a bushel and a peck

Trickling down to the end of the month, I thought I’d take a look at the pantry and fridge to see what we have left. The very first thing to say is that we are not starving. We are so much better off than many people. In general terms, I could whip up a soup, a simple pasta dish or some kind of omelet or casserole if need be. I also have lots of dried beans and other legumes, cereal and oatmeal to last another week at least, baking supplies, and enough condiments to smear Alameda with pickles, chutney and jam from Alameda Point to the Oakland Airport. These jars and bottles divide and conquer when I’m not looking. There’s no other explanation.
Looky there <-- in the fridge. It’s got lots of leftovers, wilting veggies, and condiments. There’s a half-gallon of milk left, half of the 4-lb block of cheese, 1 package of the salami, 1/2 a package of tortillas, 1 pound of butter + 1 cube; dessert leftovers, and stone fruits that I just bought Tuesday, rapidly turning to mush as a horde of drunken fruit flies make love in the juice.

Look, Ma! More condiments!

We have enough food to get by, certainly. And that I attribute to smart bulk buys early in the month. We still have chicken leg quarters in the freezer, in various marinades. There are still 2 packages of hot dogs and 1 package of bratwurst. Carrots, grapefruit, potatoes, and a gallon of ice cream are on hand, as well as tortilla chips, a dozen eggs, enough lettuce and tomatoes for one more salad, plus a spaghetti squash, 2 onions and some garlic. Bread is not a problem, since it’s free for us, and I can get some more on Tuesday — but really, we have enough, unless someone has a sandwich festival or a breadcrumb orgy in the next few days. And it could happen.

I have to be blunt. We won’t starve. It will end up being more inconvenient than truly threatening for us to get through the rest of the month, even with just $13.50 left. And that’s where a couple of major issues come into play.

  1. I have a car. This is huge for people living on a low income, because you can get to the store with the sale, and you can get around from one site to another. Without a car, that bulk purchase of 2 10-lb. bags of chicken quarters would not have happened. I could have managed one, but carrying 10 lbs. of frozen chicken would have been all I managed that day. If you haven’t recently ridden the bus, you may have forgotten how heavy just your purse gets. How heavy is a gallon of milk? Trust me. It’s heavy. So are canned goods, watermelon, bags of potatoes or carrots like I purchased. My “smart buys” are a choice I can make only with a car, or a ride, or even a taxi. No car (insurance, gas)? No ride (depending on others, if there is anyone to ask)? No cash for taxi (when was the last time you took a taxi ride?)? Then your groceries are limited to what you can carry on your shoulder or put in your rolling cart and drag. Good luck with that.
  2. I cook. I have the gift, talent and know-how to make banana bread from scratch, which I just did with my mushy bananas, the leftover egg whites from baking the Key lime pie, and some of that Friendship Bread starter. I can make soup from people’s leftover lunches. I can make a pie crust, cookies, tacos, or any kind of salad. I can read a cookbook (and own too many). I can find what I need on the Internet to kick-start a food project. And I have a solid knowledge of not only basic nutrition, but what is really healthy to eat (hint: it’s not wrapped in bacon at KFC). I have exposure to a variety of foods and cultures, and know there is life beyond generic mac and cheese or $5 pizza. Do not scoff at the significance of this knowledge.
  3. I have an education and other privileges of my class. I have access to the Internet at home, 24 hours a day, and know how to look for frugal hints and tips. I know how to use coupons. I grocery-shop with all the tricks of the trade (use a list, avoid processed foods, avoid center aisles, don’t shop when hungry or with family members). I have a budget, an Excel spreadsheet, a bank account, an ATM, a checkbook, and a calculator. Those are not universal “haves”. There wouldn’t be a need for those check-cashing bloodsuckers if everyone had a bank account, amigos. We also have our health, with no allergies, addictions or abuse issues. That’s something that can play havoc with a family budget. We aren’t consigned to eat only wheat-free or diabetic foods; neither do I have to battle to keep my family’s food dollars away from an addict in the house who will surely trade my food stamps for drugs or booze. It happens. Don’t think it doesn’t. But…
  4. Just because I “know better” doesn’t mean I am better. Stop right now, if you have anywhere within you a crumb of smugness or superiority. Call off your old tired assumptions, to paraphrase a famous San Francisco businesswoman, and stop patting yourself on the back. If you haven’t come from a low-income family that struggled with money, hunger, and other issues of poverty, you don’t know better. If you haven’t come from generations of such struggles, you don’t know better. If you aren’t struggling now, no thanks to a shitty divorce, the economy, a layoff, a death or illness or other life-event, you don’t know better.

    You just know different.

We’re all products of our family of origin, our circumstances and our class. Some of us (at all levels) are lucky, some of us (at all levels) are smart, and some of us won the freaking lottery. Others of us did not. My experience with the June Food Stamp Challenge shows me how much I have to learn, and how lucky I am. It hasn’t for one moment made me feel better than hungry people, struggling. I hope that’s been abundantly clear.

Saturday Menu
Breakfast: Coffee. Julia: oatmeal. Patrick: peanut butter on toast. Simone: coffee.
Snack: Julia: half of a peach, coffee.
Lunch: Julia: 2 hot dogs, plain; watermelon, cherry tomatoes. Patrick: chicken enchilada soup with tortilla chips, watermelon.
Snack: Banana bread (homemade from leftover bananas, etc.)
Dinner: Patrick and Austin picnic @ A’s baseball game: salami sandwiches on hamburger buns, peanuts, tortilla chips and salsa, chocolate chip cookies, lemonade. Julia, Simone: quesadillas (tortillas and cheese), 3-bean salad (small scoop). Ice cream.

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5 Replies to “a bushel and a peck”

  1. Could not agree with you more, my dear. While I never used Food Stamps, I certainly qualified for them early on, but had a car at all times, so I could go to Canned Foods Warehouse and Grocery Outlet-type places.

    Now, it’s my own kids who are starting out adult life, and I’ve sent each of them away with knowledge of how to operate a stove, an oven, and a cookbook. They understand how much cheaper (and better) it is to buy bruised tomatoes at the end of the day at a farmer’s market for 50 cents a pound if you’re making sauce — they are going to be trimmed and cooked anyway. And they understand that homemade sauce is infinitely better than the sugar-laden stuff in a jar.

    And, we sure don’t know better. We only know different, if we know at all. The only wrapper FOOD comes in is a peel, skin or rind. Before you can teach your children to cook, though, you have to teach them to eat, and like all teens, mine though most, if not all, food came in a wrapper. You have to be patient with them to overcome years of TV advertising. My 20-year old daughter asked two nights ago for seconds on zucchini for the first time in her life. The reason: I had just picked it in the front yard 2 hours before she ate it.

    Noble question Julia, made all the better by your celar and thoughtful sharing of it.

  2. Great series, J, and thanks for sharing all your thinky thoughts and discoveries. We still have weeks where I have no cash to shop, but since those early starving-student days, I’ve always done a version of the Mormon thang and kept a solidly stocked pantry. I pride myself on being able to whip up a dinner for visitors without going to the store first… it might involve a bit of frozen or canned goods, but it will be nutritious and possibly delicious. We’ve qualified for food stamps several times, but the hoops required and the extreme lack of respect and dignity in the process made me become more self-reliant (and way more compassionate to those who were forced into the program).

    Down to two kids, it’s luxurious to be able to experiment with ethnic foods and get the majority of our fresh produce from farmers’ markets.

    Thanks again, lady. Wish I could partake of the tiki bar… any chance of you winging it out to Chicago anytime soon? We’d love to show you around!

  3. I applaud your insightful commentary into the many barriers that people on low incomes face. If only the lack of money were the only issue at hand. As if that weren’t enough to deal with! I especially appreciated the mention of abuse and addiction. These problems are exacerbated by, not caused by, a lower income. As a child who grew up on a very low income, I am hypersensitive to the prejudice of those who have never gone without. I feel blessed to have what I have now, but I will never forget the lean times.

  4. Just wanted to say hey! and that I’ve just landed here from Katy’s JFSC post and wow, I spent my Sunday morning reading all your posts! I’m totally inspired to do this challenge in July now. We took a Disney vacation this month (which is really something for us, we usually camp) so it wasn’t a good time to even try, given that we spent a month’s worth of our own food budget to eat down there, which in itself is food for thought I suppose. Anyway, great stuff!

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