When I first moved out of my parents’ home, I lived on $27 every two weeks for groceries (except for eggs and raw milk, which I purchased from a farmer every other week for $13 for a half gallon of milk – from which I made yogurt, a pint of cream – from which I made butter, and two dozen eggs). I primarily shopped at a local farmers market, where I based my meals off of the available produce that I could get for the cheapest price. The leftover money went to flour to make bread, oatmeal for breakfast and homemade granola, and the occasional meat purchase at Whole Foods. Yes it was tight, but it made me creative. Mornings usually involved eggs and a smoothie, lunch was a large salad with several fresh veggies, and dinners were usually sautéed vegetables with some meat and a sweet potato for a side. I ate very well and enjoyed the challenge.
When I got married, I tried to continue this, but my budget didn’t increase to accommodate two people. Suddenly vegetables didn’t fill us both up, especially my athletic husband who needed significantly higher caloric intake than I. We started living off of potatoes, pasta, and lots of white sauce because it was mostly flour. Again, I got creative and some meals were tasty, but nowhere near nutritious. Our bills were high so we went down to one car to save on gas and insurance. His job had him working 60 hours a week, so going to the farmer’s market wasn’t an option because they weren’t open when he was off work. We had to rely instead on what we could find in the grocery store, and that money didn’t go very far. We aren’t and never have been on food stamps, but we do have a tight budget and know how hard it is to make those dollars stretch.
The point of these two stories is to show that it is possible, but only when you have options. Unfortunately there are food deserts all around the country, and $29 goes a lot farther at McDonalds than it would at a Whole Foods. If you live in an area with just those two choices, there’s not much you can do.
Last week Gwyneth Paltrow infamously posted a picture about her $29 “food stamp” challenge. She was, of course, congratulated by the rich and famous for bringing awareness to the way in which food stamp dollars don’t stretch. In contrast, those actually on food stamps (or those who don’t qualify for food stamps but still have trouble affording food) railed against her for her food choices (read the twitter posts), because those numbers could potentially work for someone if they don’t buy things like avocados, scallions, or seven limes (even if they were cheap, Gwyneth, every penny counts and one lime would have been a luxury!). Their argument was that instead of stretching the dollars effectively, she focused on the vitamin content of food to make sure she ate nutritiously.
THIS IS WHY I AGREE WITH HER.
The problem isn’t that people don’t get enough food stamp money. The problem is that the food that is readily available and affordable has no nutritional value. This leads to our growing obesity problem, our growing health problems (children as young as 12 are now being prescribed cholesterol medication!) and subsequently, our need for health care reform to allow us a safety net for our inevitable health collapse. But with health care changes causing a drastic budgeting crisis for health care facilities, we know that this practice is not sustainable.
Those of us who live in an apartment because we can’t afford a house don’t have access to land to plant gardens and grow our own food. We have a shared patio, with no room to put a Tower Garden. There is one window that gets minimal sun, but not enough to grow food in the kitchen (besides perhaps a head of lettuce here or there, nothing that can consistently feed a family).
The point isn’t to call attention to the need for an increase in funding as much as it should be to call attention to the fact that the healthier choices aren’t available to the average person. Why is a head of organic cabbage the same price as a McDouble? Why is processed food, that requires several pieces of machinery to process, preserve, package, advertise, and distribute, cheaper than buying a tub of salad greens? If someone’s main focus is entirely on making sure they don’t go hungry, their focus is going to be “how can I use this limited money to fill me up” not on “how can I make sure that my vitamin intake is well balanced this week so I can avoid the preventable diseases?”
Gwyneth Paltrow’s experiment pointed to the main problem – that quality food, REAL food, is not easily available to anyone but the elite. This is where the conversation needs to start. We have to get to the problem so that we can fix it from the ground up (pardon the pun), instead of just chasing the effects of a poor system.
Here are some things we do to make the food money stretch:
– Use spices. Rice and beans is a lot more palatable if properly spiced and or wrapped in a tortilla (making your own tortilla is a pain but can be cheaper).
– Barter. I wrote about bartering for meat when times were especially tough here.
– Ask the local co-ops if they have an offer for a trial basket to see if you like it before you commit.
– Use websites like Pinterest and allrecipes.com to plug in the ingredients you have to find new recipes.
– When buying produce, buy things that will be filling (so don’t stock up on tons of lettuce). Mushrooms are a great investment for our family because they can be filling while also helping our meat stretch, or bulking up our breakfast eggs. They are frequently on sale at Aldi for $0.59 cents a package. One package typically feeds us for two meals.