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.