Zebras love challenges (including learning to cook and write without the benefit of opposable thumbs). And we’re always hungry for new things—new foods, new friends, new ideas.
So when I heard about the Hunger Challenge, I knew I wanted to give it a try—but in a ZeZillion years, I could never have imagined how powerfully it would help me learn about the world around me.
The Hunger Challenge is a five-day journey initiated by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, whose executive director Paul Ash describes it as a special way to “become an advocate for the hungry.”
How do you do it? Well, it’s pretty simple, but not easy.
All you need to do is live on a food stamp budget ($4.50 per person/zebra per day) that’s supplemented by a list of fresh seasonal foods and staples that are available at the local food pantry.
By asking people (and zebras) to participate in the challenge, the Food Bank is hoping to create a perspective of understanding and empathy.
“We can read articles and digest statistics,” Paul says, “but until hunger is a visitor at your table, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the complexity of the problem.”
I wanted to wrap my head and heart and stripes around the challenges: I know that 1 in 4 local residents go hungry every day. And in other parts of the country and the world, the problem is even bigger.
So I went to ZeMarket and stocked up on the Food Pantry groceries that would last me a week: 1 cantaloupe, 6 carrots, 3 onions, 2 oranges, 4 potatoes, 4 peaches, 1 box of strawberries, 1 small watermelon, 6 eggs and 1-lb. of rice.
Then I used my food budget for ZeWeek to buy things like tofu, popcorn, lentils, whole wheat flour, soy sauce, a tiny bottle of canola oil and little bags of a few spices I could afford (garlic powder, black pepper, spicy crushed red pepper). Since zebras REALLY like veggies, I also bought some kale, cabbage and tomatoes.
Now I just needed to figure out how to make my food last for a whole week (because zebras always like to go the distance and a bit beyond).
Since I’ve been going to classes with Foodwise Kids at the San Francisco Farmer’s Market, I’ve learned a lot about flavors and nutrients and doing great things with small amounts of food.
That’s where I got my idea to bake whole wheat crackers that I could top with my own fun blends of fruits and vegetables.
And one of ZeCoolest cooks I know taught me the ultimate secret recipe for pure, protein-packed yumminess with just the right balance of sweet and savory flavors to keep me (and my favorite kids) feeling healthy and happy all day long: Caramelized Golden Tofu!
Well, actually the recipe isn’t secret. You can find it in one of the greatest-ever cookbooks: Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”
And because my friend Deborah is a super-egalitarian human who includes zebras in that “everyone,” she kindly agreed to let me share a Zimplified version of her creation here (you’ll find it at the end of this post).
Well, now my hooves were really on a roll—and my imagination was fired up beyond black-and-white. First up was a big fruit salad with all the colors and flavors of the rainbow. I used the eggs, onions, potatoes and veggies to make a frittata (which is kind of like a flat omelet). Lentils and rice were super-good with sauteed veggies and garlic. And popcorn was a perfect snack.
I also found a ZeZillion great ideas for yummy, healthy affordable meals in “Good & Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day,” an amazing FREE cookbook by Leanne Brown.
She wrote the book while she was earning her master’s in food studies at New York University — and realized how important it was to create wonderful recipes for the 47 million people who receive food stamps.
Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, she turned a dream into a life-changing culinary reality for humans and zebras alike: you can download it here.
Everything was going great until one day when I found myself in San Francisco with only one dollar left in my budget—and three days left in my challenge week.
My refrigerator at home still had food inside. But it had been one of those busy mornings when I all could manage to do was get my stripes out ZeDoor, so I hadn’t packed a lunch.
By noon, breakfast seemed very far away. I hoofed it along the waterfront, trying not to feel kinda left out when I saw people eating wonderful lunches in restaurants.
Yikes, I thought: my energy is running low and I’m starting to feel sort of dark and dreary in a way that zebras NEVER do.
I totally got what Paul Ash from the Food Bank meant when he said this:
“We view hunger as a problem that affects our heads and our hearts. Eating a diet high in simple carbohydrates – the cheapest calories available – leaves us feeling tired and defeated. A diet rich in healthy fruits and vegetables and lean protein, on the other hand, fuels us mentally and physically to take on the challenges each day brings.”
So THAT was the challenge, I realized. And I began to see how very little I’d known about hunger.
As the sun was slanting to the west in a golden-orange way that made me think of butter and lemon cookies and cheddar cheese, I saw something that made me stop feeling sorry for myself.
In the doorway of one of the old pier buildings sat a mom and two little kids and a skinny dog with fur as black and white as any zebra. There was only one word on the cardboard sign in front of them: “Hungry.”
And in that moment, I really, truly understood what hunger means. It’s a deep emptiness inside that aches all through you. Your stomach. Your mind. Your heart. Your soul.
It’s knowing that you need one of the most essential things in life, but not knowing where or how you’ll get it. It’s a quiet everyday tiredness that never seems to go away.
When I saw the family on the street, all my tiny, temporary zebra hunger faded in the face of their big, ongoing hunger. I wished I had all the food in world to give them—but all I had was a dollar, so I gave them that.
I know what I had to give wasn’t nearly enough—but if everyone who has something to give would give whatever they can, we could make a difference.
I’m just one scraggly little zebra with a lot of big ideas. But I’m really hoping that as we approach the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons (and every season ever after), we can all be grateful that we have something to give—and that we’ll keep on giving.
For more information on how you can help, please contact your local food bank (mine is the SF/Marin Food Bank) or check out great national organizations like Cooking Matters and No Kid Hungry!
RECIPE: Deborah Madison’s Caramelized Golden Tofu (adapted for kids by a zebra, with Deborah’s blessing)
I love this tofu so much that I eat it practically every day. You can make it ahead of time and keep it in the fridge so you always have something wonderful to eat. I like to eat mine on a bed of fresh veggies with a squeeze of citrus, but you can also serve it on steamed rice, tuck it inside a sandwich or just nibble on it straight from your (clean) hands (or hooves).
What You Need
1 pound firm or extra-firm tofu
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
3-1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
What You Do
If you are a kid or a zebra, please make sure you have an adult to help you—this is NOT a DIY recipe!
- Drain your tofu (it usually comes in a tub of liquid), then gently blot it dry with paper towels.
- Slice the tofu into slabs about 3/4″ thick, then cut each slab into four triangles.
- Heat the peanut oil in a medium-sized nonstick skillet (or nonstick grill pan, if you want stripes) over medium-high heat.
- Add the tofu and fry until it’s golden and yummy looking. This takes about 2-3 minutes, so please be patient and let the tofu triangles cook without disturbing them.
- Turn the triangles over and cook the other side (yup: 2-3 minutes).
- Take the tofu triangles out of the pan, and drain them on paper towels. Save 1 tablespoon of the oil (this is for the sauce).
- Now make your sauce: start by mixing the soy sauce and brown sugar in a small bowl.
- Heat a wok or a heavy skillet, adding 1 tablespoon of the oil you used to fry the tofu.
- When your pan is hot, add the soy sauce/sugar blend, then reduce the heat to medium and add the tofu.
- Use a spatula to gently toss and turn the tofu in the sauce, then simmer for 2 minutes (it will smell like savory-sweet caramel heaven).
- Add 3 tablespoons water, and cook until the sauce coats the tofu with a syrupy glaze.
- Turn off the heat, then let the tofu cool in the syrup for 10 minutes.
- Time to eat: savor every delicious bite!