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.


Alaina said...

Thanks for laying all this out. I think you're doing justice to the lives of the people that do this day to day by taking all the variables into consideration as you mentioned, especially when it comes to transportation. I've gone grocery shopping using local transportation multiple times and it's very limiting, you can only buy what you can carry. Poverty and lack of reliable food access are very real and I'm looking forward to this project hopefully opening some eyes.

VenomForMasses said...

"How much do you think Senators make? They now make $154,700 a year. But they say it will stimulate the economy because eventually that money will trickle down to the liquor stores, the hookers, the brothels ... then it will get back in the community." —Jay Leno, on Congress voting itself a pay raise

rave.n said...

So during the first paragraph I actually searched for Bone Thugs N Harmony so I could have "1st of da month" as my soundtrack while reading.

This is very interesting Nick. Makes me think of No Impact Man ( I'm pretty sure you've heard of him.

Anyway, his journey inspired many. Hopefully your journey will do the same :)