This is a bit of an odd post for me, and quite long, so I won’t be offended if poetry readers skip it. Mostly it is published so I/it can be there for myself if it happens again.
Last week I had the distinct pleasure of a totally new and profound experience of hunger. Of course, at first I approached it like a problem requiring an urgent solution. You know, do something, anything, I’m used to overcoming problems.
I tried to take my little bit of money to the usual grocery stores but the buy-in price for something nutritious was so much higher than my available dollars, not even one thing that wasn’t junk food could I really afford, except perhaps milk.
Real food (the GST-free stuff) is ridiculously overpriced in this country lately. So-called fresh food is often shipped in from the USA so the quality is as terrible as the prices are high. Before anyone gets offended, a lemon that is shipped from the USA and made available to consumers here in Melbourne cannot have been anywhere near a tree for months, but it will still usually cost you nearly $2 and you would be lucky to get more than a tablespoon of juice out of it, naturally. They generally taste horrible (not actually ripe and never will be no matter how long you wait) and it would be a miracle if such an item still had any nutritional value. It seemed stupid to waste the little I had on fake food that might not even get me through a single day.
Yes, I reached out to a friend or two, but they were totally unconcerned. For them my situation was impossible to comprehend. I live in a first world country, nobody should ever be hungry for long without the means to correct it.
Still, after a few days of just drinking litres upon litres of water, I couldn’t take the hunger any longer and my mind switched out. I was no longer in a familiar state, the demands of my body were so intense that decision making was becoming increasingly complicated – the more I tried to “think”, the harder things became. I did a bit of crying and stressing out, but then I noticed that behaviour produced such an intensifying of my discomfort, hormones or something, that I had to force myself to stop. Every standard behaviour used far more energy than I had available so I had to drop it all.
After a couple of days I was already dizzy, vague, shaky and very nauseous, not to mention the hunger pains and various other aches and stiffness all throughout my body. Low energy was probably an understatement.
So I waited. I was scared. Not thinking, not moving, except for just enough to get the occasional glass of water. Eventually a different mind took over, highly alert but in repose, knowing that to do or think anything that wasn’t going to immediately bring the nutrition I needed was simply wasting my limited resources. Awareness of even the most basic of bodily processes became finely attuned, I no longer had subtle urgings, instead loud and insistent demands, much like the intensity you experience when you’ve waited too long for the bathroom, except this intensity was for everything I needed: air, food, water, safety and even more surprisingly for me, physical contact with other humans.
It is not so easy to imagine this feeling unless you have experienced it. Thankfully it’s only happened a few times in my life, but never for this long and never with no prospective income on the horizon and the subsequent brain crash. Unfortunately, about half of the world’s population lives like this for most of their lives, first world or not.
There is no question in my mind that I am irrevocably changed by this experience. I can honestly tell you that all ideas about morality, social considerations, planning for the future, taking actions according to one’s will, etc… simply don’t come into it from such a state. You cannot morally judge a starving person’s actions and expect any message to be heard through their ears, other than “I would rather you starved to death.” If you bring them food, they will probably eat it but they will not hear your words nor be particularly grateful for your moralising, only for the food. At best they will act in a way that encourages you to bring more than they need right now so they can eat again soon. At worst, you will be trying to throw them in jail because of their behaviour.
I want you to really know that it doesn’t matter how the situation arose. Most of us would think that knowing how it happened and forming opinions or making suggestions on what could have been done to prevent it is relevant here, it truly isn’t. There is nothing theoretical nor hypothetical about such an overwhelming experience of physical reality.
So after just a few days of not having access to enough food, the fear is intense and real, the ability to process high level abstract concepts becomes extremely limited, instinct for survival is at the forefront of everything I do.
If I did not systematically and strategically go to each store I could find until I discovered a shop with reasonable prices on the basics I think I would have stolen food and I would be in the (in)justice system right now. Early morning deliveries to shops just sit there on the pavement tempting all kinds of very hungry folk like me and it took a bit of convincing myself not to just walk off with at least one of those loaves of fresh bread. If I had dependents I am sure I would have done it (and then perhaps got myself shipped off to a new penal colony on somebody else’s land where sooner or later we ended up hunting the natives for sport). As it turned out I could manage no more than two outings per day to scout around and I learned that on an empty stomach, three glasses of water in quick succession gets me about 40 minutes of walking around for each outing.
After much deliberation, I managed to get some food for about $3 first, then another $6 worth using coins that I found around my flat. The shop assistant was mystified by the process of counting coins as though she had never seen such strange tokens nor learned arithmetic, and I felt ashamed. The African bloke behind me smiled and said, “Yes I know it, you have counted out what you can spend.” I could tell by his shopping and his attitude, he was or had been in the same situation. I admit I was a little jealous of his beef strips and mountain of frozen veggies which was more than my budget at the time. He was right though, it took me ages of checking out the price of almost everything and adding up on the calculator and counting coins from one pocket to the other before I made my final purchases. My brain was so sluggish but nutritional value for money was the only thing in my mind. That food has kept me going. I don’t remember any meal I have prepared before this period as being so satisfying.
I will admit I am still at a loss as to how to get regular vitamin C on this budget though.
This week I have a little bit more cash, through some unexpected good luck for which I am eternally grateful. I have to tell you how much fun I had planning out my next food shopping with this new awareness. Body speaks. Must eat.
It still took about three hours and four trips to various places to get all these items. If I’d gone to my usual stores I might have spent over $100 to get a similar volume of food, but there’s no way it would have been this coordinated and calculated to maximise nutrition and would have required a second or third spend later in the week. You can see how I used my $49 budget below if you’re interested.
What I bought and prepared
- lots of chicken drumettes 5
- lots of very ripe tomatoes 4
- capsicums 2
- fava beans 3
- olives 7
- garlic 2
- frozen spinach 0.9
- frozen pastry 2.3
- feta 4
- eggs 3.5
- onions 2
- olive oil 8
- parsley 3
- brown sugar 2.5
- lemon 1.4
Things I still had left over
- turkish bread
Today is advance cooking day
You have to know how glad I am that I know how to prepare delicious meals or I would find this entire experience depressing. However, I also know how much energy being depressed actually uses now so I am doubtful that depression would be considered a viable response to very many situations in the future. (No I didn’t know it was optional until I was starving.)
This morning I prepared the sauce for shakshuka. Some I will use with eggs and some with the remaining chicken drumettes.
The fava beans are soaked and ready for ful mesdames which will slow cook all afternoon. Will eat with bread, olives, tomato and a parsley, lemon and garlic dressing.
With the pastry feta, carrots and spinach I will make two types of pastry parcels (carrot/feta, spinach/feta).
Some stuff will go into the freezer until I need it. If there is any yoghurt left and I can track down some mint, I will also make cacik with a donated cucumber I have.
That last capsicum is yet to find a purpose so I will probably grill, peel and store it because they usually cost me $3-$5 each, but right place-right time last weekend to get a couple for $2.
I had dinner with a friend yesterday, puttanesca pasta with a kind of garlic bread the day before, half a dozen roasted chicken drumettes the day before that. I still have yoghurt and apricots left for early in the day until that runs out. Over the weekend I made breakfast coffee cake with oats, brown sugar and five spice and that took me 5 days to get through. So yeah I had oats and flour plus a load of spices at home when I was super hungry but I couldn’t figure out how to prepare them without other ingredients.
I also made snagball pasta late last week from marked down sausages and canned tomatoes and shared it with my friend who donated the funds — would have come in handy when I was really struggling but he didn’t hear anything I said until I had restored enough energy myself to recount the whole story. That was $5 of beef sausages, $2 of canned tomatoes, onion, chilli, garlic and $0.65 pasta, so about $9. I can hardly believe how many meals that created, it makes you so full and satisfied. Snagballs is my name for meatballs made by frying chunks of raw, skinned butcher sausages which is cheaper and quicker than doing it all from scratch.
Drop a note if you would like to know how to do any of these meals or if you are local and want to know where I found the bargains. I am sure there are Facebook groups for this kind of thing, but you need a lot of energy for all that scrolling, and seeing as nobody plans ahead for how they will handle the threat of starvation, it’s most accessible when you don’t need it.
The experience has created a simple rule for me. If someone is hungry near you, including yourself, give them food or help them get it. Never mind setting up a plan to eat next week or next month, filling in forms and waiting for approval, this is how the government and charities work. I didn’t qualify for any of the free food around except possibly dinner once per week and at the time I found that out, I couldn’t wait another 5 days for it. Many places still need you to pay even after you qualify, so if you are homeless (how would you prove this so you could qualify?) and can’t find any coins, you are up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Nothing else can be done until a person has enough food. Everybody needs it. Social welfare programs repeatedly fail to understand this if I am being kind, but it’s rather obvious that you are punished severely for falling below the poverty line, or any other line, in our society, regardless that it seems the system is designed to get more and more people into a desperate state of need rather than less. And don’t get me started about those who will feed you God and/or shame with your dinner, hunger exists prior to religion or morality. The only saving you need at that point is the kind that puts food in your belly, sinners or not, we all need food every day.
To me, it says a lot, to live within a social structure that requires people to pass all kinds of tests repeatedly, to get fed. Excuse me, but our Mother, the Earth, already provides. How much extra work and overwhelming stress do you put into getting yourself fed properly in this system? We have been sold on the convenience of our current system, but is it convenient? Ask your body. If you really listen you will be surprised.
I have since noticed that a large part of my long term dissatisfaction or challenges in life are simply this basic problem in one form or another; difficulty getting my basic needs met. It’s been a significant challenge since the day I was born judging by the stories from my adoptive mother of how at 10 days old when she took custody of me, I had huge boils in various places and did not bother to cry any more when I needed something. You gotta love a system that leaves newborns to self-manage because they are too black for the country’s assimilation policy.
Also, nobody really wants most of the types of jobs on offer these days, they don’t suit conscious human beings and it’s only that we must do them if we are able or we may not survive. Even when you do have a job or other kind of income, getting the essentials is not a given and frequently just moves the problem around. Particularly when you try to follow the social dictates but you’re not able to be conforming enough to make it into the privileged class (more people than is ever acknowledged).
Whether you have lots of money or not, whether you are in this or that social class, I bet most of you don’t have the time because it’s still a bit complicated and stressful to get good wholesome food that keeps you healthy unless you are living in a situation where you can grow/forage or exchange with others and your job is awesome and not stressful at all and doesn’t take all your time and attention and you aren’t bothered by the news and, and, and… I can hardly believe I used to go on diets when I was younger, what kind of absurd mind trick is that?
After months of trying to survive on very little I still feel a bit guilty for eating more than one meal per day at the moment, but my body tells me I am too depleted to sustain such a stupid idea in the first place. I also still feel kind of weak so it’s tough to also feel very confident about the future at the same time. Thus I eat now and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
What makes me happiest about this entire story is now I try to share more meals with others without obligation. I know that whether or not they express gratitude, eating well is one of the most important prerequisites in the world for a human being to thrive; as grandmothers and mothers the world over have been showing us since the beginning of time. It’s also the simplest and purest expression of love I think anyone can offer – I want you to survive – please eat!
Much love to you all.
Shout out to Leah Potter at Sunset Soup Kitchen who shares food with long-grassers in Darwin every night, no questions.