Food has always been more than just sustenance — more than calories and nutritional content to get me through each day.
It has always meant an experience, providing a means to network, socialise, and connect with others. It has been a vehicle through which I can learn about other cultures.
Food is comforting. It means family. It is ingrained in my identity.
For that week, food meant none of the above. It became strictly utilitarian, stripped of any joy or mouth-watering excitement. Eating became a monotonous task, something to check off a list.
Despite the dull nature it took on, the thought of food still consumed me, but in an entirely different way than I had ever experienced. It consumed me in a stressful, and psychologically draining, way.
I started to see this take shape from the very beginning, when I wove through the grocery store with my calculator and anxiously watched the cashier ring up my items, hoping that I stayed under budget and wouldn’t have to ask her to remove any of my items.
The stress only escalated throughout the week, as I realised the detailed planning that had to go into each meal, and it became particularly notable during social settings.
I faced a few interesting dilemmas throughout the week, when I was around coworkers or friends who were eating and drinking. When it came my turn to order, I had to politely decline or ask for a free cup of water.
Not having access to the connector — food and drink — made me feel like an outsider, a feeling I cannot imagine being reinforced day after day.
I take these things for granted — coffee-shop meetings, drinks with friends, and lunch with coworkers — which is why it was such an eye-opening experience.
I learned that food insecurity means so much more than simply being smart at the grocery store and resisting splurge items. It means mental lethargy. You quickly get bored with your limited food options, you constantly feel on the outside, and you’re consumed with the thought of food.
As I went out for Korean fried chicken with a good friend the day after completing the challenge, it didn’t quite sit right. I was certainly more mindful during the meal — I savoured each bite and leaned into the conversation more so than I normally would — but something about it felt wrong, selfish.
The food stamp challenge ended for me, but it persists for millions of low-income families. It’s not a “challenge” for many. It’s reality.
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