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Originally published January 30, 2010 at 8:09 PM | Page modified January 30, 2010 at 10:14 PM

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Hunger Action Week shows difficulty of diet on $12 a day

Culinary student Eric Rivera turned his talents to take on the United Way of King County's Hunger Action Week challenge — living on a food budget equal to what he'd get on food stamps. Meanwhile, it's another day in the food-bank line for Hattie York, who always has to stretch the food budget.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Culinary student Eric Rivera braises the meat and then deglazes the pan. Into the pot go the drippings, a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion. Steam rises as the flavors blend.

It's hard to believe he's making a dinner based on beef knuckles, part of his $12-a-day grocery budget for his family of two.

Not far away, Hattie York spreads spaghetti sauce on a loaf of Parmesan focaccia bread she had got at the food bank, tops it with yellow peppers and pepperoni and feeds her four children an improvised pizza.

For Rivera, 28, the budget cooking was part of United Way of King County's Hunger Action Week, an effort to raise awareness at a time when food banks are facing increased demands and, the agency says, hunger is up 24 percent throughout the state.

For York, 37, budget cooking is a daily reality; she's been on food stamps since she became a single mother, disabled by a domestic-violence attack. The United Way campaign, which ran last week, challenged people to live for one week on the amount of money someone on food stamps would receive.

For an individual, that meant $7 a day. For a family of two, it was $12.

"The economy is so tight, it's hard for people to give the way they have in the past ... so we're trying to raise awareness that more people in our community are hungry than before," said Jared Erlandson, spokesman for United Way of King County.

Six hundred people signed up for the weeklong campaign, and Erlandson hopes they become ambassadors to encourage others to participate and give to food banks and the United Way's programs to benefit the hungry.

Last year was the first time Rivera took the Hunger Action challenge. He hadn't started culinary school at Seattle Art Institute yet, and he found being creative on a limited budget especially difficult.

While he has shelves of spices, wines and a freezer full of homemade stock at his home in Federal Way, it was unusable for the week as he pledged to cook with nothing but what he could buy on $12 a day.

Coffee and soft drinks were out, as well. Lots of starches — rice and potatoes — were in, along with eggs and cheap cuts of meat and chicken.

Breakfast the first day was an omelet with thyme, salt and pepper, a half a banana and toast. He lamented not having bacon or cheese.

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"The first year I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to break down (cut up) a chicken," he said.

Culinary skill can help stretch budgets, as he shows on the blog he kept of his efforts the past week.

Rivera and other foodies and gardeners who've taken the challenge blogged about ways to eat on the budget allotted to food-stamp recipients.

But they were glad to return to espressos and budgets that allow more dining flexibility.

Rivera, for example, who, with his wife, Mindy, loves cooking for neighbors and friends, realized that living on the food-stamp budget meant entertaining would be impossible.

"It was frustrating," he said. And then it also occurred to him, "What if you screwed up and burned something? What are you going to eat?"

It's a reality York lives with on less than $15 a day in food stamps for her family of five.

Because her daughter Denay Curry is 19, she no longer counts toward increasing the family's food-stamp quota, even though she still lives at home, York says.

So York makes ends meet by being a regular at the Federal Way Multi-Service Center food bank.

On a cold morning last week, Curry waited in line for at least an hour for a chance for free milk, chicken, canned soup, cereal and other items as York was inside the nearby clothing bank.

York's 2-year-old son fussed and pointed to a large container of bread products where patrons sort through loaves of wheat bread and rolls.

"Bread! Bread! Bread!" the toddler cried until his sister grabbed a loaf, gave him a slice and looked around anxiously for her mother to come. When she did, she carried a used blanket and sheet set.

"I made out today!" York said. She pulled along two suitcases on wheels to tote the groceries, along with her son's stuffed toys.

"I try to stock up on meat. Then I can get by with the staples like rice and potatoes," York said as she waited in line.

Terri Turner, food-bank supervisor, said the number of people served by the Federal Way food bank increased about 20 percent from 2008 to 2009.

United Way reports that some food banks in Western Washington have experienced up to a 30 percent increase in the number of people needing help.

As for Rivera, he doesn't mind the making-do challenge — slicing carrots lengthwise "so it looks like more on the plate" and stretching the beef knuckles into at least two meals — a dinner with vegetables and later soup from the stock.

"But I wouldn't want to live this way," he said.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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