unavailable to the politicians due to reduced funds at the outset.) It smacked of "poverty tourism", of eating like a poor person for the sake of eating like a poor person.

Second, I felt that their experiment was just too short to generate any useful data. While  a week is certainly a long time to change your eating habits, it's also a very accessible time. As a high school vegan, I used to joke that anyone could be a vegan for a week. Heck, a large portion of the population significantly changes their diet for forty days every year for Lent! So while a week seemed to short to me, and I had no direct religious command compelling me to do it for forty days, so a month seemed about right. (Truthfully, back in 2007 I didn't put that much thought into it, it was more along the lines of "They did it for a week? Screw 'em, I'll do it for a month." I've had time to reflect on that decision between then and now.)

Third, while these guys were eating on a foodstamp budget (which, again, I found to be admirable on its face, for these people who live incredibly privileged lives to voluntarily experience), they were missing out on some integral parts of the whole "being poor enough to be on foodstamps" experience. Based on the experiences of people I've known who've been on foodstamps, transportation can be an unreliable thing. When your budget is that low, minor problems with a car quickly turn into insurmountable problems. Combine that with underfunded or nonexistent public transportation in most non-urban areas and you've got a real problem of how you'll get to work if your car isn't running. In the original experiment, I said that I would walk, bike, or skateboard to work every day - something that proved to be very difficult, possibly more difficult than just restricting my dietary spending.

As I wrote yesterday, one of the things that really struck me on my return to Florida is the sheer number of bicycling commuters I saw. These were not people with nice bicycles and jerseys, these were people with bikes clearly purchased from Wal-Mart or Goodwill, biking out of neccessity rather than a desire to be "green" or even for fitness reasons. They were biking to get where they were going, despite the hundred and three degree heat, despite the humidity - they were biking because it was the only reasonable way to travel more than a mile or two.

When my car broke down a few weeks ago, I joined these ranks of bicycling commuters, riding a roughly eight and a half mile route between my home and my primary place of business. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, and it necessitated a fair amount of planning to make sure that I looked professional and didn't smell awful as I went about my day. I did it for a little over a week. These people do it for months or years at a time.

I'm not saying I'll never use my car during the month of June. It's the beginning of hurricane season and I live in a portion of Florida that has, at times, been absolutely ravaged by hurricanes hitting repeatedly in rapid succession. (It's been pointed out to me that that statement applies to any part of Florida, but I was thinking specifically of the 2004 trio of hurricanes that did so much damage to Polk County and surrounding areas.) In the event of an emergency, yes, I'll use my car - and I'll tell you when I do it. That's partially the purpose of this blog, after all - beyond sharing my experiences, I want it to keep me honest. Barring emergencies or other unusual circumstances, though, what I'll do in June of this year breaks down like this:

  • I'll eat on a budget of three dollars per day.
  • I'll use public transportation and human powered transportation to get where I'm going.
  • I'll blog about my experiences at least once per day.

Finally, I'd like to ask some of you to join in with me. Whether for a day, a week, or the whole month, I'd like you to experience what ten percent of Americans experience daily. For many of us, three dollars is less than what we'd spend on a meal, much less a day of food. I think there's a lot to be learned in the experience, and if you want to join me, there are lots of ways to participate in the experience - beyond just doing it yourself, you can share your experiences here, on our facebook page, or through Twitter. The facebook page can be found here and the Twitter account is @3DollarsADay - both of which will become more active as we approach June.
It's going to be an interesting month, and I hope you'll all learn something along with me.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A New Morning, Changing Weather

Well, four years after doing the original "Three dollars a day" challenge, I find myself in a completely different phase in my life. I've moved from Georgia to Florida, I own my home instead of renting from my father, I'm in a completely different industry and no longer work for myself. The times, as they say, are a-changin'.

But as one of my heroes would say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same. I am daily stricken by the suburban sort of poverty that surrounds me. Upon moving down here in July of 2009, I was surprised by the sheer amount of obviously underemployed people that I saw biking to work or around town every day. For those of you unaware of why that date is important, it's because in July of 2009, my new hometown experienced record high temperatures, over ten degrees higher than the average - which in Florida, is very hot indeed.

And so it comes to this - in June of this year, I'll resurrect this experiment. Whether I blog about it remains up in the air, for now. If I feel that other people would benefit from reading about my experiences, I'll blog it. If not, it'll be a personal challenge - which is how the original ended up anyway.