During her week with Hartford's Food Stamp Project, Donna Berman became dehydrated.
She had no one to blame but herself. The project was Berman's idea, in which participants pledged to live on $4 a day, roughly the dollar equivalent in food stamps an individual gets these days. Partnering with Center City Churches, Berman, executive director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center, wanted to show people what it's like to live in the land of plenty but still lack access to abundant, nutritious food.
About 100 people signed up - some to live on the restricted diet for a week, and some for this entire month. (Ye shall know us by our bright blue "Stamp Out Hunger in Hartford" bracelets. I signed up for just a week. )
The rules are simple. How you spend your $4 is up to you, but you aren't allowed to accept freebies (in my case, plates of home-baked goodies brought in by colleagues at work). There's no prescribed diet, but if you want to feel full, you eat a lot of carbohydrates, and (tap) water becomes your friend.
Berman wasn't alone in her reaction to this dietary change. Some people fought upset stomachs, others general malaise. Some lost weight. More gained it. (I kept to healthful foods, but I essentially cut my diet in half. I was hungry all week but not sick. Besides, I had help. I got a lot of helpful tips from readers who stay within a slim food budget already.)
This isn't about pretending to be poor. You can't fake poverty, and you shouldn't try. But the project does give people a sample of how difficult life is when you're hungry or malnourished.
Kimberley Fontaine of East Hampton grew up on public assistance. As she said, "We must do better, especially those of us who know what hunger is like, who ... somehow climbed out of that pit. I'm out, and I intend to stay loud and stay busy."
The project has hit a nerve. Students at Simsbury's Ethel Walker School are making bowls and attending a fundraiser where they can buy back the bowls (and soup, if they want), said Gleennia Napper, associate dean of students. The money will go to MANNA, a Center City program. A Glastonbury class planned to participate for two days.
Shehla Khan is in Connecticut from the Chicago area on a work assignment; she signed up for a week. To stay within her budget, she used her company's kitchen to cook. "Since I travel for work all the time I don't often have the opportunity to take part in any long-term volunteer program, so I do what I can wherever I am working," she said. She has also committed to raising $1,000 for Center City.
At first, Valerie Vick and her 18-year-old daughter, Kristin, of Glastonbury, worried because they love their restaurant meals - an extravagance far out of reach on the project. They planned two meals a day and they stuck to it - Kristin for a week, and her mother, so far, for the month she intends to participate - even when they ran out of breakfast food toward the end of the first week.
Vick has been thinking about past diets. "It occurred to me how sick that is, and I began drawing parallels between American females in our quest for thinness, and poverty. What if we had to do this for real? Or forever? There's a knot in my lower belly I can't seem to shake; I am hoping it will go away in Week 2." She still has two weeks to go.
All the while, people like Bette Nicotera, of West Hartford are doing the $4-a-day diet - or less every day. Nicotera has been on disability for 10 years and she said she was recently laid off from work. She supplements her diet with $10 in food stamps a month, and hand-outs from social service agencies.
Nicotera, who is in her mid-30s, has been battling anorexia and bulimia most of her adult life. Some foods are triggers for her, so she has to be careful what she eats. She avoids sugar and carbohydrates - which constitutes much of the donated food she receives. For her, the project doesn't end in April. For her, it just keeps going.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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