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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 11:15 AM


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 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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Caroline Chen


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