California's Terrible Drought Inspired Me to Spend a Week Trying to Eat Less Water. I Failed.

I gave up my thirsty food challenge for Belgian beer.
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Publish date:
June 2, 2015
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food, environment, California, drought, Globalization

I stared up in surprise. My Tito (Uncle in Tagalog) Robert was climbing up a coconut tree, shaking its dying branches above us. I had just spotted some ripe fruit there and my photographer’s urge to document surfaced. I had turned to grab my camera for this rarity when he began his climb.

A few minutes later he descended, brushed dirt from his weathered arms and hair, then handed a coconut to me. He wanted to share it with my mother and me. It was 2007, and The Philippines was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history. My mother and I had come to see my grandpa. We were in a tiny village, Nassaping, which is not listed in Google Maps.

I looked at the coconut in my hands. I did not deserve it. There were so many in my homeland who have little to eat, including my own relatives in Nassaping. Yet they always shared what they had. We’d brought our own food to share and I wished I could’ve given more.

Nearly every day of our visit it was over 100 degrees. That morning I had seen one of the province’s main rivers nearly dried up. I saw browned trees everywhere. This was supposed to be monsoon season, but the blankets of water rarely came.

Until 2014, this is what I pictured when I thought of drought.

In 2014, I visited my cousin in Austin who said she could only water her lawn once a week. My perspective changed. After Texas, in my native Chicago, I started paying more attention to the drought that is unfolding here in the U.S., especially when California’s drought began making the news.

Last month I read a press release that began by asking if the world is willing to eat less water. It was promoting Craftsmanship Magazine’s Spring issue which explores eating in ways that are more drought-friendly. According to one of their articles on California’s exports as it relates to their water shortage, California ships many products to the Midwest and then on to the rest of the world.

Could I eat less water? I decided then I would try for one week, because why not? Could this be one thing I could do to give back to my family? I didn’t know until that day how much my country and the world rely on California’s exports -- that is $967 million annually of grapes, $1.2 billion worth of pistachios, $1.4 billion in wine, $1.3 billion of walnuts, $4.1 billion of almonds, $704 million of rice, $2.4 billion of dairy, $724 million worth of oranges, and $680 million worth of tomatoes.

Put it this way: California is the biggest exporter of milk here in the US. In 2014, they shipped 3,346,000 pounds of it elsewhere. Florida, who is second on the list, shipped a few million less at 1,112,000 pounds last year.

On May 23, California’s farmers, who have the most right to the state’s water, gave up 25 percent of their water consumption, as the state was a few days away from issuing mandatory cuts for everyone. You can read more at the Water Footprint Network, the Huffington Post, and Mother Jones. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports around 40 percent of the US is experiencing some kind of drought, with the most severe in the west. They also do a weekly update.

For my one week challenge, I cut all of the foods listed above, and avoided any food or drink requiring 201 gallons or more of water per pound of product. That meant no: corn, sugar, beer, beef, poultry, pork, coffee, soy, pasta, tofu, asparagus, lentils, oatmeal, figs, hazelnuts, dates, plums, cooking oil, olives, chocolate, vanilla, and raisins. I set a goal to only eat the following as they need 200 or less gallons of water per pound of food: beans, sweet potatoes, lemons, apricots, peaches, avocados, apples, bananas, strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, garlic, eggplant, artichokes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppermint, tea, and bread.

Before I started, I thought this would be relatively easy. I discovered it was less simple than I thought. I am more or less married to cheese and my sweet tooth. I also had to give up restaurants. There is no way of knowing everything that’s in restaurant food. For me to ask the server seemed illogical.

"Do you have any allergies? "No." "Vegetarian? Is it for religious reasons?" "No, no, no, and no. I am not sure how to tell you to please send me a plate of steamed broccoli and bread, but can you?"

I did not want to be that person.

I learned that when you are in a pinch, beans really can save you. Flatulence be damned. I also found for myself it was much easier to get access to foods I could eat since I live in a neighborhood that isn’t a food desert.

But the biggest thing is: I can afford to buy these foods.

This is not the case for everyone, especially residents in food deserts. As the drought continues, food prices will continue to rise. Since most in these neighborhoods have more corner stores within walking distance than groceries, the poor will continue to buy their food there, which in many cases is more expensive than a supermarket. Fixing this is a slow process.

Day One

Eggplant is a vegetable loved by many and can be found in Thailand, Italy, and China, to name a few. I’m pretty sure most of their eggplant recipes don’t call for you to add sliced eggplant to a hot skillet then wait.

However, ever loyal to my mission, I ignored rationality, skipped the cooking oil, and assumed someone like Tinkerbell would magically turn my curry-powdered eggplant into a meal. After I realized one side was raw with the other very black and crispy, I threw a can of black beans on top and added more salt, thus saving my meal. Kind of.

Day Two

As a freelancer, I typically spend my days working from home or in the field. Today I was home. I couldn't concentrate, because I kept thinking about food.

So after a few hours of work I look in my fridge, where I was greeted by my very delicious nemesis: Chinese sesame balls. For those unfamiliar, these are rice flour balls stuffed with sweet red or black bean paste, deep fried, then coated in sesame seeds. I flee in the other direction and head to the library.

By day’s end, I have become too comfortable with my new best friends, the black beans. This is what I ate since I had no time to cook and was on deadline. After three separate dates with number two, I have to ask, how am I saving water by flushing more often?

Day Three

Around 8am, my boyfriend Ben and I sleepily get in our friend Derick’s car. We're going camping. An hour later we stop for breakfast. Uh oh. All I see are eggs, eggs, and cheese.

But they do have toast and peaches on the menu. When they arrive, I discover the peaches are swimming in syrup. I eat them anyway along with the dry toast I ordered, because I hate wasting food. I should’ve stayed in the car with my can of apricots.

Ben turns to me and says, "Just so you know, my food is disgusting. Right, Derick?" Derick looks at him, fork full of potatoes in hand. I smile at Ben while he takes a bite of egg. Then after about 10 seconds Derick says, "Oh right." They laugh and then Ben says, "How long before she caves?"

I'm eating my food like a hamster to make it last.

Later at dinner, Ben catches me staring at a platter of hamburgers meant for our friends. "You got this, Theresa," he says as words of encouragement.

Day Four

At breakfast, I am sitting at the table with Ben, his mother, and Derick. How is it I haven’t eaten black beans and avocado more often? I’d forgotten how yummy they are together. Ben’s mom is telling us about her recent trip to California where she was protesting with immigration reform activist Elvira Arellano.

We got around to discussing the drought and she mentioned something about pay toilets there, which I thought were banned. By this time, I’ve finished eating and feel full. This is not so bad after all. And then I am reminded of how much I used to eat just because I was stressed or bored and I feel terrible.

For the rest of the day, I immerse myself into hiking and think about the morning’s epiphany.

Day Five

I have to be completely transparent and say I started to eat according to plan. Then at around 4pm, I talked myself into not wasting a ticket to a liquor industry beer convention after a friend cancelled. My boyfriend works in liquor and had invited our friend but he never confirmed, so I took his ticket. I would steer myself towards the buffet and eat bread while I watched everyone get sloshed.

"It’s fun watching drunk people acting silly," I convinced myself. I would like to say I did okay, but that would be a lie. The instant I found out there would be Belgian lambics, I walked into that convention center entirely too excited.

Ten minutes later: ''Tessa, I thought you were only having one,'' Ben called out to me over the crowd.

''But there's Belgian beers everywhere.''

That's when I forgot everything. Strike one. By 8pm I was in a pub eating gnocci with almond pesto. Strike two. Followed by a bite of my boyfriend’s chocolate cake. Strike three. She’s out of there.

Day Six

In spite of my slip, I feel compelled to return to my food challenge, so I do. I'm trying to figure out why I caved. It most likely is being raised in a privileged American life. Or seeing all of the food sitting in front of me without being able to eat it.

I have my answer to the question from that press release asking whether the world is ready to eat less water.

Day Seven

I should be going to the grocery store. But instead I settle for delicious fava beans with broccoli. After lunch, I have nothing to eat except for bread. So for the rest of the day that is what I eat. At midnight I celebrate my efforts by eating some cheddar cheese.

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During my experiment, I spoke to some California residents. What I discovered was the majority said they couldn’t do what I attempted either.

My friend and Long Beach resident Dee-Dee Halili has thought about it. "The only problem is I am lactose intolerant so I am dependent on non-dairy milk."

The subject of drinking water was brought up. My former boss and friend Kathryn McPherson, who lives in Los Angeles part-time, said she avoids buying bottled water. She also conserves in other ways. "I don't eat meat and that's where most of the water usage is being wasted at the moment in California... I take showers five minutes or under."

When asked about his Palo Alto hometown, Tom Graham said some of his neighbors handle water like failing couples do when they are too scared to break up. He feels drought is the same: "It’s such a slow catastrophe they don’t see the reality of the problem."

"The people I know, they’re not flushing their toilets when they’re peeing. They’re doing what they can," Graham added. He told me that he has no problem cutting out certain foods.

I might be just as bad as those unable to grasp the reality of the situation in California, and that might explain why I failed. I know 40 percent of the country is in a drought. But I struggle with letting go of the food I love.

When I returned home from the Philippines, I swore I would use a bucket of water for bathing like I did there. I would eat less like I did there. I started turning the tap off when I washed dishes. That lasted a few weeks before I reverted back to eating my feelings. I did manage to use the tap less, but it seems I struggle with efforts to conserve unless I have encouragement. I

I spoke to U.S. Air Force officer and Filipina-born Kym Caras, who lives in Vacaville, which is 35 miles south of Sacramento, to get some perspective comparison. According to her, drought has differing effects depending on where one lives.

"For the Philippines, it's a little different because of its water system. I don't think it's that innovative compared to here. However, you got two seasons there right? It's either rainy or sunny. It will always rain no matter what. The Philippines has to learn how to use the water they have during rainy days."

"Here in California, we never know when it'll rain. That's the problem."

I picture Tito Robert in his modest house with no windows and concrete floors in my head, making jokes with his neighbors like I remember. What is he doing this minute? What would he say if he saw how I lived?