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.

18 comments:

  1. Wow. I don't know who you are, but I like you! And your choice of adjectives and nouns. Tell it like it is!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This actually made me cry. So fucking true...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Meg, as always, a thoughtful and well-researched essay that is also a call to action. I have worked with poor people for 39 years and you have completely nailed this one! XO to you and please keep these coming!

    ReplyDelete
  4. And please, can we just stop with the hurtful, poverty shaming memes floating around these days? I'm willing to agree to disagree if someone wants to discuss fiscal policy, but when people start a taxonomy dividing "those people" into "the good ones" and those that aren't, or when I see memes saying things like "For all the taxes they take out of my paycheck, the least the government could do is send me a picture of the ghetto family I'm supporting to hang on my fridge" I take serious offense, and I post a picture of my "clean, white, college educated family" on their timeline saying something like, "My ghetto family thanks you for the dime a day. It'll buy ever so much peanut butter. You ass hat." People need to look in to how many PhD university adjuncts are on food stamps. When a doctorate still doesn't guarantee 3 meals a day there is something seriously fucking wrong with the system.

    ReplyDelete
  5. As always, well spoken, Meghan. Your mom and I are so proud of you. Thanks for your insights,

    Dad

    ReplyDelete
  6. My daughter works at McDonalds and makes less then eight dollars an hour. She has a four month old son. Somehow she expects to pay rent of $450 a month, lights, gas for her car, diapers, ect, and be able to buy food. Her food stamps alotment would be $189 a month. How is she supposed to get ahead while going to college and working? At least she has a job.....

    ReplyDelete
  7. My hubby is a manager at McDonalds and his take home pay is approximately $525 every two weeks. We have 3 teenagers and I'm a full time college student. We get food stamps $331 a month and here it is the end of the month and we only have enough food for one meal a day. My kids rely on school breakfast and lunch to get them by and my hubby and I eat dinner only when food gets low. Minimum wage needs to go up soon or there's a lot of us who will no longer be able to afford groceries at all as fast as the food prices climb!! Thank you for bringing this to light I'll definitely be sharing. GOD BLESS YOU

    ReplyDelete
  8. How to stretch that chicken breast? Rice or spaghetti. I'm not sure if "organic" fruits and veggies are a lot healthier than regular produce. Often, they don't look as fresh, which means fewer nutrients. Be glad you're not also gluten-intolerant. Gluten-free flour, etc., is very expensive. I don't know how poor gluten-free people feed themselves in a healthy way. For me, it's making food myself at home. Thanks for the article.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I feed my family of two 20 meals a week (yes, we eat out once a week usually for dinner Friday night) and I rarely spend more than $60 a week on food. I too cook from scratch, and never cut coupons. I do plan our menu and shop once a week. We are flexible to choose from the planned meals throughout the week, so if I work late I cook something with little prep time. As a nutrition professional I can assure many people struggle to find ways to eat healthy on a budget, but it is very attainable. You have to think outside of the box.

    Also, supplemental food programs are meant to help SUPPLEMENT your food budget. Its not intended to provide you with 100%of your needs. Its a hand up, not a hand out. Where do people learn to grip about something they get for free?

    Waste is another problem. Even low income families throw away food because they can't eat it all before it spoils or they tire of it. The freezer can save you (I never trash anything! Even stale bread makes great breadcrumbs for meatloaf). The trick is being forward thinking, and not waiting until food is spoiled beyond saving before repurposing it. Those without a freezer can still use things and find other families to split up bulk items with to save you both money.

    I fully support food stamps and SNAP for those that need it. I just wish it came with a "user guide" so that the funds would make the maximum impact. Nutrition education and family budget/menu strategies are needed. Otherwise false complaints will continue to be spread by the ignorant.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our $60 is not just food, we buy all our toiletries, light bulbs, dish/laundry soap, and a 20# bag of pet food every week. It is very possible to feed a family of 4all week for $72

      Delete
    2. Yikes! I don't know what's in that dog food, but you might want to find out.

      Delete
  10. I think, one of the problems is that people don't cook from scratch anymore. recipe books use prepared items in their recipes. It is possible to live on less, but, you have to work at it...Make your own "Bisquick", cake mix, mac N cheese. cook beans from dried, much less expensive. use oatmeal, eggs bread for other things than just breakfast...think bread pudding, oatmeal cookies, quick breads, oatmeal in meat loaf, bread for stuffing mix, bread crumbs.... it takes work, go to the library surf the web for ideas use beans, cheese, peanut butter, eggs as alternate protein source...make your own puddings, yogurt, cheese...the sky is the limit...yes it takes time, planning, research but it is feasible. Americans eat too much red meat, make omelets, stretch the meal with vegetables and starches use items that are in season, grow a little garden if you can....One year we grew zucchini, abundantly, we had zucchini fritters, balls, pickles, quick breads, casseroles, sweet pies, quiches, get the picture, use what you have and research recipes......don't waste a thing...freeze the water that you cook fresh veggies in, or canned veggies for stocks for soup.............not everyone has a high income, learn to use what you have...............

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know where you shop for cheese, but I can guarantee that making your own Mac and Cheese is way more expensive than buying the pre-packaged box with the dried cheese powder. I prefer to make my own, but if you're talking finances GET REAL!!!

      Delete
  11. use baking soda for toothpaste, corn starch for deodorant, make your own window cleaner, detergent,use vinegar and water for cleaning windows wipe windows with newspaper....use Vaseline to shine shoes.......etc.use the plastic bags that onions come in for a scrubber.............

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yeah, probably most people living in poverty are in that situation because of ALL that expensive shoe polish and fancy detergent they buy...?

      Delete
    2. Some people are missing the point of this article. It's not so much about stretching the income, etc, but it's more about people not having access to organic nutritious food and why. Of course, everyone can find a way to stretch a dollar, but why is a bag of chips cheaper than a bag of apples? Do you know how much goes into making a bag of chips? You pick an apple off a tree. This should not be an Us vs. Us issue. We need to demand our government changes a fucked up system. Read the article again. Read it more closely and consider more than your own circumstances. I've seen the documentary "A Place at the Table" she mentions in this article. Watch it. Learn all you can. You'll be shocked and saddened that we're allowing this kind of behavior in the "Land of the Free."

      Delete
  12. Absolutely amazing! Thank you so much for writing this!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Puts things in perspective for me. I'm a lucky girl and I should be grateful. Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete