My Turn: For many, shopping for cheap meals is just part of the challenge
Felice Belman did a good job exploring how well one can eat on $47.25 per week (Monitor Forum, Oct. 17), and I am so glad someone is talking about this. I’d like to point out a few things that most people won’t think about when they’re reading her excellent column and thinking, “Hey, that’s not so bad – not that far off from the way I eat, myself.”
Except – there’s always that “but . . .” that changes the equation!
That person who can eat using only food stamps to get her food – does she have access to a working stove and oven? Does she have a sharp knife with which to chop up fresh vegetables, a pot big enough to cook in, two pots so she can make rice and also cook vegetables? Does she have a cooking pan that will go into an oven? Does she have access only to a microwave? Will a cooking dish, if she has one safe for use in a microwave, fit into the microwave that’s available? Does she have access to a refrigerator to store fresh foods and leftover foods? How big is the fridge – full-sized or a tiny one?
Does she have containers to store leftovers in, the plastic wrap or other covering to keep the leftovers from drying out? Does she have to shop daily because there is no refrigeration available? How does one eat healthily and on a very limited food budget without these basic tools? Can one eat healthily without those basic tools? What if there’s no easy way to wash a pot once it’s used?
These are not silly questions – there are many people who don’t have what most of us would consider basic kitchen equipment or cooking and cleaning facilities, and I’m not talking about the homeless folks who come to our minds first. The problem is much wider, and anyone who doesn’t believe it should read Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich.
An example close to home: I teach at a state community college; there are students who can’t afford to drive daily, so they live in their cars in the parking lot, eating whatever’s in the school’s food locker, microwaving in the school’s cafeteria after hours. These situations aren’t uncommon, much as we’d like to believe it’s not so.
The world over, people with little money exist on rice and beans/legumes and a little bit of fresh food and animal protein. Given cooking facilities, food storage options, the ability to stockpile basics like onions and garlic and oil and salt and spices, it’s possible to eat very cheaply and healthily, and even with some variety. Our complicated culture makes it more difficult – try finding a cheap pan that doesn’t burn every time you use it, for example. If you have one knife, how do you keep it sharp? Will it cut up a pumpkin or winter squash?
If we’re in dire straits, here are a few ideas: If you have access to electricity, find a crockpot. Many nutritious soups can be made with frozen or canned veggies – use the water in the cans – and a jar of pasta sauce. Don’t waste money on breakfast foods; eat real food, like soup, for the most nutrition. Ask farmers for organ meats – some will give them to you free or very inexpensively, because since most of us don’t eat that stuff anymore they can’t sell it, and it’s very nutritious when raised well. Add a marrow bone to your soup. Combine rice and beans/legumes for protein. Eat real rice, not instant. Mix fruit juices (no sugar added) with equal parts water for healthier and more extended use. Store delis will sometimes sell “ends” of cheese and meats for much less, and a little in soup works wonders.
We need to have more compassion, more willingness to share our bounty, to truly open our hearts and hands. People are starving under our noses, and there is no one but ourselves to blame. Those of us who haven’t been there for awhile, or ever, should try the food-stamp diet for a month or two and see how we feel about our country’s attitude toward our poorer citizens after that.
(Debra A. Marshall lives in Wilmot.)