Casaubon's Book

Eating Poor

I was out of town when Zuska posted this piece about trying to feed a family on a food stamp budget, and I’ve been meaning to respond to her suggestion that I might have something to add for a while. The article she builds on is one in which chefs try and come up with food stamp budget menus that are also healthy and appealing. Zuska comments on the difficulty of this, and challenges me to come up with something too:

A few problems with any of these solutions: as noted in the article, cooking from fresh ingredients takes more time than buying processed food, so although you get more, and more nutritious, food for your dollar, there is the time cost. And the working poor are generally exhausted at the end of the workday. If you have not ever been a member of the working poor and cannot conceive of just how exhausted you might be, I recommend reading Nickel and Dimed for a glimpse.

The other problem is that, in order to cook from fresh ingredients, one needs to build up a certain set of basic tools and general cooking ingredients that you use over and over. Pots, pans, knives, a cutting board, cooking oil. Even spices, though you don’t use much of them in any one meal, cost a good bit to buy a whole jar at a time. One can probably shop second-hand stores for some of this stuff but still, money has to be allocated for these things, and where is the money to come from, if you don’t already have this stuff?

Sixty-eight dollars and eighty-eight cents is not a lot of money. I am impressed that any of the three were able to come up with 84 meals for anything like that sum. I wonder if Sharon Astyk could do a better job – with more greens and less meat, maybe? All three seemed to spend a big portion of their budgets on meat. Seems like if you focused on non-meat protein sources you could stretch your budget further, but I suppose they didn’t want to seem like they were imposing vegetarianism on the poor.

Or maybe the whole thing was just an exercise in illustrating how shabbily we treat the poor. “Here, try to feed yourself and your family on this pittance in our nation that worships expensive cuts of meat*! We realize you are exhausted and forced by economics to live in neighborhoods that haven’t seen a fresh vegetable in decades. That’s why we created fast food restaurants! I believe if you look under the bun you’ll find an only moderately limp leaf of lettuce! Now, good day – I’m off to the martini bar!”

I don’t know if I can do any better or not, and I honestly don’t plan to try here. The reason I don’t is that like Zuska, I’m never really comfortable with these kind of food stamp challenges – I know they are trendy, and American governors among others get to do them. But they don’t adequately reproduce the realities of poverty. While I think that these challenges are truly well intentioned, they do also illustrate how blind most of us are to the realities of poverty. Consider that one of the chefs came in $20 over budget – where the heck do they think people will find the extra $20?

But it isn’t just that. A large portion of the very poorest people in the US are homeless or live in shelters or motels with no real cooking facilities. Another portion of working poor families rely on children to make meals for the other children after school, since parents are working long hours – you can simply expect a lot less culinary elaboration from a 10 year old in most cases. Opening canned soup may be about the limit.

Moreover, it is important to remember that food stamp recipients also have to wipe their behinds, send their children to school with pencils and notebooks, wash their hair and bodies, brush their teeth, write letters to agencies that handle their benefits, etc…etc… That is, all the things that food stamps don’t pay for often have to be bought out of food stamp budgets. So instead of 64 dollars for a week, the real money is probably vastly less. Remember, six million of your fellow Americans have absolutely no income other than food stamps. Ethical or not, their toilet paper and their kids’ shoes come out of that budget.

Meanwhile, most of the poor often suffer from regular utility shut-offs do to inability to pay their bills. April and May are the big months for people to lose power, gas etc….so we should also not assume that most of the very poor have utilities – cooking in the dark is barely doable for many, cooking without gas not so much.

Add in that a significant portion of the nation’s poor are the extremely elderly and disabled – people with health problems that prevent them standing at counters, reaching stoves, getting out to shop and being able to cook for themselves. The last I saw, more than half of the nation’s disabled, who would require moderate to significant accomodations in housing to be able to live comfortably don’t have those accomodations – that is, they are living in houses adapted only to the able bodied and doing the best they can – which may or may not include the ability to shop and cook.

For these people, while I’m happy to offer low cost meal suggestions, I’d be the last person to ever suggest that because I could live on that food budget, they should be able to. That assumption seems arrogant beyond reason – and there are a vast number of Americans who simply need more help than food stamps can offer.

That’s something that might be resolvable – some of those people need help that you and I and others could give – meals brought over because we can reach our own stove and can stand long enough to chop vegetables. They need apartments, and babysitting, and donations of soap and toilet paper. They need jobs and crock pots and someone to help with the shopping. And then maybe they can begin to figure out how to live on food stamps – with help. And many of us could offer that help to people in our community – could do the shopping for the elderly and disabled neighbors, could drop off a meal, could donate what is needed, maybe even have an empty apartment in our building or a spare crock pot, or an afternoon a week we could babysit and teach a 10 year old to make noodles. But food stamps alone aren’t enough.

What’s remarkable to me is how many very poor people in very dire situations are able to cook – and those are the people who we need to have writing these articles. I know many of them through my work – people who write to me to tell me what it is like at their food pantry, or what you do when the food stamp delivery gets delayed and the child support payment doesn’t come through and you don’t have anything to eat. They already know which market you can get free chicken bones from for stock, and how the dumpster diving is behind the Aldi’s, and what you can make with a bag of food pantry donations that include mixed cocktail nuts, canned pumpkin, 1 can of tomato soup for six people, peanut butter, no bread or crackers and bananas.

I can tell people how to live pretty cheaply – I have fed my family on less than that. But for several tens of millions of Americans, my advice and suggestions on reducing food costs is likely to be pretty pointless. Moreover, the target we are trying to hit moves pretty rapidly. Consider the Hillbilly Housewife’s $45 emergency menu, composed in 2006. By 2009, the $45 emergency menu now cost $70 to produce. That said, hers is a wonderful site, worth exploring for those attempting to live on a small food budget who do have the ability to cook, although it relies more heavily on processed foods than I’d suggest – but for the millions who are more familiar with canned spinach than the real stuff, that’s helpful. We’ve all got to start somewhere.

That said, for several other tens of millions, it might not be. Once we’ve established that this is nothing like a set of universal guidelines, I think there are many people who can chop, who do have stoves and power to them, and whose major problem is cutting their costs to match their tiny food budget, whether from food stamps or some other source. It always astonishes me how many people who are desperately poor are able to produce good and healthy meals.

I see time and exhaustion as a less significant contributor to the problem – although a real one – than lack of knowledge, though. Absolutely, people are exhausted when they come home from their day – and often depressed as well, since poverty confers mental health costs that can be unbearable. But the world is full of poor people who can’t eat at McDonalds, and who thus come home and light their cooking fire after many hours of labor and make a meal. Nor does most hand cooking have to be laborious or time consuming – boiling water for pasta doesn’t require you to stand there and watch it.

But making nutritious food quickly and easily does require knowledge and experience – and this is a place where both poor and rich suffer. The majority of Americans do not cook and do not cook well. For all the time we spend thinking about food and watching cooking shows on tv, cooking skills are disturbingly limited. In order to know that you can make a fast, inexpensive meal in not much longer than it would take to walk down to the KFC, you have to have done such a thing – not once, but many times. The skill set that underlies those meals is not something that one can presume among either rich or poor. The problem is that the poor pay for it.

Indeed, I think the main form of contemporary cooking education – tv cooking shows – is probably actively destructive to the kind of functional, low effort, good tasting food that most families need in order to keep a budget – food stamps or not. What looks good and fancy and funky on television tends to be showy and pricey – we come to believe that cooking must be time consuming and difficult. And it can be – but it need not be. But few people get to learn the kind of simple, basic cooking that they need to – again, this is not specific to the poor. The problem is that the poor can’t stop by Trader Joes for frozen organic entree as a substitute for a pot of beans.

Moreover, in order to know the low impact, low energy, low cost substitutes that are out there, you have to have time to learn about them. A solar oven can be made out of cardboard boxes, a rocket stove out of a tin can, leaving a family with a means of cooking dinner without a crock pot or even a working stove. But you have to actually know what they are, and go looking for them. And when you are already subject to judgement because you are poor, you have to be willing to put your cardboard solar oven and your rocket stove out in the world for judgement.

I will post some cheap menus in the coming weeks, and recipes, but I don’t consider them to be even remotely a solution to the larger problem of trying to eat on the meagre pittance we offer the poor.

Ultimately, what I think is the most important thing I can perhaps do is this – begin to change the way we eat, and think about food. Perhaps then we can begin to recapture a culture in which people have the basic functional skills of cooking, rich and poor, when and if they need them. Perhaps we can begin to cut the industrial meat out of all of our meals, so that chefs won’t feel they have to spend so much of their budget on high cost meats. Maybe we can all cut food waste and learn to use the whole of our food, reducing the pressure of food cost increases. It isn’t an easy, perfect, or wholly helpful solution at every measure.

But almost all problems of “the poor” in our society are really problems of all of us – they are problems of culture that are endemic to all of us. The problems we identify so clearly in the poor are generally problems that are mostly obvious to us when the people who have them are poor – but that pervade our culture across class. Nowhere better can we see this than in American hunger and the food crisis. One in eight Americans now needs food stamps to feed ourselves, even though American food prices are among the lowest in the world in proportion to income. It is easy to have contempt for the poor – and harder to recognize that in many cases, we see most clearly what we are all doing wrong in the people who have the least ability to conceal it under a mantle of wealth.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Robyn M.
    May 13, 2010

    I have three interns starting next week at our ministry & farm, all of them interested in sustainable food and food justice issues. I am making this blog post required reading for them. The problems surrounding poverty and food are so very complex, and many of us just don’t understand how hard it will be to tackle them.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    May 13, 2010

    We desperately- desperately- need to add functional respect for living simply (poverty) to our culture.

    Respect for choosing simplicity exists in other cultures; most prominently India, where destitute holy men have great honor. That same respect exists in many cultures; usually tangled up somehow with religion. The most holy are the most poor.

    Our own culture lacks this respect, with few exceptions. (I do have some people who have called me an “eco-saint” – but even if they meant it honestly, it’s received with derision.)

    How to get there? Not easy; but not impossible. My own first attempt, assuming Ted Turner would fund it, would be a nice Reality TV show, where people from suburbia are conned into moving to a remote primal village, and learning to live their life- and love and respect it.

    :-) oh, hey, one can dream.

    Once simplicity is embraced- eating inexpensively can become an artform; seriously. One of the components most needed is time.

    In un-respected poverty, time is spent either looking for ways to find a job- or looking for ways to fool the community into thinking you are not poor- or mental escape (American Idle).

    When embraced- time becomes abundant.

  3. #3 Russ
    May 13, 2010

    This essay has been around for a while now, but still seems very relevant (link goes to John Scalzi’s “Being Poor”).

  4. #4 Gerry Sell
    May 13, 2010

    I hesitate to submit this comment for fear it may be misinterpreted, but I think it belongs in the discussion.

    One of my jobs is clerking at the local grocery store in my rural community. It has been an eye-opening experience. I see many, many people struggling mightily to get by, and to do right by their children. It can be surprising, the people who end up out of work and in financial difficulties. It can be inspirational to see the ways they manage.

    I also see moms and dads using their food benefit cards to buy candy bars, potato chips and pop for their kids. Just that–no fruit or meat or cans of soup. Pop and potato chips and candy bars. Then they use cash to buy beer and cigarettes. This is not all recipients by any means, but it is a great many, and it is disheartening.

    I’m not interested in running other people’s lives for them, but I do think, as I ring up their purchases, that people who are truly poor enough to need financial help from the community should probably give some thought to quitting smoking, which costs them $6-7 per day in cash and a whole lot more in health risks. And yes, I know all about the culpability of the Great Advertising Machine in creating smoking addictions to begin with.

    I don’t have contempt for poor people. I’m damned close to being one myself. I know all about tired feet at the end of a shift, and about making a peanut butter and banana sandwich when I get home because I just can’t work up the energy to cook a whole meal. I know all about the systemic factors that oppress the poor. But I also know that a person needs to do what a person can to make a life, and sometimes a person needs to make better choices.

    I don’t know what we, as a society, “should” do about all this. We could change some stupidities, of course. In Michigan–dunno if it works this way elsewhere–food benefits do not cover hot food, so a person cannot come in and buy a hot broasted chicken in our deli. A person can come in the next day and buy the same broasted chicken chilled. Or a person can, for the same money, buy two big bags of potato chips. A person can buy a frozen burrito and take it home and heat it up, but a person cannot buy the same burrito and pop it in the microwave in our deli to heat it up. Foolishness.

    And do not get me started on the WIC program, which is crazy-making both to participants and to grocery clerks. Extremely paternalistic about what people “should” be allowed to eat–just this kind of milk, not that, just whole wheat bread, not rye, just medium eggs, not jumbo–it nonetheless pays for expensive national brands of cereal that in my opinion are mostly empty calories.

    This kind of nonsense breeds cynicism on all fronts. It’s awfully difficult to solve problems from hardened positions of self-righteousness and certitude.

    I do not have The Answer. I do think, though, that it is easier for an individual to solve problems when that individual is armed with knowledge and skills. The old Settlement Houses had some good ideas.

    And that’s what it looks like from my side of the counter.

  5. #5 Jenn
    May 13, 2010

    The food bank at my mother’s (and formerly my) church started to make an attempt to deal with some of these issues a few years ago. For those without tools, hot plates, pots, can openers, and many of the other items we take for granted could be borrowed indefinitely. On a bit of a tangent, they also made sure to have food on hand – soup, sandwiches, veggies, fruit, and cookies – for people to eat while there, recognizing that people were likely to be hungry then and there, but that those with children were not likely to eat much of the food given to them preferring instead to save it for their children.

    This is, of course, only one issue, and doesn’t address a lot of other points that you so rightly bring up. It’s easy to develop a one-size-fits-all proposal, but it certainly won’t fit everyone, and there are so many points that still need to be considered. We need to understand that there is an outside to the box before we can even think outside the box enough to begin to address such a complicated issue.

  6. #6 Deb in AL
    May 13, 2010

    FWIW, my mom is 82 and had major heart surgery last Nov. She is already starting to prepare simple meals again. She sits to chop vegetables and peel potatoes. She pulls a tall stool to the stove to perch on while she stirs things. It’s not easy but she feels better being useful.

    As for cutting down on meat, I’m still working on that one! Mom and Sis both have diabetes and believe that they ‘have’ to have meat for lunch and supper, and often breakfast. Can’t seem to convince them that beans and rice, cheese, etc. are also good proteins.

  7. #7 Oikoman
    May 13, 2010

    Interesting article… I can’t help commenting on Greenpa’s post however, about the need to live simply. In this country, the biggest advocates of living simply are those who can afford not to – landowners and hobby farmers typically, who have a large financial cushion should the “living simply” thing not work out. Its much harder to live simply on a low income while renting because the individual is more at the mercy of their social surroundings. In my youth, I remember how children with home-made clothes were ‘targetted’ because everyone could tell they came from the poorer families. Similarly, if I tried to raise chickens, or convert my back garden into a proper vegetable patch (capable of supporting me, rather than simply adding a few garnishes to the salad) I would rapidly be evicted from my rented accomodation.

    We are social animal who are jostle for position and status, something that is ingrained within us, and so its no real surprise that when you look at people who live “the simple life” they are generally doing it because they have no choice (out of poverty or lack of resources) or because they are in a social group (or a social circle) in which it is a measure of status (Mennonites, for example, or ‘eco-friendly’ circles among the London elite).

  8. #8 Greenpa
    May 13, 2010

    Oikoman- no argument at all; all true. Most of it is cultural, though; which may be somewhat malleable (never easily.)

    In India the holy men are likewise supported- their extreme poverty is possible because they know they will be fed.

    Still; there may be some chance. My own neighbors; mainstream farmers and small town folk; totally did not understand our simplicity here, which was often referred to as “abject poverty.” After some 30 years, though; those perceptions have moved. Most who know us respect us, and do not apply pressures for us to change.

    Not easy. Not fast. Perhaps, not impossible.

  9. #9 Jennie
    May 13, 2010

    I’m sitting at my desk reading this while eating my leftover white-bean chili and homemade cornbread from last night, because I’m the only one at my office who brought a lunch today. (And this is not a small office) I feel very lucky because my company has a large kitchen facility with an oven, 2 fridges and 3 microwaves. I can bring any type of leftovers and reheat them. A lot of places you’re lucky if you have a water fountain and a microwave.

    I was unemployed for almost 2 years before accepting this job, we were getting the WIC checks for most of that. I can tell you, they are just as frustrating from this side of the counter. Until the last couple of months, I could get gallons of juice, but no fresh fruit/veggies with them. Then after the changes rolled out I could finally get fruit/veggies with them, but they restricted what kind of milk I could buy, as a breastfeeding mother I was required to get skim or 1%, only after baby weaned could I get whole milk on the checks. *bangs head against wall*

    I’ve started working with the food pantry in my new town to see if they’d be interested in excess veggies from the community gardens I’m trying to get set up.

    At times I worry that it’s too indirect a path to get fresh veggies to those that need it. But, I can’t really go knocking on doors and asking, “Hey are you desperately poor? Do you need veggies?” Not only would that take forever, I’m not sure what kind of reception I’d get. Might just offend people. So, I’m hoping working with the food bank will do what I’m trying to do.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this Sharon, it is such a huge and complicated problem.

  10. #10 Greenpa
    May 13, 2010

    Sharon- you’re getting to the same place The Automatic Earth got not so very long ago- a huge number of your readers are not (can not be) familiar with the discussions that have gone on here, on very much this same subject, before.

    Otherwise I don’t think Gerry Sell would have been so hesitant. Those views are not ignored nor discounted.

    TAE had to go ahead and put up a list of links to “primer” posts on various topics, to avoid starting at square one constantly.

    So, in your spare time ( hee hee!) – you might think about following suit?

    Nothing wrong with this discussion today- but it might be even more beneficial if new folks could be immersed more easily…

    :-)

  11. #11 Anne
    May 13, 2010

    Thank you for this tremendous post.

  12. #12 GardenGrl
    May 13, 2010

    Currently, I work for the state where I live as a Food Safety Inspector. This position takes me into grocery stores, convenience stores and even farmers markets. When inspecting these facilities one can easily see what people are purchasing. In lower income areas many of the stores food quality is low and people are purchasing what they can afford – inexpensive ,empty calories. Fresh produce is out of the realm of possibility for many people in urban areas. The farmers markets are held mainly in middle and upper class neighborhoods and not in areas where inexpensive produce is most needed. In one area I inspect the decent grocery chains have pulled out leaving only small convenience stores and gas stations. Public transportation is almost non existent in this area thus urban poor are relegated to shopping in stores within walking distance. The sanitation and safety standards in many of these places leave a lot to be desired and that increases the risk of people, who can least afford it, becoming ill. $68 a week will not get you pasta and carrots in these places! It will, however, get you “Honey Buns”, “Ramen Noodles” and “Yoo Hoo”.

    The abject poverty is some areas is appalling. What is even worse are the store owners who try to take advantage of that by providing overpriced, poor quality foods in unclean and at times unsafe facilities. The inequities in the stores available to me and those available to the poor are staggering. We do our best to get the stores in impoverished areas up to code but it is an uphill battle. Not all places are so terrible and many do there best to keep healthy food in the neighborhood.

    Apparently, if you do not see it it does not exist. Just my two cents on what I see daily.

  13. #13 darwinsdog
    May 13, 2010

    Potatos aren’t very expensive and are easily grown. Don’t peel them, much of the nutrition is in the skin. Brown rice isn’t very expensive either, and to prepare it all it requires is boiling. Dry pinto beans don’t cost much especially when purchased in burlap sacks. Cook them for half an hour in a pressure cooker to save fuel, or simmer them over an open fire in a cast iron pot. These staples can be bought in bulk for additional economy. Canola oil is increasingly expensive due in part to burning it as ‘biodiesel’ for fuel, but it adds calories & essential fatty acids to the diet. One Mirasol chili per day provides 100% of the RDA for vitamins A & C. Squash isn’t expensive, is easily grown and provides essential nutrients. Rice or potatos for carbohydrate, beans for protein, a chili for vitamin A & C, squash or other vegetables, and a salad of greens occasionally, will keep a person alive and doesn’t require elaborate preparation. It isn’t hard to keep from starving on what food stamps provide. What may be difficult for Americans is learning to eat intelligently. I’ve pretty much always eaten as described, alike when a relatively well paid school administrator and as an itinerant tree planter living out of the back of a pickup and cooking with wood over a campfire. It doesn’t have to cost very much to eat well.

  14. #14 Oikoman
    May 13, 2010

    I don’t know how widespread this is, but in the city I live in, the urban market sells lots of fresh fruit and veg… when fruit and veg has been on the stands of the big supermarkets for a bit too long it gets passed on down a chain of market traiders until at the very end its being flogged at quite low prices by the vendors at the back of the market. It won’t last very long but its available at a price that the urban poor can manage, and indeed the market is always busy.

    In the towns and villages surrounding this city its the opposite situation… the fruit and the veg in the market is usually more expensive, the premium being justified by it being either organic, local, or both. Its not particularly better than whats in the supermarket, but I guess it fosters a warm “buy British” feel in the customers. No surprise, I suppose, that these pushes to be more (nationally) self-reliant, eat healthier, and support our local farmers appear to many to be a whim of the upper middle class (unless you inherited your house, you usually have to be upper middle class to afford your house if you live in a picturesque village in the UK).

  15. #15 Zuska
    May 14, 2010

    Sharon, thank you for this post. I didn’t mean to challenge you to produce a set of meals on a budget, I was more interested in your thoughts on the whole Famous Name Chefs Cook For The Huddled Masses dealio. And you did not disappoint. I am made thoughtful, informed, and challenged by your writing.

    I’m not quite sure that I could go knock on my neighbors’ doors and ask if they need pots and pans, or baby-sitting, or extra veggies or prepared food. But there is a local food bank, and it might be a place to start – find out what they are doing, and how to get involved. Philabundance is doing great things city-wide in Philadelphia but there is a smaller foodbank operation closer to home that I am thinking of.

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    May 14, 2010

    I agree, it would be hard to push yourself on someone whose circumstances you don’t know – I wasn’t so much thinking of knocking on doors as perhaps meeting people through existing poverty-response programs. I suspect if you asked at a food pantry or a local social services agency if they knew any families that could use help and a connection they could find a list, though.

    Zuska, thanks for pointing up this article – I really appreciate the fact that you always hit the mark on this stuff.

    Sharon

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    May 14, 2010

    Gerry, I think you’ve put your finger on precisely what I think are the central problems of poverty – that the poor are the obvious canaries in the coal mine for a way of life that cuts across class and culture. The things that more affluent families do that are destructive – but where their affluence partly mitigates that destruction are worse when you are poor. So, for example, the problem that most Americans live largely on packaged, processed and fast food becomes more acute when situations like food deserts, lack of transportation and lack of education come together along with tiny budgets. In order to be functional in our society, the poor have to do a lot of things better than most of us. What’s so impressive is the astonishing number that do – that manage to navigate a difficult system so well. What’s not astonishing is that so many flounder.

    Sharon

  18. #18 Lorna
    May 14, 2010

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post the last few days and just found this site, which addresses the issue of eating well on food stamps: http://www.cookforgood.com/save_money.html.

  19. #19 Jadehawk
    May 14, 2010

    awesome article! a few comments

    you can simply expect a lot less culinary elaboration from a 10 year old in most cases. Opening canned soup may be about the limit.

    it’s even more irritatingly complicated than that. A ten-year-old could theoretically make a healthy meal safely. But to get there, said 10-year-old would have to be carefully and thoroughly taught to do so; more time and effort, as a matter of fact, than just cooking yourself, and there isn’t enough for even that. It’s another one of poverty’s Catch-22’s.

    people who are truly poor enough to need financial help from the community should probably give some thought to quitting smoking, which costs them $6-7 per day in cash and a whole lot more in health risks.

    did you know that willpower is a limited resource? I’m not being rhetorical: literally, you wake up every morning with x amount of willpower, and sometime during that day, you will run out of it (or not, if you have a really cushy life or above-average amounts of willpower). Changing bad habits requires tons of willpower; even more so when said habits involve addictive substances. So pretty much the only way a person can be reasonably expected to quit smoking is if the rest of their daily routine doesn’t use up much of their willpower. How likely do you think this is for people on foodstamps?

    No, pretty much the only thing we can do in this case is to try to prevent people from getting into cigarettes in the first place, or alternatively “abolishing poverty” to make their lives easy enough that they can have the willpower to quit themselves.

    they restricted what kind of milk I could buy, as a breastfeeding mother I was required to get skim or 1%, only after baby weaned could I get whole milk on the checks.

    what?! what is their problem with whole milk?! why do they even care?

    These staples can be bought in bulk for additional economy.

    I mention this every time it comes up, but it seems no one ever reads or remembers it: buying in bulk is a form of luxury. In order to buy things in bulk, you need to be able to have $20-$40 beyond what you need to spend on immediate necessities. Most poor people don’t have that.

    I’ve suggested that we’d need ways for poor people to safely pool their resources to afford bulk food; other suggestions to make the extra spare money available to them would be good too. But completely without help, it can be nearly impossible to buy (and transport; ever carried a 30lbs bag of anything home on foot? that used to be easier before the the introduction of carts that lock down when you leave the parking lot, but now you actually have to carry the bags yourself) things in bulk.

  20. #20 Jadehawk
    May 14, 2010

    oh yeah, and as for the “making living simply popular in America” thing… I facepalm every time I see the Real Simple Magazine; it’s usually as thick as my thumb, and half the solutions in it involve buying some “time/money/effort-saving” gadget.

    total “simple life” fail.

  21. #21 Jim Thomerson
    May 14, 2010

    First time I cooked for myself, I was about 10 years old. My parents had something to do and weren’t home for supper. I fixed fried wild turkey breast and cream gravy on our wood burning stove. It came out just fine. Country poor like we were is one thing, and not that big a hassle. Being urban poor is quite a different thing.

  22. #22 Kea
    May 15, 2010

    Buying meat is NOT a sensible option. I have often lived on (my country’s equivalent) of a starvation diet, so I know what I’m talking about. And I grew up in an affluent meat eating family, so I love meat and would buy it if I could.

    Some meat can be had in cheap cans of beans/meat and as ‘flavouring’ in packet pastas and the like. With my budget, I tend to focus on how much I can spend on fresh vegetables, because vegetables are expensive these days, and I know I’m not going to get the ‘recommended’ amount. So most weeks, I spend roughly 1/4 of the food budget on cheap fresh vegetables, 1/4 on pasta/rice, 1/4 on beans and other canned vegetable goods, and 1/4 on butter/sauces/bread.

  23. #23 CrankyType2
    May 15, 2010

    Mom and Sis both have diabetes and believe that they ‘have’ to have meat for lunch and supper, and often breakfast. Can’t seem to convince them that beans and rice, cheese, etc. are also good proteins.

    I’m so tired of self-righteous food activists who don’t have diabetes thinking they know what’s best for people with diabetes. Rice & beans are CRAZY high in carbohydrates and put my blood sugar through the roof. In order to get enough calories, fat, & feel fed at any given meal, I DO “have” to have animal protein at almost every meal. I’m fortunate that I can afford it.

  24. #24 Mer
    May 15, 2010

    Ditto on the diabetes. It’s not the protein but the carbohydrates that count, and even whole grain carbs, though digested more slowly than white, can raise the blood sugar to unacceptable levels.

  25. #25 speedwell
    May 16, 2010

    Double ditto on the diabetes. I fricking WISH I could eat beans and rice. I used to be a vegan before I was diagnosed with type 2. I am actually so sick of meat you wouldn’t believe it.

    I went low-carb the week of my diagnosis (not easy when you’re on the second week of a month-long business trip to the Middle East, you have a broken ankle, and you have to fight with room service). I also had to fight with the hospital when I got severe bronchitis immediately upon returning home; they thought cornflakes, grits, and canned fruit were appropriate for me so long as they were administering insulin.

    When I try to eat rice, corn, peas, carrots, potatoes, apples, grapes, bananas, grains (even whole grains, even comparatively low-glycemic barley), bread, tortillas, pasta, ramen, lowfat milk, dextrose-and-sugar added bologna, even… mainstays of a low-cost carb-heavy diet, my blood sugar monitor lets me hear about it. But that’s how the nutritionists think. That’s how they plan “healthy” diets for the poor.

    Within three months of getting home, I was off three medications and had a score under 6. (I’m still taking Metformin and a statin for other reasons.) How much do you think I’d be spending on medications if I didn’t manage my diet and activity level tightly and had no health insurance? How much do you think it would cost me if I had to buy five prescriptions with no health insurance, two of which are not on the four-dollar Walmart list? How much do you think I could exercise if I was tired all the time from working the night shift in a convenience store and trying to get sleep during the day while trying to clean up and be ready when the kids come home from school?

    Because I’ve been there. I’ve been dirt-poor, working part-time for minimum wage and unable to get food stamps: The fact that I had minimal rent (living in a single room in the home of another poor family), no car payments (no car), and no furniture payments (no furniture) counted against me when I tried to qualify. I did manage to feed myself, but there were weeks I lived on a bag of rice, and days I stole from the food case at the convenience store and blamed it on shoplifting customers. I can’t imagine the horror of trying to manage as a diabetic under the circumstances.

  26. #26 ahimsa
    May 16, 2010

    Re: diabetes, my husband actually reversed early onset diabetes on a vegetarian diet of beans, rice (brown rice), oatmeal, nuts and a host of other vegetarian items (lots of veggies and fruits). What he had to reduce or eliminate was fruit juice, sugars, white flour and similar items. It is a myth that one must eat meat or cheese in order to avoid being a diabetic.

    A vegetarian diet is a personal choice but it is not incompatible with the prevention of diabetes. Good health does depend in part on the food choices that are made but animal vs. non-animal foods is not the main issue.

    I would never tell someone else what to eat. Please don’t tell others that all diabetics must eat meat in order to have good health.

    On another point, I thought I’d post a link to this graph showing how the cost of fruits and veggies have increased so much more than other food items over the past 30 years. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/20/whats-wrong-with-this-chart/

  27. #27 sailingcvgal
    May 17, 2010

    Your article is very insightful, and if I might, I’d like to add….

    I grew up on welfare, food stamps, commodities (government surplus foods), lived in a housing project, parents divorced and was the oldest of 5 girls. Mom stretched the budget with apples for breakfast (gathered from a nearby farm field) and biscuits, home made, of course; greens gathered in a local creek,(later I discovered that I had been eating huge bowls of watercress) served with “soup beans”, pintos; polk greens prepared in the spring before it got too big and was not good to eat; squirrel, rabbit and fish that the local teens brought to Mom and anything else that she could provide, all prepared with love and excellent culinary skills!

    Mom was a great cook and looking back, I admire her skills in feeding 6 people with one chicken, 3 potatoes and 1 can of corn. In a small town, canned vegetables, especially in the winter, were almost all that were available, that many years ago. She made the BEST roast beef with a small chuck roast. Her yeast rolls recipe was lost and I could cry over the loss. She even invited some of our neighborhood friends (other project kids) to dinner sometimes and served them foods they had never eaten, foods that you and I consider every day fare.

    My comment is that in addition to all the goodies that were “found”, we participated in the government programs to subsidize our pantry. I was the one, as a 12 year old, that stood in the commodity line and the one sent to the grocery with a list, a list that could not be exceeded by 5 cents, so closely did she budget for the week. I felt I had a huge “P” on my chest while standing in that commodity line, or in the checkout as I paid with food stamps. Those responsibilities have had an enormous effect on me as an adult. She had no choice but to send me on those errands, but I’m sure that if she knew of the lasting effect that those trips had on me, she would have chosen to try to make them herself.

    Thank goodness that I no longer have to rely on the government programs. As a 62 year old lady, I now go to the grocery and get what I want to eat, within reason, cost is not a consideration. I am, and always have been, adamant that I will never go back to “those” days.

    We need to remember that no matter how far any of the children get from the poverty in which they are raised today, that IT WILL have a lasting effect on them!!!

  28. #28 Diane
    May 18, 2010

    What a great article. And thoughtful comments.

    Yes, let’s all strive not to tell anyone else what they “should” be eating. It’s preachy and off-putting, and what’s right for one is not necessarily right for another, within certain fairly wide parameters.

    People who have not lived in poverty cannot begin to imagine what it is like. I think the people who are complaining most loudly about the poor and the welfare are likely living quite well and would probably go somewhat mental when forced to live under difficult, desperate poverty conditions. They are preaching “do as I say” from a pedestal they haven’t yet fallen off of.

  29. #29 MsEithne
    May 19, 2010

    I found this post through a link from Thus Spake Zuska.

    It is one thing to live simply if you have the means not to do so and a very different thing to live simply when there is no other choice.

    Between 1980 and 2004, I kept my personal expenses well below $10K a year and I saved like crazy. Living that way was a challenge but I always had a goal and I had a huge safety margin. My goal was always to save at least $20K a year, so if I had some sort of disaster and could only save $15K, no big deal, really.

    I did lose my health insurance when it went over $1400/month (due to pre-existing conditions). I lost all my savings to a business investment with a partner who basically embezzled it; no point in going to court because even though my lawyer was certain I would win, she had no money left. After he looked into the situation, he declined to offer to take the case on contingency, which is a pretty good indicator for whether it will be worth it to go to court.

    My husband became ill in 1995 and was unable to work. We were proud and didn’t apply for SSI for him because I could take care of him. Big, big mistake.

    And then in 2005, I contracted necrotising fasciitis. I spent nearly four months on the burn unit and my medical bill was ultimately somewhere over $1.2 million. That wiped out all my savings in just the first week (ICU is extemely expensive).

    Now I am trying to live on SSI, Medicaid and food stamps. I am housebound, so even though a visit to the doctor is only $3, the ride to get to the doctor is $54. I cannot take care of most of the tasks of daily living by myself, so it falls to my husband to help me. I figure my care eats 6-8 hours of his day.

    My husband? Has congestive heart failure and asthma.

    Do I know how to eat healthfully on a tight budget? Of course. And I was one heck of a cook. My husband *adored* my cooking. He’s been willing to learn how to cook from me but most days, he simply does not have the energy. Neither of us was happy living on highly processed foods and fast food but that was all he had the energy for.

    Finally, after five years on the waiting list, we are receiving two hours of home care assistance per week. Which may well be cut due to the current economic crisis.

    That two hours of assistance has meant that my husband has enough energy to cook maybe four times a week. He makes a big meal of something and we eat for two full days off the leftovers. It’s too restricted a diet to be truly healthful but it’s one heck of a lot better than what we had before.

    If we lose that two hours of home care? We’ll be back in the same situation.

    Whoever suggested that someone who is disabled could sit down to chop vegetables is living in LaLaLand. For one thing, I cannot get into my kitchen, it’s not accessible to me. So I would have to figure out some way to get the vegetables out of the kitchen and into the living room where I am. I use a walker and I am barely mobile even with the walker. Okay, the husband is the usual pack beast in this household.

    Do the vegetables need to be washed? Yes, usually, at some step of the process. I would really prefer not to wash the veggies in the bathroom where the cat litter box is located, so how to get them into the kitchen for washing? Oh, right, the husband is the usual packbeast.

    Are the veggies flawless or do they need to be inspected carefully and flaws cut away? Hmmmmm, my corrected vision is now 20/200, so that’s kinda tricky. Wait, my husband’s vision is normal, so he can cut out the icks and spots.

    I chop the vegetables. Takes me maybe fifteen minutes to cut up enough for a large pot (12 servings) of vegetable soup.

    How do the vegetables get back to the kitchen? The husband, of course.

    How do they get into the pot, in the right order and go through the correct processes? The husband, again.

    What happens if he’s having a bad day and has already used his inhaler the maximum of three times when he starts wheezing again at some point during this process? Well, the veggies have to wait.

    That’s why he only cooks four times a week.

    Thank you so much for an article that really seems clueful to someone who is living it.

  30. #30 theshortearedowl
    June 7, 2010

    Thank you for this post, and many of the comments. I am glad there are people out there that realise that if you are working a minimum wage job, are a single parent with no support network, are less than perfectly able-bodied, then it really is a different situation to having to live on beans and toast for a month once because you were a crap budget maker as a student.

    Another thing that often seems to get forgotten: what about people with different food requirements? What about coeliacs, the lactose intolerant and nut allergy sufferers? What about people with IBS or IBD, who may have trigger foods that include bread, brown rice, fruit, tomatoes, any raw vegetables, or almost anything else?

    My favourite one of these “food stamp trials” was from the UK: a notorious Conservative politician called Michael Portillo tried to live like a single mother on benefits. My estimation of him went up considerably when he admitted that he wouldn’t think twice about spending the entire week’s budget on a single meal. Too bad he was already out of office by that point. Politicians should have to live with the policies they make.

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