Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I just finished reading a really interesting blog about the $25 challenge. In essence, the challenge asked middle- and upper-class citizens to attempt to feed themselves for a week with only $25.00. As it happens, Illinois state (where the challenge originated) currently allocates an average of $25 per week to food stamp recipients. The purpose of the experiment was to “highlight the struggle that families in Illinois face in accessing nutritious food. This blog documents the emotional and physical struggles of the $25 Challenge in their own words.” There were some really interesting posts from the people who took on the task. Some of them failed the challenge, dropping out prior to the deadline or accepting “free” meals at work (these meals of course a privilege of citizenship amongst employees at elite companies). These failures were not common though, and most of the people who started the challenge finished the challenge – albeit hungry, grouchy, and many fully convinced that the Herculean feat required of the government was unattainable by mere mortals.

I do not disagree with the general thesis. It is likely that we do not allocate sufficient funds to properly nourish fellow citizens. I also can find no fault in the argument that feeding oneself for $25 a week is much harder than feeding oneself for $50 (my average grocery bill). However, I am quite unconvinced that the collective experience documented in these blogs “proves” that it cannot be done. One participant wrote about walking through the doors of an Aldi and purchasing a 24-pack of water with their meager allotment. Seriously? Are we really to take their experience as evidence that low-income people are likely starving? Probably not. Note the distinction here. It may well be that it is impossible to properly nourish oneself for $25/week. However, one person who spends a good proportion of their entire budget on a non-caloric, non-nutritive substance that comes out of the faucet for free (relatively speaking) does not strike me as the most compelling evidence that it cannot be done. I would count it in the column of evidence for: “some people would be in big trouble if faced with a personal, economic disaster”. However, if we really want to prove that it’s impossible, we need to try our best to see if it can be done.

Karl Popper, the mascot for philosophy of science, writes that the very best way to collect evidence that a theory is true is to do everything in your power to prove it wrong. If both you and your friends try your darnest to prove it wrong, and it seems to hold up, then you gradually get more and more convinced that it’s true. The theory of gravity is one such theory. A bunch of people tried really hard to find a place on earth or in the universe where ‘gravity’ didn’t do a relatively good job of explaining the movement of objects. Because they were pretty respectable scientists, and because they just couldn’t really seem to find a place where gravity wasn’t a pretty good explanation for a variety of disparate things, we’re all pretty much convinced about the notion of gravity. In fact, we even get confused and think of gravity as a “fact” when in fact it’s a mere theory (theory, in the scientific sense of the word). So I’m not saying food security has a lot in common with physics, just that we can learn something from the methodology. Anyway, this is Popper’s definition of proper science:

(1) State your theory.
(2) Try your very best to disprove it.
(3) Re-evaluate.
a. If you disprove it, you’re set. The theory is wrong.
b. If, despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to disprove it, then you can be a little more
sure that the theory is right. Try disproving it a few hundred more times just to be sure.

Ok, so it wasn’t my intent to talk about dead philosophers in a food blog, but really, it’s a pretty austere food blog as these things go, so maybe you won’t fault me. I bring up the old guy to say – he might be on to something here. If we really want to say “Government, stop starving people on your meager allotment,” then let’s be a little more systematic about amassing the “data”.

(1) State your theory.

Here goes. *People can’t eat for $25 week. They’ll starve or at the very least be malnourished.*

(2) Now, try to disprove it.

Yay! We’ve finally arrived at the point. I’m going to take the $25/week food challenge. Woo – you say. Dozens of other people have done this already and written compelling and interesting accounts of their experience. In fact, removing your middle-class lenses for one moment, thousands upon thousands of food-stamp recipients do this every single week. What’s new? Sigh. Fine. It’s not really new. It has but one small kink. If you find that one small change interesting … read on. Otherwise, there are thousands of interesting blogs by which to pass the work day. I understand. Go. OK – actually I’m only expecting three people to read this blog. After my parents, you are likely my only reader. Please stay. OK, go. I’m fine.

So what’s is it? Well...

I’m going to try really hard to eat well on $25.

Boring right? Well, sort of. I’m going to stack all the cards in the favor of the government. Make it as easy as possible to show us that $25 is a reasonable price to put on the nutrition of its citizens. Any thing I can do to increase the odds in their favor, I will do.

I hear it now. What are you biased against poor people? You don’t think it’s hard to live life in their shoes!? You want to show it’s OK to give them this pitiful allotment?!

No. I’m actually convinced that we don’t do enough. Food insecurity should not be an issue in one of the richest countries in the world. But the very best way to prove that $25/week is insufficient is to try really, really, really, REALLY hard to show that is sufficient. If I still fail, then that’s much more convincing data with which to disapprove of aid policy.

See you soon.