I know a lot of college students who consciously seek out free-food opportunities on campus. Doughnuts and cider from student groups on the Diag, entire boxes of pizza for signing cable TV contracts (which they immediately cancel), Kroger-brand cookies at various mass meetings – it’s all fair game. Festifall on its own is a treasure-trove of light lunches and after-class snacks. These kids save a lot of money on food.
I am not one of these people.
But for a week, I tried to be. I scrimped and saved and haunted the Diag for signs of tents, which often enough are signs of bagels or trail mix or air pots of coffee. Before, when I had a late class or work at the Daily, it was simply easier to eat out. Even though my schedule didn’t change, I made an effort to make it back to my co-op for dinner each night, where food is part of rent.
When I told my friends I wouldn’t be spending any money on food for an entire week, some of them gave me suggestions on where to go, while others didn’t believe my intentions. “Kimberly,” a friend exaggerated, “you’re the kind of person who would skip eating for two days to buy a really good cheese.”
Despite my reputation as a Visa-swiping foodie, I knew I could find enough free food to constitute roughly three meals a day. There are enough opportunities out there (check out www.hungryhungrycoeds.com for a list of campus events with free food) and even more if you’re bold enough to drop by brunches and luncheons held by departments other than your own (“Hello, business school!”).
But the main reason I was doing this was curiosity. Would it be possible to not only eat for free, but to eat well for free? At which events could I find food that wasn’t made of starch or sugar? I qualify eating well as being able to eat relatively healthy.
Two weeks ago Monday, I started the experiment. Here are some highlights from the experience;
Monday, Oct. 8
I decide to start in the evening. Rules are that I won’t pay for anything outside of the co-op – especially after I’ve spent $40 on a tank of gas to drive to Southfield for a story assignment. I run into a friend in Southfield and make him buy me a coffee at a family restaurant. I drop by my co-op and eat part of dinner before dashing back to work, where there are leftover Jimmy John’s vegetarian sandwiches from a meeting. I debate whether or not to eat one when I am hungry later. I take a bite and realize maybe I’m not ready to do this yet.
Wednesday, Oct. 10
After pulling an all-nighter, I speed to a 9 a.m. appointment at the Art and Architecture Building where I proceed to think about whether I can make it back to Central Campus by 12 for a Lunch with Honors event (these honors program luncheons where they invite distinguished guests to speak – and eat lunch – with students). I do make it in time; and even better, the honors program has catered in from Afternoon Delight, a café on Liberty Street. I have half a chicken salad sandwich on wheat, fruit and some potato salad. I feel starchy and tired. But maybe that’s just because I haven’t slept.
Later, my roommate tells me they’re giving away bagels and coffee Wednesday mornings at the Alumni Association Center from September through November. I ponder how to stock up.
Friday, Oct. 12
Lunch with Honors – and Afternoon Delight – again. I debate chicken salad again, or turkey. I end up with what seems to be tuna. Curses. I’m getting hungry and increasingly indiscriminating about my cuisine options. Later in the afternoon, someone at a Semester in Detroit meeting I attend has made a funfetti cake. Maybe if I eat enough funfetti I won’t need to worry about dinner – actually this is a bad idea. I consider asking someone to take me to Shabbat dinner at Hillel.
Monday, Oct. 15
I try hungryhungrycoeds.com. There’s an event for later that day promising “light refreshments.” Could this work for dinner? I find myself at a drama interest group discussion on Samuel Beckett questioning the number of peppermint patties I could take that would still be considered polite (I guessed two). As we introduce ourselves over cider and Nilla Wafers, I realize that everyone else is a graduate student. I consider putting back the second peppermint patty.
Maybe this wasn’t the best week to conduct this test. Or maybe the problem is I’m too afraid to drop in on the engineering school/business school recruiting dinners – where I’m guessing the food might even surpass tuna sandwiches. I cave a few times to buy coffee and feel terrible; I’m certainly not doing as well as another friend of mine, who has been able to locate campus events catered by Zingerman’s and managed two weeks straight of free Japanese lunches and dinners as part of a summer internship. At one point, he had six teriyaki bento boxes stacked in his refrigerator. I do realize that outside of the desire to scrimp and save (whether to be able to make a few more rounds at the bar at the end of the week or to make rent at end of the month), there’s a certain pride from being able to do something for as little money as possible. It has a stick-it-to-the-man kind of quality to it. Most important, I realize now how much money I usually spend – and a lot of it is unnecessary.
Think about it. If you decide to eat out an entire day, how much money do you spend? A minimum of 10 bucks? Fifteen? Even if you skip breakfast, let’s say you have a bagel for lunch (between $1 and $2) and the cheapest sandwich you can find (Potbelly’s or a falafel deal is usually around $4) for dinner. Let’s throw in coffee for a dollar or so. Added up, that’s still more than double what you’d be allowed on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Stamp Program. Earlier this year, in anticipation of the farm bill (which includes the food stamp program) being up for reauthorization, four members of Congress conducted what they called their “Food Stamp Challenge,” eating on $21 or less a week. Similar Food Stamp Challenges have been taken up by other groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and United Way of Roanoke Valley. It’s something that’s gotten a lot of positive press attention. Nancy S. Tivol of the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “Feeling full on $3 a day is one challenge; eating nutritionally is virtually impossible.” Bagels or bread or French fries (even when sold at Amer’s or Wendy’s) are cheaper than anything else. Salads – buying the ingredients to make one, much less buying one from Cosi or (god forbid) Zingerman’s – are out of the question when you’re trying to live cheaply. And so many people are forced to live on very low incomes, not just for a week to complete a Statement feature story, but every day. Worse, they’re not living in a world overflowing with catered honors luncheons.
Even though I’ve got my credit card in hand again, I’ve become a lot better at paying attention to event listings with those key phrases: “refreshments,” “lunch provided” or “FREE PIZZA!!!” And in addition to a deeper understanding of the farm bill, I’ve been introduced to some interesting events I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. So maybe you’ll see me at Prof. Enoch Brater’s Beckett talk at Angell Hall tomorrow. He’ll be talking about “The Seated Figure on Beckett’s Stage” – and peppermint patties will be the least of my concerns this time.