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3 days of living on $1.50: Marthas take the challenge

Poverty is a cause that is closest to our hearts and the one for which we have volunteered the most hours. We have gone to St Francis Center in downtown Los Angeles to serve the homeless monthly (or more) for 5 years, and we’ve supported their other programs for near-homeless families living in extreme poverty in our own city.  So when we heard about living below the line, on $1.50 a day, we decided to do it for a few days, together, in solidarity—to remind ourselves why we do what we do.

We asked local restaurants to join our cause and cook 30 meals for $15 – enough for the 10 of us. Our idea was to keep it local—the LA version—and raise a little money for the charity with whom we work the most closely, St Francis Center.

Chefs Robert Luna from Malo and Minh Phan from Beachwood Café graciously stepped up to the plate, and we cooked for a day as well- making it a 3 day challenge.

Day one — Chef Robert bought all of the ingredients from the 99 Cents store. Breakfast was an egg, two tortillas, a little beans and rice and pico de gallo salsa. Lunch was a salad with a slice of hard boiled egg and some beans and rice. Dinner was a half ear of corn on the cob, beans & rice, and a cactus taco. If you’ve ever eaten at Malo, you’ll understand that Chef Robert is amazing—and his strategy of putting beans, rice and a some tortilla in every dish is exactly how many people not only in LA, but in Mexico and Central America deal with feeding their families with little money. He really kept the food delicious and healthy, but at fifty cents a meal, the portions were tiny.

The food was delicious, but like starting a diet, the first day was the absolute hardest. Breakfast was easy enough because we often skip it—but we just never got full the rest of the day. And we spent the whole day preoccupied with thoughts of food.  All of us went to bed hungry and woke up hungry—and that was the hardest part of all.

Day two—we had to cook for this one, and since we were hungry day one, the goal of day two was to have a lot of food, whatever it was. We went to the 99 Cents store and spent $15 strategizing on how to stretch our dough. We found a bag of 10 tangerines and were excited to stay healthy—until our low blood sugar got the best of us and we opted for the box of Cinnamon Pop Tarts instead (not enough money for both). We really understood why the homeless people we serve love dessert and also why the five poorest states in America are the five most obese.

Breakfast was a poptart, instant coffee(!!!) and oatmeal cooked the night before with extra water and strawberries and left in the fridge overnight (a tip from a YMCA trainer). The oatmeal absorbs all the water and is very filling.  Without protein, the carbs made us starving by lunch. Lunch was pasta salad made with fresh red beans, sautéed zucchini, cooked carrots, and canned tomatoes. Again, it was filling, but without more protein, we were on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Dinner was ramen, a boiled egg, a few frozen veggies and a little egg roll. Our food wasn’t nearly as tasty as Chef Robert’s, and we respected the ingenuity of both Chef Robert and Chef Minh for their ingenuity and ability to make tastier meals for 50 cents each.

Day three—  Chef Minh Phan is Vietnamese, so she opted to make rice congee (porridge) with sweet and savory condiments, which is very much aligned with how Asian countries deal with feeding a family with little money.  She made us each two containers of congee, one soupy and one thicker. She also looked up some monk recipes since they are used to eating without much money.  Savory condiments: molasses and black pepper braised tofu, pickled egg, turmeric pickled onions, sweet pickled jalapenos, scallion chili oil. Sweet condiments were loquats (from local trees) in holy basil syrup and brown sugar/candied ginger/coconut. Her strategy was to make a very simple, bland and inexpensive dish (rice congee) and let us make it flavorful with her ingenious and delicious accruements.

We were also very lucky to have our City Councilmember’s Tom LaBonge’s Deputy Sharon Shapiro show solidarity by joining us in eating on $1.50 for day 3.

Day 3 we all ate through the condiments first thing in the morning and were left  eating almost plain congee the rest of the day.  Wow! We loved how Chef Minh used leftover scallions for the chili oil—and picked loquats from a tree.  The food was delicious and we found that congee got us full, but once we were out of tofu and egg, the same sort of low blood sugar feeling would return. That was the same all three days.

Thank you to lovely and talented Minh Phan at Beachwood Café and the awesome and skilled Robert Luna at Malo for helping Sinnai, Angie, Debbie, Areli, Alejandro, Sonia, Ralph, Nina, Vianey, Danelly, Anji and the awesome Sharon Shapiro feel what so many people in this world feel daily: hunger, the return of hunger, the inability to concentrate because of hunger, sugar cravings from low blood sugar, caffeine withdrawals… but most of all, empathy. And community. And compassion. We made a little bit of money for the incredible St Francis Center, but more importantly, we strengthened our resolve to do more. And do more we shall!

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