Monday, March 30, 2009
Seems there are as many poverty and hunger campaigns in the world as there are Big Mac's served at McDonald's. They seem to come out with a bang, gain some steam, then fizzle out until some other campaign comes out with a bang, gains some steam, then fizzles out-- backed by the the celebrity with the most current clout, of course.
From 2005-2007 Make Poverty History was big. Bono has a cool explanation about it here.
Then Bono co-founded ONE, an organization dedicated to fighting extreme poverty and diseases particularly in Africa. Bono has kicked butt with that campaign.
I like End Poverty by 2015, which originated from a United Nations Summit in 2000, in which 189 world leaders pledged to follow a "roadmap" of goals that would improve the lives of the world's poorest people. That campaign has some star power behind it with Shakira, Allysa Millano, and some of my favorite hunks Jesse Martin, Richard Gere, and Lenny Kravitz.
But the one I'm leaning towards at this point is Mobilization to End Poverty, which is sponsored by Sojourners and World Vision. They are tackling domestic (American) poverty as well as global poverty by taking the approach of supporting the goals the U.N. established in 2000, but recognizing that world leaders need a consistent kick in the pants if they are going to stay motivated all the way through the year 2015. As a person of faith I like Sojourners because their mission is to "articulate the biblical call to social justice" and they emphasize that God cares about the poor and that those of us who profess to follow that God are called to share His concerns.
I'm beginning to catch a clue that something is going on in my heart in regards to hungry and impoverished people. One of my goals of the experiment was to feel "solidarity with the poor" and I want to be ready to make a next step that takes me from solidarity to advocacy.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Smell lavender plants along the woven red brick walkway.
Listen to excited seagulls begging for food at the Academy of Sciences' outdoor cafe.
See delicate pink and white cherry blossoms twinkling in the sunshine.
Smell and listen to the Spring breeze swoosh through the eucalyptus trees.
Feel the sun-warmed bronze and the raised numbers of the sun dial.
"O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day;
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away."
-The Two Gentlemen of Verona
I brought the Miner’s Lettuce home, washed it well and ran it through my salad spinner, ushered a small spider out the window, and whipped up a little olive oil and mustard as a savory dressing. It went very well with my baked potato for dinner tonight. If you are wondering, it tasted more like spinach than a crunchy romaine or iceberg lettuce. As a bonus Miner’s Lettuce has Vitamin C in it, so the good news is that I am not likely to die of scurvy anytime soon.
I would have been eating more free things from the park, but March/April is not the best season for finding edible plants and I’m not going to chance liver or kidney damage by experimenting with some unknowns. Summertime though, is a different story because blackberries are in abundance in Golden Gate Park. Last September I picked GALLONS of blackberries, and had enough to store in my freezer for smoothies and sorbet during the winter.
There are plenty of people in my city who could use fresh fruit and Miner’s Lettuce (and dandelions are also edible), so I wonder how many hungry people take the bus over to GGP to forage for edibles? Smart people in Portland, Oregon created a website that informs people where to find edible fruits and plants on public lands (e.g. apricot tree at 4th and Main Streets)
Last summer (when I admittedly got a little free berry crazy) I never saw anyone else picking the berries, but I think there is something to this idea that if you know what to look for there are ways of eating healthily and adding a few wholesome foods to your diet. For free.
My friend had a reaction and she used her cell phone to call friends about it. She was too sick to drive, so she paid for a cab to take her to the emergency room. Alerted via text messages and phone calls, three friends went to the hospital to stay with her. Once she was treated she flashed her health insurance card and was discharged. Thankfully our friend Vicki has a car, and she drove Elizabeth home while two friends in the backseat worked on their cell phone and Blackberry to find out which pharmacies were open on a Saturday evening. Elizabeth was dropped off at home, while Vicki and I drove miles to an open pharmacy—which was NOT nearby. I pretended to be Elizabeth and I picked up her medication with her insurance card and her credit card. We also stopped at Safeway to pick up some things for a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast), and paid with Elizabeth’s cash. It took 1 ½ hours to gather all this stuff, and then we took it back to Elizabeth at her home.
It was impossible not to think of how entirely a different situation this would have been for someone who is low-income and living in poverty.
There would probably be no cell phone to alert friends. There would be no money to pay for a cab, so the person not feeling well would have to stand on the corner waiting for a bus, and endure the jolting of a bus making stops at every other corner. There would be no insurance so the sick person would receive a big, fat bill at the end of their emergency stay. Or more likely, they would have had to go to San Francisco General Hospital which gives fine care to people, but the place is a zoo. The person who is ill wouldn’t know which pharmacies are open, so would have to try a couple of them before someone informs her that there are only two Walgreens open on Saturday night. Then she would have to take the bus half way across town to an open pharmacy IF she even had any money or a credit card to purchase the medications. On the way home, the sick person would do the best she could to gather BRAT items at a convenience store where the price of those items would be jacked up and she may or may not be able to afford them. The trip that took Vicki 1 ½ hours to fulfill would easily take someone 3 hours on public transportation.
Virtually every step of the process would have been 2-3 times harder than it was yesterday. And today I am soaking that fact in-- in solidarity with the poor.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Lotteries are bullshit.
Why are they bullshit?
Because the people who spend the most money on lottery tickets are the people who can least afford to spend money on them.
Why do they buy tickets?
Because they hope and believe that the lottery is their only chance out of their dire financial situation.
Why do they think that?
Because they don't know how dismal the odds are of winning.
Why don't they know?
Because many low income people have not had the opportunity to stay in school or get a good education.
Why don't they get a good education?
Because research shows that "states that rely on lottery money for education actually end up spending less on education than they did when they used money from the state general fund."
So let me get this straight. The lottery in California-- which is supposed to benefit education-- gets most of its money from ticket purchases by low-income people who have benefited the least from education.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Was he delivering mice to a medical lab for experiments?
Did he trap all those mice in his apartment and was taking them to the Dept. of Public Health to test them for rabies?
Does he have a famished 20 foot anaconda at home?
Or am I the only one who doesn't know that pet mice like to be taken out for fresh air every few days?
I was pondering these and other questions when I almost stepped on a one dollar bill. Yes, more money. In my everyday life I rarely find money. But for the 26 days of my experiment, I'm practically ready to open a 2009 IRA with my found money.
So I did what many an impoverished person would do with a $1 dollar windfall. I went to my local corner liquor store and bought a scratcher lottery ticket. A background fact about me is that I NEVER buy lottery tickets--I've probably bought 2 in my lifetime. But the one I bought looked like this:
I don't know how to pick out scratchers but one called "Easy Money" seemed promising. I walked home with a scratcher in my pocket, hope in my heart, and questions in my head. What if I really win something big? How weird would it be to conduct an experiment in order to identify with the poor and get rich gambling during the experiment?
Upon arriving at home, I got out a coin and scratched away. This is what I scratched:
I went back to the liquor store and said, "You know, I'm not much of a lottery player so I don't even know if I've won." Kevin smiled at me from behind the counter and handed me a $10 dollar bill. Hey, that was easy money!
I'm going to think about what to do with this $9 dollars. (I am going to put the original $1 in my "found" money which I am donating- but I never said I would donate "won" money!) To tell you the truth, I'm leaning towards treating myself to something. A meal out? Some candy? Music or a drink in a club? Or perhaps I should just hitch hike to Reno because MAMA IS FEELING LUCKY LATELY.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I crossed the street and approached a woman in a wheelchair. She had no legs, but possessed an adequate number of arms, hands and fingers with which to clutch an empty paper cup for panhandling, and a 40 oz for drinking. Her hair was blond and straggly, and her face was the color and texture of roasted almonds-- presumably from years living on the street. I couldn't tell if she was 50-something or a 40 year old who looked 50.
"What's going on over there?" I inquired, nodding my head across the street.
"They're seeing the show 'Wicked'" she replied.
"Oh, is that here now?" I asked.
"Yea, it's been here two months already and it's supposed to run for a year."
I smiled at my informant and waited to see if she would ask me for money to fill her cup. With five $1 dollar bills burning a hole in my pocket, I've promised myself that if anyone asks I will give them one or all of them.
But she didn't ask. So I cheerfully wished her a good day.
"You too honey!" she called out as I traipsed up 8th Street, traveling upstream from the flow of well-dressed pedestrians walking to the theater on a Wednesday afternoon.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
One of the useful things I've been doing while on my experiment is get myself a little more educated about poverty and hunger-fighting organizations.
The World Food Programme is the "United Nations frontline agency in the fight againt global hunger". I wasn't aware of them, but they must have a few resources if they are a program of the United Nations. If you go on their website there are a lot of cool videos and resources-- like a downloadable world map that tracks where the most undernourished people live, and offers facts such as-
"For just 25 U.S. cents a day WFP can provide a child with a meal at school."
Man, I practically find 25 cents a day on the streets. My mind races to all the places I could save a quarter. Air dry one load of my wash instead of putting it in the dryer for 8 more minutes. Buy slightly cheaper generic brands of food rather than popular brands. Or I could simply resist buying a gumball on the way out of Toys R Us.
I can't think of anything else that a quarter can buy. Can you?
Monday, March 23, 2009
Naturally since I tightened up my rules yesterday, today at work there were “brownie bites” sitting 10 feet from my desk all afternoon. I wanted to stuff about four of those in my face like a summer camper playing “chubby bunny”. My favorite author, Frederick Buechner wrote this:
“A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.”
We don’t use the word “glutton” anymore, probably because we shun words that seem to make a judgment. Thus, we call people “big-boned” or “full-figured”. But the definition of a glutton is “one that eats to excess” so in that case approximately 30% of Americans are gluttons. I’m a glutton. And at the end of this experiment I will need to reconcile two facts:
1) There are people going hungry in the world
2) I eat to excess.
That’s right, I’m going there. And you may think it sounds harsh, but this is what is on my mind tonight. The good news is that if I flip Buechner’s statement there is a hint of a promise that if I can just access what I am hungering for spiritually, then the lure of the icebox is not so strong.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
In the past 22 days, I have been to 3 potlucks related to my faith community, I’ve had 3 meals or significant snacks provided by my work places, I’ve had access to good food and drink on 2 social occasions, and I’ve been fed breakfast at a non-profit board meeting.
American culture is centered on food. That’s not to say that other cultures--like Italian, French, and Filipino cultures—do not revolve around food, but my specific community and the activities we do together are overflowing with edible options. Too many options. Oh sure, I’ve been hungry a handful of times these past 3 weeks, and I am already growing weary of black beans and peanut butter sandwiches. But I wouldn’t say I am suffering from hunger. Food is so readily available that I need to purify my experiment because to be honest, the abundance of food makes it impossible for me to identify with the worlds poor and hungry.
So I’m revising my Rules.
Current rule: If I attend a potluck, I have to contribute something to eat.
Revised rule: I will attend potlucks for socializing but will only eat what I bring.
Current rule: I can eat food that is leftover from work meetings.
Revised rule: No food from work events or meetings.
I’m surprised at the number of times food has been offered to me in the course of my ordinary days. Usually I am oblivious to it. One way to deal with the over-abundance would be to just stay home and not go out all month, but I don’t want to isolate myself. I want to participate in my community. I wonder how many low-income people isolate themselves so as not to feel embarrassed at the little food they have to contribute to potlucks and community meals? At any rate, I am going to hunker down and reject all food that comes my way for the last half of my experiment. It’s time to up the ante. Time to stack the deck. It’s time to make sure that my original intentions are not hijacked by the cornucopia of cuisine in my world.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
But wait, the story gets better. As I was walking home this morning, out of the corner of my eye I saw a crumpled paper with green ink, which in San Francisco usually turns out to be a discarded bus pass. But closer inspection proved the paper to be a five dollar bill so I swooped down on that Abraham Lincoln like a seagull on a French fry. Oh the joy, what joy! I couldn’t stop smiling as I stuffed that $5 bill in my pocket and skipped home like a little girl. Catching my breath between skips, I thought about the provision of the Creator. This $5 bill is FIVE MORE DAYS of provision. Finding it seemed like an icing-on-the-cake sort of way for God to tell me that He cares about my experiment, and He is always the Provider.
One hundred feet from where I found the money, I approached a cafe and briefly entertained the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee with my free money. (I also entertained ideas of buying a piece of chicken, some yogurt, cheese, a bottle of wine, and an ill-advised Lindt chocolate bar) But on second thought I will NOT spend this money. Since it was freely given to me, I’m going to take the soulful route and try to give it away. I’ll change it into 5 one dollar bills and keep them in a pocket, trusting that I will know in my spirit when it is time to give away a dollar or all five dollars. For the next 19 days I will conduct this “sub-experiment” of giving money away. If I can’t get rid of it, I’ll add the remainder to the amount I am giving away to the San Francisco Food Bank. (see Day 15 post)
Right then. Here in San Francisco I have enjoyed four different public parks in the last four days—Dolores Park in the Mission, Sutro Heights Park by the Cliff House, Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio (which may be technically a “recreation area”). I got to thinking about how much I love being in parks and how they are fantastically free. I wonder if city-dwelling people who live with lower incomes take advantage of public parks?
I haven’t noticed one way or the other in San Francisco, but when I lived in Burlingame I frequently observed that there were older cars and trucks in the parking lot of Coyote Point Park and few higher end automobiles to be found. I suspect that middle class and rich people have parties and family gatherings in the landscaped backyards of their lovely large homes. But for people who dwell in grim living conditions, parks are a great place to escape. There is so much peace and joy to be found there as we relax and play in the midst of bright green ferns, seasonal wildflowers, red robins hopping about, and pond-dwelling turtles and herons.
I’m grateful that I live near so many beautiful parks and I have to admit that I have not explored the lower-income areas of town to see what condition the parks are in for those residents. I’m going to watch for opportunities to explore more parks. If you have observations about parks from your explorations around your own town, I’d love to see them in the comments.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Yesterday I spent the late afternoon hanging out and talking with my friend Melody. We didn’t go to dinner or a café. We sat on a blanket in Dolores Park and as the heat of the setting sun warmed my back I watched the free entertainment go by…
A man practicing tightrope walking on a rope he had tied between two trees. A few couples swigging champagne out of the bottle. Children kicking their legs as they dangled from the rings on the play structure. A dread-locked man selling “special baked goods” as he wheeled his portable ice chest from person to person. A guitarist strumming one end of a guitar while his friend held the chords on the other end of the guitar. A man leaning against a palm tree writing in his journal. Two homeless people listening to John Mayer on a small battery operated radio.
The palm trees morphed from green fronds to grey silhouettes against the darkening sky. Freshly mown grass stuck to my palms as I got up to leave Dolores Park. Now that I’m feeling better I’m starting to wake up to the transcendent moments around me, and I am worrying less and less about what I can eat or how much I am spending today.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Three billion people around the world live on less than $2 a day. My challenge is that for ONE WEEK you spend no more than $2 a day on food. If you live in a household of 2 or 4 or 5 people, then you get to spend $2 per person. Come on, it's only for 7 days. I'm living on 1/2 of that for 40 days, and I know that some of you have been reading and wondering if you could pull off the same type of thing. Let’s find out!
My challenge is inspired by two organizations who use the $2 a day challenge to raise awareness about global poverty, and to raise money for the world's poor. In America, there is a Two Dollar Challenge which was originally started by a professor who challenged the students in his micro-economics class to live on $2 a day. In Australia there is the Mutunga Challenge which advocates for a temporary (7 days) change in lifestyle as a tool for "building a sense of community with the poor."
My experiment is going for another 22 days and I wanted to put this challenge out NOW so you have time to think about it, time to plan for it, and time to actually execute it sometime in the next 3 weeks. If a handful of San Franciscans take the challenge I think it would be cool to have a simple meal together, to pool our resources one night for dinner and stand in solidarity with the world's poor. I will host!
Taking it down a notch, some people may consider $2 a day for one week to be out of their realm of possibility. So I challenge you to do SOMETHING in the spirit of my experiment.
o If you eat out a lot, eat at home for one week.
o If you eat out for lunch every day, pack a lunch for one week.
o If you spend quite a bit on groceries, cut your food budget in half for one week.
o If you are an unapologetic carnivore, eat vegetarian for 7 days.
o If you like to shop, buy an extra bag of groceries and give it to a local food pantry.
I'm excited thinking about the possibilities and hope that at least a few of you are too. Naturally the idea is that you take the money you would have spent on food and you donate it to an organization that provides some relief to those who are hungry. Reader's ideas as posted in the comments so far have been to give to Kiva, Heifer International, San Francisco Food Bank, and in Sacramento, Loaves and Fishes.
I only ask these 4 things. Tell me via the comments or an email:
1) WHAT type of challenge you are taking on.
2) WHEN you are starting your challenge.
3) HOW MUCH money you end up donating to a hunger fighting organization (please don't feel weird about that. A $5 donation is totally great. We all do what we can. I'd just like to know what this challenge brings forth)
4) WHICH organization you donate to.
Ok, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. Who is in?
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
After having my wallet on lock-down for 17 days, I see too many compulsions in my life. The compulsion to stock my cupboard and fridge beyond what one person needs. The compulsion to devour chocolate. The compulsion to shop for new books and CD’s. The compulsion to eat bigger quantities than what my body needs. The compulsion to stay on the internet longer than necessary for basic communication and information gathering. The compulsion to subscribe to magazines I barely have time to read.
A compulsion by definition is “an irresistible impulse”. If I believe in any kind of power in living my life alongside a Powerful and Loving God, then if I am tapping into that power nothing should be “irresistible” in my life. Or another way to look at it is that to live under compulsion is to be controlled by something other than my Maker. So compulsions are sort of out of compliance with how I desire to live.
I truly want my life to be about loving my Creator, and loving creation—just another way of saying what Jesus commanded “Love the Lord your God….. and love your neighbor as your self.” A favorite quote of mine is by the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who said, “To me, practicing mindfulness in the act of consuming is the basic act of social justice.” Practicing mindfulness includes asking questions such as- am I consuming more than my fair share? Where did this product come from and what were the working conditions of the people who made it? What is the impact of this product on the environment? Just because it is cheaper, does that mean I should buy it? Do I really need this? Am I enjoying this or mindlessly expending it?
So by examining and addressing my compulsions I am not only offering myself up to better alignment with my Maker, I am also making a baby step towards justice for those who suffer in global poverty.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Last weekend my friend vicki told me about a Safeway coupon where I could get 18 eggs for 97 cents. Good deal. So I clipped that coupon and excitedly went to the store only to be told at the checkout counter that there was fine print on the coupon and I had to spend $10 at the store in order to use the coupon for eggs. I didn’t have $10 to spend. Denied.
This reminds me of Costco, where for many products the per unit price decreases as you purchase a large quantity of the product. For example, a six pack of Coke may cost about 50 cents per can at a supermarket, while if you buy a case of Coke at Costco the price may be more like 25 cents per can. This is probably a bad example because Coke is not nutritious, but my point is that people living in poverty can’t afford to buy the large product that saves them money in the end.
I suppose that a few low-income families could band together and buy large products with a good per-unit price at Costco, but they would also have to split the cost of the Costco membership ($50 annually). Furthermore, those of us who don’t own cars and who rely on public transportation know that we wouldn’t be able to carry all that stuff on the bus anyway. You need a car to stash a 25 pound bag of rice, a huge box of diapers, and a mesh bag of 3 cantaloupes.
You may have heard the observation about there being so many Mercedes parked in the Costco parking lot. People with means have access to more of the savings. People without means and transportation are often shopping at their corner liquor store or “convenience store”, and as someone who has two of those corner stores one block away from my apartment, I can tell you that there are no deals to be found on those shelves.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
There’s a food pantry two blocks from my home and I’ve noticed that as the months go by the line gets longer. I wouldn’t have even thought that people in my San Francisco neighborhood are very poor, but according to the San Francisco Food Bank website 13,107 people in the Sunset district are hungry.
One of the aims of my experiment is to give away the money I would have spent if I wasn’t living on $1 a day. My regular budget for groceries, eating out, and spending for entertainment comes to about $375 for one month plus 10 days (40 days). So at the end of my experiment I will give all that money to the San Francisco Food Bank. The SFFB says that for every $1 you give, $9 worth of food is distributed, so my meager contribution becomes $3,375 worth of food for people who need it.
Why the San Francisco Food Bank? Because…
• I’d like my experiment to benefit the people who are hungry in my own city.
• The SFFB has a 4 star rating on Charity Navigator, which means that they outperform other charities in making sure donations go to actual food and services rather than administrative costs.
• I occasionally help at a food pantry in San Francisco so I’ve been face to face with people who have been benefited, and I’ve seen the stellar food they give out.
• 150,000 San Franciscans struggle to feed their families— every day they live how I am living for 40 days.
For my own personal knowledge for the future, I'd like to know what other hunger-fighting organizations some of you regularly give to, whether local or international? And why do you give to that particular organization?
“Mel, you've been very food focused in this blog. But the poor have other things to consider besides food in their day to day existence. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on things besides what you will eat each day.
For example, I've travelled to many third world locals, and I'm always amazed at the ability of poor people to have such a good time. I'm not trivializing the difficulties of poverty. But I have had the most raucous laughter, the most intensely spirited and joyful exchanges, with poor people. Sometimes when we didn't even speak a common language.
So Mel, how are you managing to have FUN on $1 a day? How are you finding joy in your life without a budget to generate that joy?”
Ed brings up a good point and in answer to his question the reason I haven’t written about fun and joy in my life is because I haven’t had any since I started the experiment March 1st. But that is mostly because I’ve been sick— not because my experiment is making me miserable.
So coincidentally, tonight I was at a house concert showcasing my friend Elizabeth’s and her friend Ronen’s fabulous singing and songwriting. There was music and laughter. Hugs and affection. Food and friendship. Serious conversation and silliness. Old friends and new friends. Twenty-somethings, and one amazing 98 year old. There was respect and support for two people who are stepping out on their musical dreams. The excitement was palpable. There was love in the house.
My heart is bursting with joy as I head to bed because I know that I am rich in friends, rich in experiences, rich in opportunities, rich in talent, rich in humor. I have a rich quality of life. And I didn’t spend a penny tonight.
Friday, March 13, 2009
The devil says: You want a cup of coffee. Get it! You have a Starbucks gift card that you got for the holidays from your workplace. It was a gift, so you're not paying for it out of your $1 a day. The angel says: People living in poverty aren't likely to get a gift card from their boss, and even if they did they would probably buy some food with it.
The devil says: Those hash browns you made are good, but they would be even better with some ketchup out of your refridgerator. The angel says: But you didn't buy that ketchup with your $1 a day-- so it is off limits!
You get the idea. I'm holding the course, but gotta admit that I fight a fair amount of rationalizations each day. Probably the same rationalizations that keep me from establishing regular and permanent sacrifices to do my part making world poverty a thing of the past.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Yesterday I had my first real cup o’ Joe in 11 days of being on this experiment. Coffee was being served at a meeting I was attending, and that coffee tasted like the private reserve of the finest nectar that the gods had set aside for a special occasion. Yesterday I also had some chocolate. My new favorite man in the whole world was passing out free samples at the farmer’s market, and that chocolate tidbit tasted like the Crown Jewel of Chocolate that Lady Godiva, Scharffen Berger, Joseph Schmidt, and Mary See’s had co-created to distribute to all nations in order to bring peace on earth. Both gave me GREAT pleasure.
“Pleasure” isn’t a word I would use to describe my $1 a day diet. The food I ingest is chosen primarily for nutritional and economic value, and not for pleasure. Contrast this with the rest of my life, in which admittedly most of the food I eat is for pleasure, rather than nutritional value. The pendulum has swung to the other side.
So I put the question out there for comment—are there any nutritious foods that you get immense pleasure from eating? And while we are at it, what are the non-nutritious foods that give you pleasure?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Over the weekend I watched a documentary called "Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price". (I watched it on my friend Elizabeth's free Netflix, for those of you who are alert enough to catch incongruencies in my experiment) Whoa. If this documentary is true, then Walmart is guilty of providing lackluster pay and pitifully inadequate health benefits for its employees, insisting upon dishonest work hours, overlooking inhumane conditions for overseas factory workers, discriminating against women and certain race groups, and taking LOTS of money out of the hands of the poor to put into their own pockets.
It wouldn't be so bad if you didn't know that Walton family members were numbers 4,5,6 and 7 on Forbes' 2008 list of America's 20 richest people. Each of these Waltons has a net worth of $16-23 billion. That's 9 zeros on the end, like this: $23,000,000,000. After viewing the documentary I thought, "Ok, but surely those rich Waltons give away a bank vault of money each year." So I looked it up on the internet and discovered that Christy Walton gave $4 million away last year, which according to my calculator is a whopping quarter of 1% of her net worth. In 2004 Business Week reported Bill Gates as giving away 58% of his net worth.
"They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed." Is this the first sentence of a "60 Minutes" expose about Walmart? Nope, it's a verse out of the Bible by the prophet Amos where God is mad as hell and He isn't going to take it anymore. Later in the chapter there is talk of "crushing" and "[no] escape" and "fleeing naked" when it's time to pay the piper for injustices.
Ok, what's this got to do with my experiment? Sadly, on many levels I am a Walton. They sound so much more evil because their wealth is on such a grand scale, but it's all relative. Compared to many families struggling in Rwanda, New Orleans or Bangladesh--I am a Walton. I know I'm being totally judgmental about Walmart and I hope I am wrong about their business and personal giving practices. Perhaps they give to many noble causes anonymously?
I've never stepped foot in a Walmart, and now I probably never will. But I've never stepped foot in Sudan either, and looked poverty in the face and brought food to the mouths of malnutritioned children. My net worth could probably feed an entire village for years and I freely admit that I have no idea what to do with that thought. But I do know that I don't want to be a Walton- making more money, clutching it tightly in my fist, and turning a blind eye to the suffering that the money in my hand could be relieving.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
In North Carolina a woman is just ending 30 days of eating on $1 a day as recorded in her blog Less Is Enough. She took out one dollar each day and spent it with a particular emphasis on finding fresh food, with a purpose to challenge the common perception that you can’t eat anything fresh on $1 a day.
My experiment is only slightly different in that I am going for 40 days instead of 30 days, and I decided to average out my costs rather than meticulously do the math to figure out to the penny what I ate each day. My angle is to focus on what is going on with me spiritually during this experiment. While these bloggers and their admirable experiments are finished after 30 days, spiritually speaking, I consider my experiment to be a 5K run when my goal is to someday be ready for a marathon.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Despite a valiant effort at resting all weekend I seem to be deteriorating health-wise. I'm tired, weak, coughing, and a bit cranky. I want something that will make me feel better. Something that will make me feel nurtured. Growing up in my family, we learned that chocolate and desserts make you feel better, so to me nurture looks a lot like chocolate ice cream. Nurturing might look like something else if I was in a relationship (like a backrub, or a cuddle- and I can just hear my married friends laughing and saying "yeah, right!"), but I'm single and poor for 40 days. Well, poor for 40 days. Single for more like 40 years. Sigh. This isn't making me feel better.
With discomfort, disease, and illness piled on top of the usual distress of having very little money to buy food, I'm wondering how low-income people nurture themselves? What kind of internal reserves do they draw from in order to endure? My measly little cold or flu doesn't qualify as hardship, but it is harder to bear without my usual indulgences. Today my attempt to identify with the poor comes in the form of great respect and admiration for those who bear their bad health with an internal grace rather than a “grace” that comes from their wallets. It's interesting to note that prior to the Protestant Reformation, “grace” that came from wallets was also called “indulgences”.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Some people are interested in the logistics of my experiment, so I will indulge you by sharing what I am eating. Here’s a photo that shows my basics- pasta, potatoes, carrots, onions, kiwis, tea bags, brown rice, Top Ramen, peanut butter sandwiches, oatmeal, olive oil and vegetable oil for cooking, and not pictured are black beans which I recently made into a soup. I keep everything on my kitchen table so I can easily see what is fair game and so I will not be tempted by the other food in my cupboards. It’s best not to see the artichoke hearts, honey, chocolate chips, Marionberry preserves, etc. on the shelves.
I’m only 8 days into the experiment, but I’m surprised by how much fresh food I have been able to buy. Special produce deals have supplied me with a 10 pound bag of potatoes for $1.97, a bag of kiwis for $1.50 (which comes to about 7 cents per kiwi), and of course the infamous 5 pounds of carrots for 99 cents.
I’ve spent about $20 up front to have some things on hand to cook and prepare. Some things are gone already—like the beans—but most things will last for a couple more weeks, and then I can buy another round of staples. I find it’s also wise to stay out of stores as much as possible. Why visit Disneyland when you can’t go on the rides?
Saturday, March 7, 2009
This brings up the issue of the inaccessibility of fresh foods to the poor. Low income people in America are less likely to have access to a variety of fresh produce in their neighborhoods. They usually have plenty of fast foods to choose from so they are covered if they want sliced potatoes and hand-held apple pies dipped in hot grease. The corner store or liquor store may sell some basic produce (e.g. apples, bananas, onions), but the prices are jacked up and thus unaffordable. Interestingly enough, I have read that Canada, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand have a greater availability of supermarkets in their lower income neighborhoods. So my guess is that the scarcity of fresh food in markets must be primarily about America’s preoccupation with the Almighty Dollar.
At any rate, since the carrots are on sale for Saturday/Sunday only, I am going to go to Safeway early tomorrow and as God is my witness I will get my hands on those carrots. Of course, by then I will have spent almost 2 hours procuring carrots, but now I’m doing it for the principle of the thing.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Every day I pass countless restaurants and think "hmmm... I can't buy that right now, but I'm going to eat there after my 40 day experiment is finished." I am acutely aware that people who have struggled in a lifetime of economic disadvantage are probably looking at the restaurants and thinking "I will never be able to eat there." As someone who knows there is an end to my "poverty", I have an immense psychological advantage.
And furthermore, I have psychological and emotional advantages as a result of being able to go home to a nice apartment in a decent neighborhood every day. My place is clean, with lots of free books to read, and a comfortable bed. I think of my travels in India, Thailand, and the Philippines where "housing" for a family is nothing more than a few pieces of plywood leaned up against each other. How would I endure having $1 a day to spend if I lived in a lousy neighborhood, in a dilapidated apartment, with drugs, crime, and violence all around?
Even with a hungry grumbling in my stomach a few times a day, it's impossible for me to imagine the daily and hourly pressure of living in extreme poverty. Making choices like- should I purchase some cough medicine for the baby or buy nutritious breakfast foods for my children on a testing day? Should I turn up the heat so my grandmother stops shivering or buy a cake for my daughter's birthday? Part of me gets disgusted with myself for even suggesting that I can somehow identify with the poor by living on $1 a day, and the other part of me thinks that I should just shut up and do what I can. So I'm shutting up.
On a completely different note, I found 11 cents in the middle of the street today. I'm beginning to believe that there is a fair amount of treasure to be found in our city streets if you are only brave enough to dodge the traffic. I don't know yet what I am going to do with the 11 cents (or any other money I find), but I am open to suggestions.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
I'm in a small group of 3 other women who meet every other week to discuss life, the vows our faith community has taken together, and our spiritual lives. We were scheduled to meet at my house tonight. Since most of us come straight from work, the host usually provides some light snacks. I grappled with the question of how to show hospitality when I only have $1 a day to spend. If I bought snacks for my small group, that would possibly take food out of my own mouth towards the end of my 40 day experiment.
I’ve been to the Philippines two times, and have stayed in some impoverished towns. At the end of each stay our hosts threw a big banquet where everyone from the community added something to the feast. I noticed that some people shyly contributed a simple pot of white rice to our dinner, and I wondered how many of them had dipped into their family’s meager stash of food in order to feed us Westerners. They are poor and yet they contributed with a smile on their faces. And that is hospitality.
Hospitality focuses on the guests not the host. I have an experiment going on, but I still want to bless my friends- not with a lavish party platter, but by offering what I have to give. So tonight I popped some popcorn (the old-fashioned way, in a pot!), and sliced one orange, one apple, one pear, and two carrots, and served some peppermint tea. The evening’s food and drink cost me about $1.96 and I am happy that I got to share what I have. Even if I end up running out of money by Day 38 and have to fast for 2 days, I think I did the right thing. I will be happy to remember that I valued hospitality enough to make a sacrifice for it—just like my rice-toting friends in the Philippines.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
It's been cold and rainy for weeks, and all day I've had a scratchy throat and I'm tired and trying to fight off a cold. A girl needs comfort in times like these, right? I would usually find comfort in a pint of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food ice cream. But this morning I saw the comfort issue coming, and I asked the Creator for a little lovin'. I wouldn't say I feel better (and Chinese soup still sounds good) but I definitely feel like I tried something besides my usual automated responses (coffee, icecream, etc) to my need for comfort.
"May your unfailing love be my comfort" said the Psalmist. I'm a long way from dwelling on God's unfailing love instead of reaching for the B & J's, but it's something to aim for.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
And ever since I read that article I've been thinking about tensions.
The tension between wanting a quality of life that costs a pretty penny in the Bay Area where I live and knowing that others in distant countries are scrambling for one meal a day.
The tension between desiring to generously give all my money away and needing to pay my living expenses.
The tension between cultivating a life of simplicity and living in consumeristic America.
The tension between knowing other humans are starving and believing that food is for my sustenance as well as for my pleasure.
I didn't happen to draw the card that landed me in Haiti, baking dirt cakes in the sun. I was put in this place in this time in this economic status for a reason. I wouldn't say I feel guilty about what I have, but I would say that I'm in a state of mental unrest about these issues all the time. I'm currently experimenting with how little I can live on, but when my 40 days are over what will I feel called to do on a permanent basis?
Monday, March 2, 2009
Then on my walk home I spotted a lone apple lying in the space between street and gutter. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and I pounced on that free apple like a lioness on a lame zebra. Don't worry. I washed it very well. And it is waiting in my fridge for a day when I am craving fresh food.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
I purchased a 10 pound bag of potatoes for the bargain price of $1.97, and then roasted several of those babies with a little olive oil and some rosemary that I nicked off a bush down the block. So I contributed a mediocre bowl of roasted potatoes. At the potluck I got to eat a chicken leg, tomato and cucumber salad, chili with shredded cheddar and tortilla chips, bread, and fruit salad. As the fierce Native American said to Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, “Good trade.”
It's imperative to set up rules at the beginning of this experiment, or I will cheat like a broke and desperate cards player. Here are the rules:
1) I’m not taking $1 each day and going in search of something to eat. I can buy a $2 bag of rice that will last me for more than one day. I have to average out to $1 day, thus I can’t spend more than $40 for the 40 days.
2) I am starting from zero. I can’t eat anything out of my cupboards, freezer, or fridge. Since I tend to stock up, if these were fair game I would be eating very well for 40 days.
3) I can eat free things if everyone else has access to them. (e.g. samples at the farmer’s market, foraging for edible plants in a park).
4) I can eat food that is leftover from work meetings (e.g. bagels, lunch items). My reasoning here is that many poor people are able to go to food pantries and soup kitchens, so a bit of free food is ok. Anyway, we’re not talking about a lot of food here. I don’t work at Google with a free employee cafeteria.
5) I can dine as a guest at someone else’s house.
6) If I attend a potluck, I have to contribute something to eat.
7) I can't let friends pay for me to go out. I have a lot of generous friends who would say, "Let's go see _____ concert. Consider it an early birthday present!"
It's because for many, many months I have had it on my calendar to hang out on Saturday with some friends who live out of town and whom I don't see very often. Patty and Aileen are wonderful women I used to work with at the YMCA, and I have a blast talking with them and dining out with them 1-2 times a year.
Here's the dilemma- if I had already started my experiment on Thursday, on Saturday I would have had to either:
1) tell my friends about my experiment and insist that we go out but that I am ordering water.
2) push the "pause" button on my experiment and make an exception day where I could spend more than $1 a day.
If I had done #1 that would have felt weird and my friends would have sincerely and generously offered to pay for me and I would have taken them up on their offer but felt bad that other people had to be affected by my experiment.
If I had done #2 I would have lost momentum after only 2 days of my experiment and besides, making an exception day feels disingenuous because the poor can't have exception days.
I value community and conducting this experiment alongside the other people in my workshop. But I guess more than that, I value authenticity, consistency, and the honoring of long-term friendships.
Why did I pick this experiment?
A few reasons.
1) To identify with the poor. I've read many times that there are well over 1 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. Sure, I know that I can't really identify with the poor because I dress in decent clothes, go to a good job, and come home to a nice apartment. But by living on $1 a day I can better identify than if I did nothing.
2) To train for a day when I go "all in". I keep thinking and praying about a day when I may be asked by my Maker to push all of my poker chips into the center of the table and go "all in". I don't know why I would be asked to do that, but I want to be ready and willing. So I attempt to cling loosely to my possessions, live simply, and keep to a minimum things in my life that might be hard to part with should I ever be asked to do something like "sell all you have and give it to the poor."
3) To reveal things that control me. Even though I'm careful with my money, if I feel a little compulsion to buy, eat, or do something, I usually go for it. I'm tired and cranky on the way to work? I'll stop at Starbucks and get a coffee. I'm surfing the internet and thinking about buying an iPhone? I'll stop at iTunes and buy a few songs instead. I eat certain things for comfort. I buy certain things for gratification. These are compulsions, not choices. And thus, they control me. So I'm hoping that God and I can sit on my couch and talk about these compulsions throughout the duration of my experiment.
Bring on the transformation.
My faith community is based out of ReImagine, a spiritual formation center in San Francisco. Once a year ReImagine hosts a workshop called “Experiments in Truth” in which all participants step into a “laboratory of transformation” by choosing 3 things that they are going to engage in or abstain from for 40 days. We’re supposed to thoughtfully choose experiments that will bring to the light some things that need to be transformed in our relationship with our Maker, with others, and within ourselves. Thirty-five of us are in this workshop and it will run for 7 weeks.