Ration Challenge 2019: How Eating Less Taught Me More

My week participating in the 2019 Ration Challenge has come to an end. Here’s a look at the experience overall:

To recap, I participated in the Church World Service Ration Challenge, where participants eat the equivalent rations to a Syrian refugee for a week. The goal is to raise funds to support refugees, to raise awareness and to have a more personal experience of what refugees’ lives are like.

The Ration Challenge Food

This is what I was provided to eat over the course of the week:

15 oz. of rice (and I was permitted to buy 3 lb., 3 oz. more)

6 oz. of lentils

3 oz. of dried chickpeas

a 15.5 oz. can of kidney beans

a 3.75 oz. tin of sardines

I was permitted to buy 14 oz. of plain flour

I “earned” the right to use salt by sponsoring myself

I “earned” the right to use one spice through my fundraising efforts (I used garlic powder on the lentils the last day)

I “earned” 6 oz. of vegetables through fundraising (I used baby carrots because they were easy to spread out)

I “earned” 4 oz. of protein through fundraising (I had an egg)

I “earned” 7 teabags by promoting the challenge through email and social media

This is slightly rough math, but the calorie count of this ration week added up to about 3235 calories, an average of 462.14 a day.

This is me unboxing the rations.

These are my observations, having done the challenge, then returned to “regular” eating.

The things you think you’ll miss most may not be the hardest to do without.

As I wrote here, the Ration Challenge captured my imagination so quickly when I read about it on social media that I signed up right away without reading the fine print. The “fine print” included the elimination of coffee, sugar and alcohol. WHOA. I also suspected that this may not end up being a bad thing for my health and my crazily fluctuating energy levels.

I never got the dreaded “no-coffee” headache. I’m sure the tea bag I started each day with (and reused since I only got one per day) helped. Pre RC, I usually had two cups of coffee by 9:30, at which point I started on Diet Cokes (in my defense, my day does start pretty early!). I also felt desperately tired by the time my deadlines ended each day and needed a midday nap. Oddly enough, my energy felt so much more even-keeled during this period. I haven’t returned to coffee or Diet Coke. Not that I won’t ever, but this was eye-opening in a way I didn’t anticipate.

Likewise for sugar and alcohol. I may have “missed” them in a “that would be nice” kind of way, but I wasn’t preoccupied by their absence.

Wasteful habits are so easy to slip into.

My wasteful habits (which probably reflect those of many in our US culture) were much more obvious to me throughout the week. Leveling off a cup of flour, it’s second nature to toss the little bit that ends up on the paper towel. Rice grains that skittered across the counter suddenly mattered.

Besides the food waste, other types of waste were more apparent. Tear off half a paper towel to rest my spoon on while cooking. Grab another half paper towel to have if I need to deal with a small spill while eating. Snacks in a paper bowl. Plastic zipper bags used for storage and then discarded although they are barely dirty.

Wasteful habits are about more than food. According to the Mother Nature Network, “Discarded paper accounts for whopping one-quarter of landfill waste and releases significant amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) as it rots.” I am sure this is an area where I’ll make progress rather than achieving perfection, but I am reminded to try.

Having plenty of clean water is its own kind of wealth.

The Ration Challenge week involved lots of clean water. Clean water to cook rice/lentils/chickpeas/flatbreads and brew tea. Clean water to wash my dishes and hands so I could have a sanitary cooking area. A clean place to deal with personal toileting needs so I didn’t get exposed to dirty water and its dangers. Gallons and gallons of clean water to drink to keep from being hungry. Refreshing ice to cool the water down and chew on to keep from being bored.

I don’t know much about the water situation in camps in Jordan, but I know there are tremendous challenges. This article notes:

Population growth in Jordan has reduced the average amount of fresh water available for each person to less than 150 cubic metres annually, much lower than the 500 cubic metres that mark water scarcity by United Nations estimates. The average water availability for United States citizens, in comparison, is more than 9,000 cubic metres a year.

Al Jazeera

Cooking is fun (but time consuming)!

I don’t mean this in a “Whee! Cooking is a blast” way. I am sure for the refugees in the camps in Jordan, “fun” is not the first word they would use. I had become disconnected, though, from the simple satisfaction of planning/measuring/cooking/tasting my food. Wayne, to his credit, does most of the cooking around here. He does it well, and I get to enjoy lots of delicious dishes. But I have always liked cooking, and this week reminded me of the enjoyment in the process.

The week reminded me how much I enjoy cooking, but it also reminded me how time consuming it is. Most nights, I would have to set aside a block of time to prepare rice for the next day and figure out what I could use from the limited rations to stretch out the next day’s food choices.

Many of us have a warped view of weight.

Think about this a second. I pay a company $45 a month to go to a place to help me figure out how to eat less (and move more) so I can weigh less.

Weight Watchers (which now technically calls itself “WW”) has proven itself to be an effective partner in achieving a healthy lifestyle for decades. I have participated on and off since I was 18. I was ecstatic to weigh in with a 5.2 pound loss for the week, but of course that was specific to the week.

What if the things our minds do to us about weight weren’t as bizarre as they are and I could spend that $45 on helping refugees (or some other worthy cause) instead?

Food scarcity is a danger on many levels.

I know it sounds obvious to say “food scarcity is dangerous.” But the value of trying to experience at least a bit of it myself made me think more deeply than I had before (and educate myself more).

I definitely became more aware of what a thin margin there is between subsistence and being on the brink of physical decline. I, of course, could have taken a break and consumed some electrolyte fluid or in some other way dealt with the effects of such a low-calorie life, but that’s not the case for refugees. Several participants chose to withdraw from the food part of the challenge and provide moral support instead, because the foods typical to refugee nutrition wrecked havoc with their blood sugar levels.

As Church World Service explained to us, the rations we got came as close as they could to approximating the same ration packages they distribute in the camps (with the obvious logistical challenges of dealing with a widespread group of individual volunteers).

The “real” CWS ration packs contain a month’s supply for a family of six, with the foods essentially the same as those we received. The difference, CWS explains, is “there isn’t enough money to give ration packs to everyone who needs them. Sometimes we can only provide 100 packs in a camp that needs thousands. Packs get shared, and many go without (committees of volunteer refugees help to identify the people in their community most in need, and priority is given to them).

This is what a “real” ration pack looks like:

2019 Ration Challenge Wrap-Up

The most accurate chroniclers of the refugee experience are the refugees themselves.

Maybe I am sounding repetitive, but I totally *get* fully doing this challenge is only a glimpse into the hardships faced by refugees. There were several people in our Ration Challenge Facebook group who either are former refugees, or who have worked directly with refugees. And their experiences matter most. My fellow challenge participant, Tonia, shared a picture of her fiance, Khalid, a Syrian refugee. This is Khalid:

2019 Ration Challenge Wrap-Up

Khalid

And this is Tonia’s message relaying his sentiments/story:

This challenge is very personal for me. This is my fiance Khalid. This is a picture of him sending thanks to everyone doing the challenge. He is a Syrian refugee. His home was bombed in 2012 in Al Rastan, Syria in the providence of Homs. One of his brothers was killed. Another one is in prison and the family hasn’t heard or seen him six years. Khalid had to have his left arm and hand rebuilt after he was injured by the bombing. He was lucky though as he made it to Turkey. He faces issues there as a refugee not being able to find much work being disabled plus he is now a man without a country. He cannot leave Turkey with just his refugee status and he cannot return to Syria. He wanted me to tell all of you “Very Thank You” for all that you are doing to help his fellow Syrians. He is very grateful that there are so many of us willing to help.”

People are so generous.

The US version of the Ration Challenge has raised $356,401, enough to feed 1,827 refugees for a year. The Australian version raised $2,222,245 enough to feed 8,108 refugees for a year. In New Zealand, participants raised $348,541, enough to feed 1,169 refugees for a year. And in the UK, the amount raised was £819,489, enough to feed 5,321 refugees for a year.

I raised $634.14, and I am beyond grateful. I appreciate, too, the shares socially, the encouragement, the people who simply asked, “What is this about?” They all matter; they all add to a snowball of hope that is going to turn into an avalanche of compassion.

A look back.

My pictures are pretty one-dimensional (how do you feel about lots of rice photos?), but here are a few memories from the week.

2019 Ration Challenge Wrap-Up

Because I made tea rather than coffee over the course of the week, many of my cups now have permanent tea stains.

2019 Ration Challenge Wrap-Up

I like the stain. It reminds me that an experience like this is meant to stay with me and not be rinsed away.

The Ration Challenge page stays open through sometime in August, so if you’re still interested in donating, here’s the link. If you think you may be interested in doing the challenge yourself next year, I highly encourage it and I’m happy to answer any questions you have. (You can also sign up here to get alerts from CWS to know when there are opportunities to call/email/text your government officials.)

2019 Ration Challenge Wrap-Up

11 thoughts on “Ration Challenge 2019: How Eating Less Taught Me More

  1. Very interesting, Paula. I have tried giving up sugar over the past few months, but can’t seem to shake the habit completely. This would be a difficult challenge for me! I think you may have a typo in the section, “People Are So Generous,” though. Your post says that the Australian version raised $2,221, enough to feed 8,108 refugees for a year. (I think some digits must be missing from the amount raised….).

    I loved this post, and the thoughts you shared about how we often waste things that we think of as small (half a paper towel, a plastic baggy, a few grains of rice), when in some countries, these would be quite valuable and not something to be wasted. Definitely “food for thought!” (Pun intended!)

    • Thanks, Marjane. And thanks for pointing out that figure for Australia. It’s $2,222,445 (as of today — I think the website is frequently updating). You know how I hate typos, so you are a true friend for letting me know!

      On the sugar thing — I don’t buy into some of the current fad-type things about leaving sugar out, but this experience did surprise me with how much better I felt (and how much I didn’t miss it). Flavors started mattering a lot more too (like the sweetness of those carrots).

      The “waste” part will very much stay with me (although it’s a challenge to implement, which is why “progress not perfection” seems to be the way to go). Thanks again for dropping by. I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. This is one I wish I could give a speech on!! Maybe someday.

    • I think I needed the lesson personally, but I am really glad that others learned from it as well.

  2. I’m pinning and making!Love this recipe.easy and simple .i will definitely try it. One of our families favorite dinners! So easy and it tastes delicious! Thanks for a great recipe!

  3. Great post. Noticed the oil was missing and recalculated the calories. Also the rice alone is about double the original total, so there might be a decimal point off in another calculation. There are 12,777 calories in all the food, so 1825 per day.

    • Hi Sharon. Thanks for reading. Some time has passed, so I am not going to rush back to re-do the calories. I used very little of the oil (although I know it matters). I don’t think there’s any way I ate 1,825 calories per day. But thank you for your attention to precision as I find accuracy important. The critical thing is to bring awareness to the challenges faced by refugees and I hope I did that mission a service.

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