World Food Day: Lessons from a Hungry American

The head might react to statistics, but our hearts respond to stories. Rather than spread awareness for World Food Day, a global initiative established by the U.N in 1979 to end hunger, by reciting the statistic that 1 in 7 people suffer from undernourishment worldwide, we sought out the story of a woman who suffered from homelessness and hunger in the US.

Diana JohnsonMeet Diana Johnson. Just a few weeks following September 11th, after being laid off from her tourism job in Hawaii, Diana moved out of her apartment and into her car. She had about $100 in her bank account. "The only food I bought for an entire month was a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread'" Diana writes on her blog, Eating Richly. She attended potlucks at her church and picked lychees and grapefruits outside after services. "I knew all the different places around the island where there were mango, papaya, guava, banana or other trees I could pick fruit from," she said.

Looking for a job in a tanking economy is hard enough. When you're hungry, often sick, and have no energy, it's near impossible. "There were a lot of days I felt like I couldn't get out of bed," she said in an email. "It would sometimes get to the point where you're so hungry you don't even feel your stomach growl, you just feel like you can't move."

"I felt so much shame."

When she landed a part-time job at Starbucks two months later, her first paycheck allowed her to finally move out of her car. But after paying for rent, gas, and the cell phone she needed for work, her food allowance ranged from $7 to $12. "That was the week I began my fast food diet," she writes. "In my mind it made perfect sense that if I only had one or two dollars a day for food, the only way I could afford to eat was off of the dollar menu. At that time Jack in the Box had the only dollar menu, so I would have a chicken sandwich in the morning, and if I had enough money, two tacos in the evening." She continued to forage for fruit.

Her friends were sensitive to her situation without being obviously charitable. A friend called to say both she and her husband had run to the store to buy groceries, and they now had more than they could eat themselves. "She was a good friend for knowing that I probably would have made a big stink turning her down if she made it seem like she was trying to help me. She had the grace to give me a way to save face."

It turned out that money at the grocery store went a lot farther than the same amount spent on fast food, and that week of free groceries was a turning point. The next week, Diana used her usual taco-and-chicken-sandwich money on a grocery run. Even meager, basic meals were an improvement. She ate fruit in the morning ("usually a banana since it was the cheapest") and drank the free milk at Starbucks available to employees during their shifts. Lunch was a tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and dinner often relied on ramen noodles, bulked up with green beans, garlic, peanut butter and soy sauce. Even with such a relatively small improvement, she felt her energy return. "Instead of having to force bursts of energy when interacting with customers, I could actually get through a whole day and not feel like I needed to go take a nap in my car," she said.

Diana now lives in Washington State with her husband, a baby on the way, and a comparatively princely $200-250 monthly grocery budget. But her time spent living so close to the bone still informs the way her family eats, as well as her career path. At community centers, YMCAs and non-profits, Diana teaches low-income families how to eat on very small food budgets. She shared some of the rules for frugal eating she still lives by.

Take baby steps. "I find it helpful to have a list of food goals and plan on tackling one or two a year. Last year was totally focused on cutting out white flour and sugar. Right now I'm looking at cutting out any source of GMO corn. But for someone just starting out, maybe it's to cook two dinners a week at home instead of getting fast food, or to use a jar of spaghetti sauce with lots of vegetables in it instead of using a box mix with a powdered sauce. It could be something as simple as adding one piece of fruit a day. If you try to overhaul your entire way of eating, you'll get overwhelmed, and if you have a family, it will be a lot harder on them. Start small and celebrate the each success."

Planning equals savings. "It's fun to just go and let inspiration strike, but you end up spending more money and wasting food. If you plan your meals out and shop for what you're planning to make, you can save a lot of money."

...and put the money you save toward bigger purchases. "In the summer we spend $100 or less on groceries because of the abundance of affordable produce in season. That lets us make some bigger food purchases in the fall or winter. We buy a whole cow from a local rancher and split it with friends and family into 8 shares. We end up with a year's worth of naturally raised, grass fed beef for around $4 a pound."

DIY it. "We slice our own lunch meat from a roasted turkey breast or prime rib roast or ham. Just that one little thing saves around $100 a month. We also like vegetables on our sandwiches. One cucumber and bell pepper thinly sliced can last for a week of sandwiches."

Rely on a rotation of favorite meals
. My husband almost always wants oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast. I like to mix it up. I'll have whole wheat toast w/pb&j, or a spinach omelette, or greek yogurt with fruit and honey.

Go meatless sometimes. "We often do vegetarian 2-3 nights a week, especially in the summer when so many vegetables are cheap (or free from our garden!)."

Cook seasonally. Our dinners change with the seasons too. Right now I have about 25 squash and pumpkins lined up on my porch railing. That will be dwindling over the next few months to make soups, casseroles, pasta and roasted veggies.

Buy in bulk. "We also get wheat in bulk to grind ourselves. A 25 pound bag usually lasts us a year. AzureStandard.com has been a huge resource for saving money by buying in bulk. We buy organic wheat, rice, dried beans, quinoa, popcorn and more for less than it would cost to buy non-organic from the bulk bins in most grocery stores.

Forget the stereotypes of what hunger looks like. "Hunger doesn't have a specific face. I've met food bank clients who are doctors that lost their practice because of the economy and are trying to pay off student loans. I've talked to so many people who lost their job due to an injury or lay-offs and have been trying to find work for months and months or are working at fast food [restaurants] to keep a roof over their family's head but don't have enough money for food. You might think no one in your neighborhood struggles with hunger, but you'd be surprised. It's amazing how people will open up about their situation when they realize that you really care."