As the economy began to tumble last year, here at the Reporter we decided we wanted each week to look at all the ways money changes everything. So at the beginning of 2009 we introduced “Indicators,” a weekly feature in the news section in which we unpack the numbers of the changing economy—not only in the obvious sectors such as jobs and housing, but also in areas such as pet care, holiday travel, church attendance, eating out, polling, thrift store donations, and on and on.
Of course, money changes more than just numbers. It changes lives in ways that are sometimes drastic and sometimes subtle. These were the stories we hoped we’d hear when we made this year’s Annual Writing Contest nonfiction topic: Money Changes Everything. And hear them we did.
This week, we present part two of the winners of the 2009 Annual Writing Contest, the first-, second- and third-place writers from the nonfiction category, who tackled the issue from three very different perspectives.
In “High Rise to Highway,” first-place winner Adria Hagg writes about leaving a fairly luxurious life in San Francisco to come to Santa Fe and sell her baked goods from the side of the road, an enormous change that brings challenges and lessons.
Nutrition educator Shira Hordes Potash won second-place for her essay, “The Cost of Eating Healthy,” which documents her and her husband’s experience taking the Food Stamp Challenge. For one week they spent only one dollar per meal, but still tried to eat healthily. This simple proposition provides real perspective on how difficult it truly is to eat cheaply and well.
Thanks to all the nonfiction writers who took on this challenging topic and, again, congratulations to the winners in all three of the categories and to all of the competing writers. We can’t wait to see what you come up with for next year.
1st Place NonFiction
After living in San Francisco for the past 12 years, Adria Hagg and her fiancé decided a change of scenery was needed and moved to Santa Fe, where they now spend most of their savings eating out. When she’s not baking banana bread and chocolate-chip cookies, Adria works as a freelance writer. She began her writing career in travel and food, and has since branched out into various genres. Adria’s work has been published in magazines such as Restaurant Magazine London, SOMA Magazine and OutNow Magazine, and she has worked as a copywriter for companies such as The Online 401(k) and Fantastic Foods.
2nd Place NonFiction
Native Santa Fean and nutrition educator Shira Hordes Potash teaches healthy cooking classes in the Santa Fe public schools through the nonprofit organization Cooking with Kids
. In her private nutrition practice, Sprouts Nutrition
, she works one-on-one with clients of all ages to guide them toward optimum health. She is co-producing the documentary film Food Stamped
with her husband, filmmaker Yoav Potash. She is currently pursuing a master’s in health education from the University of New Mexico.
At five years old, I sold rocks door-to-door in my neighborhood. When the rock market was ripe, Allison, my best friend, and I would scoop up gravel from her driveway into an old shoebox. We’d then skip off to the first house, ponytails bobbing, our eyes as big as saucers, and mercilessly ring the doorbell until we got an answer. As the door opened, we’d declare in our high-pitched voices, “Rocks for sale, ten cents apiece.” Innocence oozed from our big brown peepers—the heartstrings of our target market never stood a chance. Twenty-five years later I’m selling homemade banana bread and chocolate chip cookies alongside the road in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Just a year ago, my fiancé and I lived in one of the most sought after high rises in downtown San Francisco. The doorwoman, Sandra, would pleasantly hand me my US magazine as I swooped by from a day’s worth of retail therapy in Union Square. I had been laid off but money was no object, my fiancé was a heavy hitter in the financial industry. Life consisted of long lunches, a personal trainer and afternoon massages—soon I had forgotten what it meant to wake up at 7 am, pull on itchy wool dress pants, elbow my way onto a Muni bus and feel the weight of my boss’ disapproving stare as I stammered in five minutes late, Starbucks in hand.
Then, the news came quick and abrupt—my fiancé sat me down to discuss our finances. His company was collapsing and soon he would be out of a job. His ex-wife would take what was left and we would be penniless. San Francisco was no longer affordable and we both desired a change. In June, we would drive across the desert to new adventures in Santa Fe.
As we take exit Camino la Tierra to our new home, we notice random vendors along the road hawking an array of goods—a Wall Street of its own, begging to be tested. Why not?—friends and family have raved about my banana bread and cookies. This corner of commerce is like a delicate ecosystem not to be disrupted by the new gringo in town. These guys have been hawking tamales, juices, rocks and wood without the disruption of a city slicken’, Gucci purse carryin’ blonde like me. After a few days of introduction, I know them as “tamale guy,” “rock guy,” “furniture guy” and “wood guy.” My batting eyelashes aren’t worth a pile of husks to them—they’re here to sell goods, not flirt with some chick trying to squeeze her stand onto their prime real estate. As the rookie, I’m guessing there’s an unspoken rule about barging onto another’s vending territory. Out of respect, I need to ask for “permission” to sell my baked goods and avoid isolating myself from the very group I hope to learn from.
In Spanish, “tamale guy” introduces himself as Jose and skeptically gives me “permission” to sell my goods. We’re probably out here illegally, I really don’t know. I’m known as the “Banana Bunny” and I’m the only woman out here. However, there’s camaraderie on this dusty road—a kind of community only people hawking goods on the side of a concrete shoulder can have. With our trucks, campers, canopies and fold out tables, we set up shop at the bottom of the exit. Every morning, I roll into my designated spot, unfold my canopy and table, and unload baskets of freshly baked banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. Jose pulls in beside me and we trade bread and tamales—he loves my bread and suddenly I’m as proud as a five-year-old handing a homemade card to her father on Father’s Day. In his camper he mixes fresh guava, pineapple and horchata juice. His tamales are so good that I swear these savory treats are made by the hands of angels.
My customers are an eclectic group of characters. One client stops every other day just to chat—I never would have discovered Maria’s margaritas or the burgers at Bobcat Bite without him. Another woman brings her son for chocolate chip cookies—he crushes my inventory like Cookie Monster as he searches for the perfect bag. The big haired, bobble loving, plastic surgery pin-ups roll up in Mercedes SUVs and tell me, in a pity-riddled southern drawl, how cute I am with my little stand. I just pray they won’t squeeze my cheeks or pay with a $100 bill. The “chain gang” checks in once a week. Not exactly a scene out of Cool Hand Luke, the foreman pulls up and purchases bread for a van full of tattoo-riddled men in orange suits stamped with “Prisoner” across the chest. The men wave and act like perfect gentlemen, I smile as they gift me with a pair of opera tickets found along the road. My best customers are the other vendors—they don’t speak much English, and I don’t speak Spanish, so sales are done with smiles, nods and hand gestures. Jose has taken me under his wing—he’s given me tamales, corn, nachos, the nachos inspired by my idea, and a ristra.
Despite the seeming tranquility of selling goods along the open road, there are challenges. Some people don’t like us here—there’s the angry yuppie woman who, hating the clutter on “her” exit, stops by just to peel out and cover us in dust. We just laugh, take another bite of tamale and sip some guava juice. There’s also the occasional dust devil that swoops in and demolishes my burgeoning business, sending cookies, tarps, half eaten tamales and loaves of bread tumbling across the desert landscape. It’s all strangely worth it, though. I don’t know how long I will be out here doing this and there is a peace about that—I didn’t know how long I would sell rocks with Allison either. We just knew when it was time to stop ringing the doorbells.
By Shira Hordes Potash
Try living on one dollar per meal. That’s what The Food Stamp Challenge asks you to do for one week, based on what the average person on food stamps receives from the government. Journalists, members of Congress and the clergy, among others, have survived the Challenge, mostly through a steady supply of white bread and peanut butter, in an effort to raise awareness for reform.
Such a diet falls short of anybody’s definition of healthy, especially a nutritionist like myself. My friends affectionately call me the “Nutrition Nazi.” I’m the person who lectures her coworkers about hydrogenated oils and GMOs, who prides herself on her sugar-free, wheat-free desserts that are organic and local and raw—but far from cheap.
I work as a nutrition educator for the public schools, teaching mostly low-income kids how to cook and enjoy fruits and vegetables. My students gobble down broccoli stir-fry and spinach salad, but often tell me they can’t get this food at home.
How healthy can you eat if you are living on a food stamp budget? In an attempt to answer this question, I took the Food Stamp Challenge and dragged my husband into it with me. The only way he agreed to embark on what he called “The South Central Diet” was if we went out for a last brunch beforehand. When the bill came to $30, more than half of our upcoming food budget, we both winced.
With bellies full of determination, we ventured to the grocery store, calculator in hand. We were generous and gave ourselves $50 for the week ($1.19 per meal each). According to current USDA figures, the maximum a family of two can get is $69. I had made a shopping list of staples—lentils, beans, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter, and eggs. Anything else required diligent price checking. Produce, unfortunately, was the last stop—the icing on our food stamp cake. And while we are both major meatheads, we opted to be vegetarians for the week, aside from our lone can of tuna. The local, grass-fed, free-range, organic, hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat we normally buy was light years out of our price range.
We had to make other sacrifices as well, removing cheese from our cart to make way for more produce, for instance. As we went to put the cheese back, however, we noticed some free samples of Irish cheddar and stuffed a few morsels in our pockets for later. Then there was the coffee argument. My husband wanted his daily cup of joe. I argued that tea would be cheaper. He still pressed, even when I pointed out that if we bought coffee, we would have to buy milk and sugar. He finally conceded, rationing that in an emergency he could crash an AA meeting, just for the free coffee.
By avoiding pre-prepared foods, meat, and “luxury” items like coffee, we were able to get a decent amount of produce and even some organic items, including bulk goods, olive oil, and our single stick of butter. We even had enough money leftover for extravagances like garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
When our grand total came to $48.82, we breathed a sigh of relief.
While we were proud of our shopping success, it was bittersweet. We recognized that many families on food stamps don’t have access to full service grocery stores, let alone stores with abundant (and affordable) organic and bulk options. We also knew that living on this budget for one week was a far cry from a true experiment.
The first few days of the Challenge were a piece of (organic, whole-wheat) cake. We enjoyed tofu stir-fries, Indian lentils, black bean stews, all with lots of fresh vegetables, thanks to my painstaking rationing system. Every spoonful of peanut butter was measured; every piece of fruit counted. And still I was afraid we were eating our fresh food too quickly.
In my panic, I came up with some schemes to get us more food. For starters, we hit the dumpster at a local bread bakery, where we unearthed two still-wrapped, whole-wheat loaves. We also brought our empty glass bottles to the recycling center in exchange for eighty-two cents. Added to the change from our grocery trip, we had a whopping extra two dollars for the rest of the week.
Since food stamps can be used to buy seeds and plants to grow food, we also allowed ourselves to harvest the meager greens, lemons and herbs from our tiny backyard garden.
The last night of the Challenge, we managed to host guests, without letting on about our food budget. I had been hoarding certain delicacies all week just so we could serve them. Our meal featured lentil soup with a seeded baguette (our final $2 purchase);
a frittata with sweet potatoes, chard, and caramelized onions; a salad with garden lettuce and the aforementioned cheese samples; and for dessert—homemade oatmeal cookies (leftovers from a work potluck where my contribution was a hearty pot of beans). We savored every bite, knowing full well how much this meal cost us.
In the end, the challenge answered my initial question. While, yes, it was possible for us to eat a relatively healthy diet on a food stamp budget for one week, it was far from realistic or sustainable. In our case, we have significant advantages that many low-income individuals and families lack. We had access to a grocery store, a kitchen with pots and pans—heck, we even had a rice cooker. We also had time to prepare all of our meals from scratch, a fantasy for many who work multiple jobs and have kids. In addition, my nutrition knowledge and menu-planning know-how prevented us from running out of food halfway through the week. We also made sacrifices that few people, in the long run, would withstand. (Hello? Meat? Coffee?!) Taking the Challenge opened my eyes to the sad fact that eating healthy is a luxury that few can afford.