Monday, September 28, 2009

The horror of eating oatmeal... or why rich people in Illinois find it tough to eat on $25/week.

edit: I put up this post a few days ago. Then I took it off because I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave it public.

And then, I saw this article in the Spectator today. And of course, I agree with most of the article. My heart goes out to people who can't afford to eat healthy foods. I absolutely support people being able to use more dignified means than food banks in order to get food on the table. But how in the world is it that "average Hamilton family of four needs $701.89 a month this year to buy basic foods that meet nutrition recommendations" ? Not diapers, not formula, not take-out food... just your basic groceries.

My original post is below.

Every so often I look at apartmenttherapy for ideas. They've usually got some creative and inexpensive ideas for decor, beautiful small spaces, great storage solutions, inexpensive DIY projects.

But unless food in the States is always way more expensive (and in my experience, it's cheaper), this sensationalist "could you eat on $25 per person per week" link is ridiculous.

Especially this part:
Illinois Food Bank Association is participating in Hunger Action Month as part of a nationwide effort to engage communities to take action to end hunger. From September 22-28, the eight executive directors of IFBA, community leaders and members of the media will be taking the $25 Challenge to highlight the struggle that families in Illinois face in accessing nutritious food. This blog documents the emotional and physical struggles of the $25 Challenge in their own words.

I'm all for people receiving more money for nutritious food. I do think many people don't have enough to eat well, especially when food allergies or disabilities prevent them from eating certain things or shopping by themselves.

What frustrated me was the prejudiced and ignorant generalizations of these "leaders":

This unbelievable blog has these wealthy community folks blathering on about how
  • they now HAVE to eat oatmeal and rice (their arteries, however, are screaming with joy!)
  • what terrible emotional ramifications come from having to think about the money they're spending on food (quellle horreur!)
  • all they can picture is a month full of carbohydrates and skipping meals (seriously?)
  • how disheartening and inconvenient it is not being able to buy lunch every day (amazing how that isn't in the Constitution...)
  • and my favorite tidbit from one person coming off the "challenge" -- "I can't wait until tomorrow so I can enjoy some greens, sweet potatoes with brown sugar, turkey and dressing, with gravy, corn muffins, peach cobbler and iced tea. I will pass up my usual Dr Pepper for some Georgia-style sweet tea." With the possible exception of the turkey, NONE of those items are very expensive to make. Greens are cheap, especially southern-style ones. Cornmeal is cheap. Sweet potatoes are cheap, cheap, cheap and nutritious! And joking about how much she's going to enjoy her alcohol instead of Dr. Pepper when this is over, when she's talking about feeding people on food stamps...Is this lady serious? (Unless she's not talking about the cocktail, but regular sweet tea, which I would point out is a little cheaper than that Dr. Pepper she's been downing).

Our grocery budget has been $25/person/week for about three years. We don't grow our own food (except some oregano and basil on my kitchen windowsill). We shop at the grocery store and the farmers' market. That includes entertaining people now and then and even the (occasional) bottle of wine.

And it's not because we can't afford to spend more. Except for a couple months (which I'll talk about later) this is pretty much what we've spent on food a month since we got married. That includes when we were both working full-time, when one of us was in school, and when we both went back to school. It never had much to do with our income - just what we needed to spend.

Neither of us slaves over a hot stove all day. Neither of us does really labor-intensive meals or eats strange food. It's usually spaghetti, pizza, fish, burritos, egg salad, soup, caesar salad, corn on the cob, chicken and rice, tacos, stew, steak and baked potatoes, lasagna. All pretty typical, quick stuff. I like baking quite a bit- ginger cookies, biscotti, muffins, biscuits - but don't usually have time to. I don't bake my own bread or anything like that (although the "artisan bread in 5 minutes a day" was fun to try). I get most of my recipes off Recipezaar or Allrecipes or the Better Homes and Gardens cookook. I think I'm pretty normal in what I do and don't eat. Yeah, the Brie and the ribs and the wine and the wings are occasional treats, but we do those once in a while too.

For the last month, we decided to try eating mostly vegetarian -- (just to stop basing our diet so much around red meat). We've found TVP (veggie protein) is cheaper, and soy burgers are more expensive, but it averages out about the same cost as meat. (I know some can't eat soy).

A few months ago, we looked at our budget and said:
"Hmm, we can now afford to spend more on food. Should we up our budget by another $50 or $100 a month or so? a little more brie and masi valpolicella, perhaps???"

And then we went "nah, there's no real reason to. this is actually a pretty good number for us. more would just lead to more indulgences/calories, which we get enough of."

I can see why people in official positions who were "taking this challenge" find it hard. If you buy lunch everyday, haven't looked up or learned basic cooking skills, or ever shopped according to a budget or a list, you may think this is difficult... I guess I'm just living in a completely different world.

Now...... half of that, $12.50 a week per person ($100/month total for two people) when we first moved here was tough. We had no choice. Sustaining that is pretty much impossible - even with the economy of scale that happens when you have multiple people in the same household. But even then you can afford whole wheat bread, peanut butter, eggs and romaine lettuce. You can afford ground beef (on sale) and pasta and sauce. But that's just stretching it too far.

But $25/week is doable. And I'm sure we'll end up spending more at some point. But it's rarely that I hear of anyone breaking the $500/month range for a family of four. Maybe that's just my Mennonite and Irish and German roots and the attitude that thrift is a good thing. Or maybe I just don't have enough conversations about this - grocery budgets don't really come up in everyday polite conversation!

However, I also suspect it's part of how we keep bumping up the culturally accepted minimum of what we "need" and we've forgotten that the fact we have oatmeal or rice or potatoes or chicken drumsticks to eat is far more than a lot of people in the world, or a lot of our ancestors, could ever dream of. And as every generation wants "just what we had, but a little better for my kids" we're going to keep unreasonably increasing the baseline... unless we each make a conscientious effort to look at what's reasonable, what's moderate, what's good for the planet and good for other people.

(One luxury I look do forward to when we have the space is getting a chest freezer... and then being able to buy a grass-fed, hormone-free, locally raised quarter-cow for $2.40 a pound, cut and wrapped. that's a win-win-win-win for me!)

All that said, I'm quite fine with food getting more expensive and more local. I'm fine with the price of food going up and having to spend more because of considerations like fuel and growing seasons and ethical treatment of land and animals and people.

But the "horror" of eating oatmeal seems pretty overrated and ignorant to me, no matter where you live or what generation you come from.


Patti said...

I LOVE OATMEAL!!! I eat it daily, all winter long, with blueberries. And I LOVE BROWN RICE, although it's not daily, like oatmeal.

Cheap - easy to make - exceptionally good for you - and filling.

How can this be wrong???

Kelly said...

Did you see this on MSN ...

A photo essay of what a family eats in a week from various places around the world ...

I need to go buy me some oatmeal. The sky and the winds tell me it's time to stock up for winter.

Meredith said...

now i want some oatmeal and blueberries!

(or cranberries, since the fresh ones are coming out soon for thanksgiving. i wait all year for those!)

thanks for posting that article, Kelly. That's really interesting.

Meredith said...

Today's editorial in the Spec agreed vehemently with the aforementioned article.

... and then the opposite page had an article about famine in Kenya, complete with a picture of a stick-thin child.

There's no words...

chRistine said...

I'm not sure where the snobbery about what we eat came from. It's disheartening. And it is so out of focus and greedy, when you realize what other people have..

I wish people realized what they have to be thankful for.

English Blog said...

After I read Hungry Planet, I started following a San Francisco-foodie-bloggers' challenge to eat for the same amount of money as the local social assistance rate - I think it was $5.00/day? I was shocked at the discoveries of these food buffs - they had to stop throwing out slightly wilted celery; they had to eat oatmeal; they had to eat leftovers. Their discoveries were just what I'd been doing for as long as I'd been cooking on my own. I kept track of our own food budget, and discovered that quite often,2 adults were eating for about $1.00 each for dinner (I did cheat and never included the cost of our home-made wine, which I couldn't drink or cook with if I really was poor). Thanks for this post.