Q&A: Chef Karl Wilder Talks About Living on Food Stamps

karlwildercook.jpg
​Karl Wilder is not your typical chef. He doesn't spend his days cooking up fantastic gourmet food -- he has taken the food stamps challenge, which means for the past month and a half, Wilder has limited himself to a budget of $1.33 per meal and struggles daily to balance nutrition and calories.

Wilder has organized a 12-hour cook-a-thon called Thanksgiving in August, which will be held on August 27 at St. Luke's Church. The price of admission is a donation to the Food Bank, however small. Attendees can taste Wilder's creations, and there will also be a wine tasting.

Wilder sat down with SFoodie to talk about the challenges of living on a food stamp diet.

What inspired you to do the food stamps challenge?
At the end of June, I met with Jessica Brittsan at the Food Bank and she gave me a tour of the facility. She said, maybe you want to take the food stamps challenge for a week.

When people are on food stamps, they have $1.44 per meal per person in the house. So I did the math and decided I'd be spending 33 cents per day on oil and seasoning, so I would live on $1.33 per meal.

One of my blog readers challenged me to stay on it til the event in August. He said, I think you should go til the 27th and I decided to do that because it would make more of an impact.

What has been most surprising to you, since starting the challenge?
I realized how much a cup of coffee costs. Even if you make it at home, it's 30 cents a day! Can you imagine working a minimum wage job and not having the budget for a cup of coffee before you go to work? It's the one thing I determined not to give up.

Also, how difficult it is to balance calories and nutrition. Before this, most of my diet was fruits and vegetables and I still ate about 2200 calories a day. I can't afford a lot of those fruits and vegetables now. I would eat a pomegranate a day at $1.99, but I need to keep my calories up so I'm eating less healthy food and more rice and more pasta or I will run out of calories.

[He shows me how loose his jeans are] These are a 29. You know, I'm only 5'4'' but I've lost almost 4 pounds and it's been less than 2 months. And that's because I focus at least part of my budget on getting vegetables so I really get now how hard it is for people to make that balance. And I take a multivitamin a day because I know I'm not eating what I need.

How do you keep track of the nutrition you're getting?
I weigh all my food and enter every ingredient onto a program on fitday.com and then I take the table from that. So it's actually easy, just time consuming.

What do most people on food stamps eat?
I've had several emails from people who are on food stamps, and one of them said she's always feeding her family the Banquet $1 frozen meal, because it fills them up. That's one of the ways she makes ends meet. She asked me to try some and I actually ended up trying one. I wasn't too happy with it.

It made me feel very bloated and there's so much junk in those. I can see why it fills her family up because most people don't need a lot of sodium and there's thousands of milligrams. Most people don't need a lot of cornstarch and cornflour and all of these things that make you feel full. I felt like I was 200 pounds after having half a frozen meal. I felt disgusted.

What are the most common health concerns for people living on food stamps?
Diabetes is huge because sugar becomes the treat and it's cheap to buy something sweet. So it's what people often turn to. If you give your kid a soda you can get these liters of soda, 2 for 99 cents at the 99 cent store. They're loaded with HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). But your kid feels like all the other kids 'cause he's getting soda. I understand why mothers are doing this on one hand, and on the other hand I would love to let them have other choices.

What are the top foods that are both healthy and affordable?
Cabbage - loaded with vitamin C and fiber, raw or cooked, in soups, it's versatile and it's the cheapest vegetable out there. Carrots - loaded with Vitamin A and rarely more than 49 cents a pound. They are absolutely one of the best. Certain local fruits in season can be got in certain markets at a great deal. The best markets to buy fruit at are the Asian markets and the Spanish markets. If you go to Safeway, grapes are $3.79 a pound. If you go to 22nd and Mission, they're 79 cents a pound. Right now grapes are everywhere and cheap at the little local markets.

What's your favourite dish you've cooked on a food stamp budget?
The best dish that I have discovered that is incredibly affordable and loaded with calories and nutrition is braised pork belly done Asian style with vegetables. You can pick up pork belly for $2.49 a pound, and 4 ounces is enough because the fat is very filling. Then with one cup of rice you can add 88 cents worth of vegetables and make a really incredibly delicious meal.

What do you miss the most?
Not having wine! I'm used to often having a glass of wine, especially with pasta, and now out of necessity, I eat pasta all the time, and it kills me not to be able to have a glass of wine. I can't even do two-buck chuck on this. I was given some wine for my birthday, so I did open one bottle out of three and had a little bit of it and it was like, oh, thank God!

That, and letting go of certain cravings, for instance, the best Chinese duck in San Francisco is four blocks from my house on 30th and Noriega (Cheung Hing). Every time I drive by, I want that duck, but it's $7 for half a duck. It's the perfect balance of the sodium, the star anise, the soy, not too sweet and not too salty. It's incredible. I drove by there today and you could smell the duck as you go by. It drives me crazy. I will probably have duck the day after this.

What are you hoping to achieve by blogging about your food stamps challenge?
I think the best benefit of people of people knowing about it is that they're going to open up their cupboard doors and look, and say, "Is there something I can spare? Is there something I can share?"

Why don't people know, or talk about this?
It's not a pleasant subject. We're in a town filled with great restaurants and great chefs and we have the best farmer's markets, local produce, local wine. There's so much to celebrate. Do you really get up in the morning and think about the people who are living on a hotel maid's salary, relying on food stamps, and barely getting by? San Francisco has a food culture that should be celebrated, but at the same time we have to remember, all men are our brothers.

How does California's food stamp program compare to other states?
I've heard from several social workers that California is the state that has the lowest number of people who qualify for food stamps who are actually on them. Because the paperwork and the hoops they put people through in order to get them are so difficult and intimidating, many people who apply can't get food stamps because they can't figure the paperwork out. So a lot of the qualifying individuals walk away in frustration, which makes the food banks even more important.

Most states have really simplified the process, but California has not done that. In addition, they make people re-qualify every month instead of every quarter, so they have to submit proof of income, proof of everything. They're constantly needing to provide documentation.

And it's really hard for people. Here's an example. A woman who's working for cash as a house maid. She is honest about her income when she applies for food stamps, which is about $700 a month. She has two kids. She qualifies. They ask her to submit pay stubs and proof of incomes. She has no pay stubs. She has no proof of income. She's turned down. How do you submit proof of lack? That's what trips up a lot of people.

Are there any insights you've gotten from this experience?
How lucky I am, and how much I have to share.

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15 comments
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geeKer
geeKer

I remember growing up on the CA welfare system in the 80's when the system was different, not better by any means... just different. Long story short, in our family the end of the month was always referred to as "the welfare diet". We never ate like kings, but the last week of every month always involved fasting. Most the time the food we ate during the month was the cheapest crap you could find at the dollar store, mixed in with meals that were made large enough to give us leftovers for days. It was never enough to last four whole weeks.My mother wasn't on welfare popping out babies irresponsibly, she was happily married and financially secure when we were born (all three of us!)... we were all victims of a dead-beat dad once that marriage fell apart. She eventually got off of welfare, which was only a possibility once she left the great state of California (yet another cruel reality about the CA welfare system back then). She has a job, and has never accepted government assistance again. My sisters and I have all attended college and have gotten degrees, and we all live happily without food stamps. We have come a long way from the years of shame at the checkout counter, as the people standing in line behind us would scowl and sigh LOUDLY as my mother pulled food stamps out of her wallet.To assume that the problem always lies on the recipients of welfare while ignoring what put them there, as well as what is keeping them there is either ignorant, or incredibly naive. Do some people take advantage of welfare? Absolutely. To assert that every person fits into that stereotype however is a sure sign of a simple mind.

farwayhome
farwayhome

This is a wonderful start but walking a mile in the shoes of the poor and struggling is still woefully misunderstood or not at all. In example:I can buy lots of cheap, carbohydrate and sugar laden unhealthy food and yes there are lots of cheap local markets however the transportation costs money most do not have. Most people have a choice to make, do I eat healthy for 14 to 20 days or do I get enough food to last the month and eat crap processed food?

@sinosoul:disqus its obvious your information is made up. You are incorrect and its obvious your opinions are based on the thought that you are superior to those you deem "below" you.

Yanon
Yanon

Or...do you balance the healthy and the crap and eat as well as possible for the month?

Robin
Robin

Mom's should cut out the soda and give their kids water. It's free & it's healthy

guest
guest

unless, of course, you live in an area where your water is not healthy to drink, and then it's not free either!

Robin
Robin

I too am a social worker and there are no reliable state or national statistics on the number of legal eligible FS recipients vs those who actually apply.

Robin
Robin

The woman getting paid cash isn't having her income docked by taxes, therefore she is earning more than the other maids who do pay taxes. Those same poor people paying taxes are subsidizing the cash recipients food stamps.

sean from Oakland
sean from Oakland

CA is also pretty far behind in terms of requiring people to get finger-printed in order to get food stamps...The USDA (which runs food stamps- now called SNAP) gives states a lot of latitude on policies around certification, penalties, etc.  It's surprising that CA, a supposedly progressive state, is NOT at all progressive when it comes to food stamps.  Our nation is at record numbers of people using food stamps right now

Guest
Guest

 I work for the Food Stamp Program in SF and many of us have taken the FS Challenge.  I commend you on doing this, it's a great educational experience!  I just wanted to clarify some things.  It is not our policy to have clients reapply every month.  They recertify only once a year.  Once every two years if you are homeless, elderly or disabled.  Regarding the maid who is paid cash, it is also our policy to assist customers to produce documents needed to apply.  In her situation, we would have easily made contact with her employer to obtain proof of employment.  Another great way for folks to find out if they're eligible or to apply is to visit one of our websites:  www.benefitssf.org  OR  www.benefitscalwin.org.  Anyway, this was an interesting article to read.

SFG
SFG

Yes, that's right, we re-apply just once a year, and we do submit updates quarterly for food stamps in California,not every month. I just spent a year on food stamps, so I know, unless it'sdifferent for people with families. I was a single recipient. Also, ifyou work for cash you can get your employer to write out a receipt orletter to show how much they paid you.

It's true, though, you can't really afford to eat your full complementof calories per day on food stamps. I ate a lot of things I normallywould not eat only because they were cheaper to buy. Also, you can'tbuy alcohol with food stamps even if you could afford to. The EBT cardsare set up to disallow alcohol and that's for a lot of good andhopefully obvious reasons.

I don't have kids, and I'm sure it's even more difficult to do a foodbudget on food stamps for more than one person, especially if thatincludes children.  For myself, if I ran out of food stamps, I justwouldn't eat, but of course that's not an option if children areinvolved.

I very much appreciated having these food stamps last year, though. Ihad never before been on welfare or food stamps in my lifetime, so itwas quite an eye-opening experience and not easy. Helped get me througha hard time, though. I'm now employed again and don't need the Stateassistance anymore.

Wilderkj
Wilderkj

Ah...that's great that you would have gotten in contact with the employer(s). However you must realize that those people pay in cash for a reason, they do not want to deal with taxes or paperwork that can result if they pay her more than 600 in a year. Most employers who pay in cash will refuse to verify anything so you willingness is pretty meaningless in a case like this. 

Kari betush
Kari betush

chef karl is doing what he feels will make a difference in the fight against hunger. that is a wonderful thing.

Kmb2323
Kmb2323

How does that saying go? something about walking a mile in another mans shoes............

sinosoul
sinosoul

I was told, by a Chinese immigrant, that the cost of food in America is ridiculous cheap. Fresh pork, fruit, and carb sources (NOT sourced from Gelson/Whole Paycheck) is more affordable than that of say, Shangdong Province, China. This was claimed by a person from a country with a supposed average salary of US$300/month.

If you're unable to feed yourself in a country with outrageous farm subsidies and beyond discounted food prices, maybe you shouldn't have those "two kids".

Wilderkj
Wilderkj

While I agree that birth control is something that is needed. In order to convince the poor not to have kids you are going to have to take on the Catholic Church and not the poor individuals who have been brainwashed by the church.

To me it is incredibly ugly to suggest that a child born to a poor person should starve because his mother should have used birth control.

'Sorry, your mother did not plan well, you get to starve to death."

Is that really the world you want to live in?

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