Stefanie Cruz and Kevin McCarty, both recognizable, high-profile names in town, shared a lot in common even before they separately agreed to take the CalFresh Food Challenge.
McCarty is a Sacramento City Council member, while Cruz is a TV news anchor at Channel 40 (KTXL) who reports on politicians including McCarty.
So it wasn't surprising, in a way, that both rang in the holiday season by joining others in a public-awareness campaign about hunger: They agreed to pare down their grocery budgets to no more than $4.90 a day per person – the same amount that CalFresh, or local food stamp, recipients have if they manage to stretch their benefits over an entire month.
The challenge was trying to eat a healthy diet at that spending level.
Recruited by the Sacramento Hunger Coalition, the project of the Sacramento Housing Alliance that organized the Challenge here, Cruz and McCarty joined dozens of trailblazers who signed up. They wanted to call attention to the hardships experienced by the roughly 250,000 – that's one of every 10 – residents living in the four-county Sacramento region. According to the California Department of Social Services, about 80 percent of those live in Sacramento County.
The face of the poor, economic experts say, has changed to include the working poor, as well as those who are barely surviving on government assistance. CalFresh households have a net income that is no more than the federal poverty level.
Oftentimes, those on food stamps find that their CalFresh benefits fail to cover the whole month, leaving them with a week or so without cash to buy groceries – let alone a cushion to make healthy choices for meal planning.
Yet, increasingly health experts warn that a diet lacking in fresh foods and whole grains can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions – not to mention that such a diet can set the stage for other serious and costly health conditions.
A Sacramento Hunger Coalition report found that the region's homeless people say food insecurity exacerbates their acid reflux, hypertension and diabetes. ("Food insecurity" is defined as a limited ability to acquire nutritionally adequate foods.)
Flimsy nutrition follows extreme poverty, and California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to November research from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Inevitably, with the holidays come higher expenses and trips to regional food banks for assistance. Which brings us to the reason for the timing of the food stamp challenge: 'Tis the season.
As Sacramentans count their blessings and enjoy special times with family and friends, food banks hope good-hearted donors will step up to help meet demand for food assistance.
"We do expect people to be a little more aware and generous around the holidays," said Edith Martinez, director of the CalFresh Outreach Program of the River City Food Bank.
The need is critical, not just to put meals on the table but to put nutritious and healthy foods – especially whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables – within reach of low-income families.
A survey this year called "Hunger Hits Home" by the Sacramento Housing Alliance and Valley Vision found the number of people locally turning to food pantries increased by 20 percent between 2010 and 2011. Of those surveyed, nearly half had relied on food-assistance programs for more than one year.
The report identified the south Sacramento area as suffering the greatest need, with an estimated 18.6 percent of residents there experiencing food insecurity.
When shopping for themselves, both Cruz and McCarty said they found it difficult to afford fresh produce on the meager budgets they had agreed to follow.
For Cruz, her daily menu included a lot of repetition: Breakfast was one packet of instant oatmeal; lunch and dinner each comprised one corn tortilla, one egg, a pinch of shredded cheese, two tablespoons of beans and a boiled chicken thigh (white meat being out of reach on her budget).
Her daily midafternoon snack to keep her energy up was one-quarter of a Clif high-protein bar.
Cruz, who loves fresh fruits and vegetables, said she couldn't afford them and stay within the Challenge limit. She chose the healthiest ingredients her budget would allow.
In four days of taking the Challenge and adhering to that diet, Cruz lost 4 pounds, she said.
That bonus aside, Cruz said the real point was "trying to understand the challenge facing the people who we call our neighbors and even our friends.
"They are people, many like us, who are really struggling," she said.
By the end of the four days, Cruz admitted, she was hungry and felt a bit critical of her two children when they fussed over meals.
"I wanted to say, 'There are people out there who are hungry and who would give anything to have what's on your plate,' " Cruz said.
For McCarty, the experiment spanned just 1 1/2 days but left a lasting impact. He said he realized he had many resources backing him up, whereas others had so little.
For McCarty's part, he decided to make dinner for himself and his twin 4-year-old girls for under $4.90 per person per day.
He managed to pick up a whole chicken at the grocery store, noting that, "It's quite a challenge to buy for a family on this budget. The food that you do buy needs to be so well planned and prepared – it takes a lot of work."
That chicken, along with some tortillas, milk and a modest amount of fruit, had to feed the three McCartys – his wife was out of town – through dinner, the next day's breakfast and then lunch.
"It was hard," he said. "Trying to buy healthy food (on a strict budget) is not always easy."
But McCarty said he benefited from the experience.
"I'm impressed by this challenge. It gave me the opportunity to walk in the shoes of others less fortunate – and also to shine a light on the needs of the food banks around the holidays."