Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mama, I'm Hungry

I’ve never thought much about how much we spend on food. I know that it’s a lot. I’m an almost daily shopper, running to the market daily for one thing or another, and I rarely (actually, never) pre-plan more than a couple nights’ dinners at a time. I don’t clip coupons. I don’t shop around at different stores to buy things on sale. I don’t shop where groceries are cheapest. My four kids think Walmart is a bad word, like “Shut up, you Walmart!” I am a terrible home economist, but I am a great cook and an even better baker. Our grocery budget is not so much a budget as it is a flexible priority expenditure, one that I’m willing to skim funds from other, less important expenses to protect, because food is how I say I love you.  

Generally, when I shop, our grocery money is divided among items like dark green veggies, lean proteins, choice cuts of beef, fruits in season, cured meats, good cheese, olives and vodka for Martini Mondays (and lately Martini Wednesdays), some processed foods like cereal, pasta and those organic bunny crackers. I almost always cook from scratch. I start with whole foods most nights. I won’t lie: it’s expensive to eat this way. All tolled, I guess our weekly food expense is in the neighborhood of $250... about $6 per day for each of us. That makes it the largest expense of the household, even more than our mortgage. We don’t spend much on entertainment or travel, so I reason that the extra money we spend on food can share space within those categories. We rarely eat out for dinner, but we eat out for lunch at least once a week, usually twice. On busy days I use my crock pot. Even on nights I work, I try to make sure there’s something healthy on the stove before I head out the door.

My husband is far more inclined than I am to pick up some sort of cereal with SMAKZ in the name, or a bag of salty, orange crunchy things. Don’t misunderstand me, I like those things. They have their place. Cheetos are fucking delicious. But for us they are an occasional treat that Dad sneaks in the house, whereas some families rely on them as a mainstay of their diet, a source of calories, sometimes a meal. As long as I’m talking about this, can we go ahead and do away with the term Food Insecurity? I’ve been saying it myself and every time I do, it just makes me think of my cat. He won’t eat the last few bites of food in his bowl because he’s afraid there won’t be any more after that. He has a food insecurity, but not he’s not hungry. Hunger is hunger, not insecurity. It’s physical, not merely emotional. Insecurity is an emotional condition. Hunger, malnourishment, and the physical and psychological results, that’s what we’re talking about here. Let’s call it what it is. This is not an issue that is relegated to the 50,000,000 people in America who are hungry. This affects all of us. Your kids, my kids, the teacher in science lab who is trying to understand why a kid can't stay awake in class. 1 in 4 kids in America lives in poverty. Nearly 16 million kids don’t have access to a consistent source of nutritious food. Their bodies and their intellects and their potential… they’re starving.

The Experiment

My 11 year old daughter and I took $72 to the grocery store to see if we could feed the family for four days on the average amount of assistance provided to families on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, fancy for food stamps. That’s $3 each. A dollar each per meal. The objective of our experiment was to determine what would happen to the quality and quantity of food on our table if we were dependent on SNAP for sustenance.

The first thing we had to accept as we blew through our allocated grocery funds was that we really couldn’t afford any decent meat. By decent, I mean sustainably sourced and not packed within an inch of its life in salt solution. We scored 2 pounds of half price Laura’s lean ground beef that was on its sell-by date, and some kielbasa that was marked down as well. In the produce section, we snagged some half price pre-packaged organic broccoli and carrots that were only a little brown, a bunch of wilted organic basil at half-price, a head hydroponic lettuce on clearance, and some mixed greens, also at half price. We spent 25% of our budget on 1 squash and 8 apples, and splurged again on butter because I couldn’t bring myself to buy the weird, chemically margarine, even though it was a quarter of the price. I bought homophobic Barilla spaghetti noodles because they were on sale for a dollar. In the end, even though I deviated from some of my personal rules as a consumer, I only brought home enough food to feed my family for about three days, not four... the fourth day, there isn't enough food. And we’re almost out of toothpaste, so there’s that.

Four days of breakfast, lunch and dinner for 6?

For all four days, here is a total of 3 servings of protein each, 5-6 servings of fruits and vegetables each, 0 whole grains, 0 lowfat dairy products. And pickles. My friend pointed out that I should have opted for bulk dried beans as our primary source of protein. I would have met tremendous resistance at the table, but that's better than running out of food.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, those who can afford a more healthy lifestyle are serving up locally-raised, antibiotic-free chicken breast to the tune of $6 a breast and calling loudly for a food revolution. Shop Local! they post on their facebook walls, Eat Real Food! $6 for one serving of locally sourced protein. If I buy the beautiful 6 ounce local chicken breast, it’s going to cost me 2 family members’ entire daily allocation. Can I make the lovely chicken breast stretch between two of us for breakfast, lunch and dinner? That’s an ounce per meal.

The cost of the local chicken breast is equal to 3 boxes of mac and cheese. Three boxes of noodles made from refined wheat that was grown in one state, shipped to another where it was processed, packaged and reshipped to a grocery store a thousand miles from the noodle factory. How is it that macaroni that incurred the costs of thousands of miles of transport (not to mention the costs of packaging and marketing!) can feed my children more “meals” than one chicken breast that only had to travel 15 miles from the farm outside of town? Wait. Wait… why is that? Agricultural lobbyists spend millions of dollars every year to ensure that they (they, the corporations, not Old MacDonald) receive government subsidies and tax breaks (that’s welfare, motherfuckers) in order to keep their shitty, sugary, salty, processed goods at a price point that makes them almost impossible to pass over on a budget of $3 a day.

Get A Job

Argument: People are poor because they are lazy. The fast-food industry has generated a population of millions of employees who are so underpaid that they are increasingly reliant on government assistance to meet their food and healthcare needs. The same “job-creators” that receive billions in government tax breaks (again, that’s welfare, motherfuckers) create financial insecurity in the very people they rely on to grow their businesses.

A recent study indicates that over half of all fast food service workers in America rely on public assistance to meet their basic needs. Half! Get your mind around that for a minute. These are people who work on their feet all day for an average wage of less than $8 an hour. They work as hard (if not harder) as you and I do, but they can’t afford to feed their families. The average age of a fast food worker is 28. Many are the sole or primary source of income in their home. Taxpayers bench press 7 billion dollars a year in government relief to fast-food workers.

Argument: There’s no need to raise the minimum wage.  A burger flipper is not worth more than their current rate of pay. "I think the system seems to be working the way it is… In general, the government is making sure these people's basic needs are met, which is an appropriate role of government." -Michael Strain, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute. Resident scholar? How about resident clueless asshole. “The system” is not meeting these people’s basic needs, not even close. Why are more and more working people poor while their corporate employers become wealthier? Why are their children hungry? McDonald’s profit grew during the last recession. They MADE MONEY off the country’s financial misfortune, a fact that is not reflected in their average employee’s hourly pay. “These people” work harder when business is booming, yet they are paid the same $8 an hour.

Argument: I donate to the food pantry. There’s not much more I can do.  It’s almost November. In a couple weeks there will be donation bins for food at every grocery store, school and church. We want to feed the needy on Thanksgiving. That’s lovely. But it’s not enough. Charity is wonderful, but it’s not enough. Our efforts, our donations, that’s what makes greedy fuckstain corporate heads, lobbyists and congresspersons able to sleep at night. Because we will take up the slack with Thanksgiving food drives? Charity is a safety net that is encouraging corporate and political malfeasance… I believe in their language that’s known as a nanny state. They know someone out there will do the right thing, so it doesn’t have to be them. It’s not enough to drop a can of green beans in a box and congratulate ourselves on our generosity. It’s time to raise hell against a system that is creating such widespread need for us to do so.

Undernourishment, whether it’s an occasional or frequent condition in children, means they don’t focus, don’t perform, don’t grow and develop the way they can and should. In addition to a host of physical ramifications, their intellectual potential is stunted. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner are not going to amend that. As Jeff Bridges pointed out in the documentary A Place at the Table, "if another country was doing this to our kids, we would be at war."

Want a food revolution? It’s not enough to tell people to stop eating shit. Help them afford the local chicken breast. That means raising the living wage to an amount that people can afford - not just food - but nourishment. It means ending corporate agriculture commodities subsidies. It means leveling the playing field for small farming operations. It means not manipulating the market to the point where one apple costs as much as 14 servings of cookies. And that means you and me making a big, loud stink about this. You should be angry right now. Just fucking furious.

What Can We Do?

Take the challenge. Allocate $3 per day, per family member, for 4 days. What choices at the market will make your money stretch? How much nutritious, sustainably produced food can you bring to the table?

While I was trying to figure out how to make the food stretch out over 4 days, I began to feel a bit defensive, then I started to get mad.  Mad that I couldn't afford to feed them better. Mad that corporate food suppliers are making a shit ton of money selling high calorie, non-nutritious crap to hungry families. Furious that our government gives those same corporations tax credits to do so. That's always a good time to start writing. This is an issue with a relatively simple solution. The solution is honesty. Honest corporate practices. Honest wages. Honest policies that reflect a commitment to nourish children. Corporate food producers and government institutions are directly responsible for an epidemic of poverty and hunger in America, but the shame is on us all.

My attitude up to now has been that Food is a need, but Good Food - healthy, delicious food -  is a luxury, like going to the movies, one that we are fortunate to afford ourselves. I counted myself lucky to have the resources and the skill to lavish my family with meals that are delicious and healthy for them. My thinking on healthy, delicious food has changed. I see it now not only as a need but as a God-given right, and one that everyone deserves. Because there is enough. There is enough.

There is enough food for everyone.