By: Brooke Pierce
There are approximately 65 million refugees around the world right now. They have fled from war, genocide, starvation, and more. Most are living in camps. These camps are supposed to be temporary, sustaining people until they can return to their homelands or be resettled elsewhere, but for so many, the camps become permanent. To survive, families receive a box each month with rations to eat. The food is enough to get by – heavy on carbs, low on nutrition.
To get a (literal) taste of this aspect of the refugee experience – and, importantly, to raise money to support refugee families with funds for food, medicine, and education – thousands of people in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand recently signed up to take the Ration Challenge, agreeing to spend one week living on the same kinds of rations as refugees. Started by a couple of Aussies in 2015 after visiting a camp, 2019 was the first year that US residents could take on the challenge, with some 13,000 Americans signing up. Including me.
When I first learned about the Ration Challenge from Church World Service (CWS), a wonderful organization that resettles refugees here in the US, I signed up without hesitation. Frankly, I was pretty cocky about it. Live on rations for a week? Please. I’ve given up chocolate, processed food, and dairy products for all 40 days of Lent before – a measly week of rice and legumes can’t be that bad. Right?
CWS sent me a box with small bags of rice, chickpeas, lentils, a can of kidney beans, and a bottle of vegetable oil. They also included two “coupons” for 1lb of flour and 3lbs of additional rice, and I was allowed to buy 4 oz of tofu (as a vegetarian, I opted out of the can of sardines that others received). Participants were also given the opportunity to earn some “rewards” by fundraising. Blessed to have some generous, good-hearted friends and family, by the time the Challenge began on June 16, I had raised enough to get salt, a spice of my choice (garlic powder), 4 oz of protein (more tofu), and 6 oz. of a vegetable (I chose cauliflower).
Thank goodness, the organizers of the Challenge also supplied a recipe book and a suggested meal plan to help clueless people like me.
Seven Days of Rations
Day 1 – I woke up excited to start my adventure. I boiled about a third of my lentil ration. I’d already cooked a big batch of white rice the night before. Once the lentils were cooked, I combined them with some of the rice and applied ample amounts of garlic powder and salt. It wasn’t bad. For dinner, I roasted some cubes of tofu and ate them with the rice. Fine. Late that night, I tried my hand at making flat bread. Not great, but I gobbled up a piece.
Day 2 – Ate the same lunch. At the same dinner. Felt good. So far, this isn’t bad!
Day 3 – My body threw a tantrum. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want any more rice. I’m sick of garlic powder and salt. I’m starving, but I’d rather be hungry than eat. I moped until 3pm before taking the rest of my lentils and making soup. The soup turned out really good. Spirits were up. More rice and tofu for dinner.
Day 4 – Once again, couldn’t bring myself to eat anything until mid-afternoon. More lentil soup, which was still good. For dinner, I had a picnic in the park with a friend and brought a ration sampler (rice, lentils, tofu, flat bread). Having the company of a friend made the food better. I started soaking the chickpeas and began having my first cravings (Morningstar BBQ riblets – which I later discovered have been discontinued. Tragedy!).
Day 5 – I woke from a dream that I forgot I was on rations and mistakenly ate a huge Indian meal. Relieved to realize it was only a dream and I had not strayed, I tried and failed to make hummus – ended up with chickpea soup. It was okay. This evening was special: I decided to eat my vegetable reward. I lovingly basted the cauliflower in oil and roasted in the oven until very tender. It was my most delicious and decadent meal of the week. (If you ever want to make your children love their vegetables, the Ration Challenge might be the way to do it.)
Day 6 – This is the day that I began spending a lot of time daydreaming about food. I particularly wanted the taste of ricotta and tomato sauce. I started reading restaurant menus like it was pornography. More chickpea soup for lunch. Rice and kidney beans for dinner.
Day 7 – Almost done! Each day I was posting pictures of my food on social media to encourage people to donate. A kind donor had gotten me to the next reward level the night before: a 12 oz. drink of my choice. Though I had not minded being limited to water all week, it was quite a treat to enjoy fresh pineapple juice on a hot afternoon. It’s all I had until the evening when I choked down my final ration meal of rice and beans.
What Did I Learn?
I was extremely happy to be done with this challenge. My confidence seems laughable in retrospect, as this was harder than my previous forays into food-based self-denial. Every experiment I’ve done with food has been defined by what I can’t eat – this was about getting by on what little you CAN eat, and it’s not much.
I would be lying to say that I got some profound insight from this. I already knew refugees have it tough. Many have had homes destroyed, family members killed, and been injured and terrorized. And then they have to live in camps with few resources, compromised safety, and little hope. What was eye-opening, though, was getting a sense of the toll that the ongoing monotony of eating rations might take.
For me, as someone who loves food and its tastes and textures, it was like losing color from my life. Instead of looking forward to meals, eating was a depressing chore. The thought of more rice made me want to throw up, and so I frequently chose to be hungry instead, typically eating only two thirds of my rations each day. And while the rations included filling foods, it is an extremely unhealthy way of eating. No veggies, no fruits, and I was eating truckloads of salt just to get some flavor.
About four days into the challenge, I was feeling physically weak due to eating too little. Someone eating rations for more than a week could not afford the ‘luxury’ of simply going hungry as I did at times. To stay strong enough, they would have to force themselves to eat the rations I spurned.
God willing, I will never come close to feeling what it might truly be like to be a refugee. But taking part in the Ration Challenge helped me better understand, just a little, how refugees have even what many of us think of as the “simple pleasures” taken from them. How they have to get by with that much less joy and color in their lives.
What We Can Do to Help?
We have to do better for our brothers and sisters living in these camps, and help them get the chance to start their lives again in new homes. Real homes. Perhaps in our own neighborhood.
Please do everything you can to support refugees and their advocates. Call and write your Congressional representatives and tell them that you want your country to take in more refugees. Get pointers on how to get involved here. It’s a fact that refugees contribute to making their new communities thrive (learn more).
For the men, women, and children still living in refugee camps, a little goes a long way. $50, for instance, can feed one person for three months. If you would like to make a donation to help refugees, please donate here. And consider joining the Ration Challenge in the future to contribute to raising more funds for these people in need!
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Brooke Pierce is the Peace Ministry Coordinator at Church of the Advent Hope (NY), which is a member of the APF Peace Church Network. You can hear more from Brooke on the Adventist Peace Radio podcast (episode 23), this very blog (tax advocacy), and Instagram.