Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Foodies, Hunger, and Class Warfare

At the al-dente blog at, one of the authors (Tracy Schneider) is attempting to feed herself on $7/day for five days, as part of the United Way's Hunger Challenge. Caveats: She cannot accept food from family, friends, coworkers, etc. This week, there's no doughnuts or coffee provided by the office, no accepting dinner invites from friends, things like that. She has to eat Breakfast Lunch and Dinner, everyday at this cost, and no adding ingredients that she already owns except salt and pepper. Also, in the spirit of the challenge, she's going to attempt to use fresh produce and protein whenever she can. The $7 amount was chosen as it is the maximum amount of money a (single) person can receive on Food Stamps.

Some of you may be thinking "That's not hard. Heck, I've been feeding myself on $4 per day since I left home!" And frankly, you'd be right. That's $210 dollars per month, which is pretty rich for one person's food budget, except maybe in an area with a remarkably high cost of living (NYC, for one).

Unfortunately, a lot of the comments, in the true fashion of internet trolls, have resorted to name calling and attacking the writer for this. When Ms. Schneider wrote about using a leftover Rotisserie Chicken Carcass to make homemade chicken soup, the attacks began right off the top. The first guy, "greg", thinks he can write a book on what's wrong with Schneider's posts and believes himself to be an expert on what poor people can't afford (ding! Stuff White People like, #62!).

Then there's "marissa" who sounds like daddy didn't hug her enough when she was little. The Irony Police will be probably be knocking on her door soon for calling Schneider a "pretentious asshole" after calling her a "fucktard" and still attempts to take the high road.

This isn't the first time the Internets were outraged at what well-to-do journalists called a tight budget. This article from two years ago on CBS told users how they could put together a spaghetti dinner with a tossed salad and dessert on a shoestring "recession budget" of... $35.00. Or another article on 20-something hipsters who's post-graduate degrees in poetry (seriously) aren't giving them good job prospects, and they're using their taxpayer funded food stamp money to buy Free-Range-Grass-Fed-Organically-Grown-Cruelty-Free-Vegan top dollar groceries from Whole Foods. (hat tip to my sister for the link)

I can understand the indignation. When people read these articles, it brings up images about some Trust Fund Baby who's woefully relaying the tale of how she had to sell the vacation home Vail, CO in order to keep the one Santa Monica. The recession is soooooooo cruel! Meanwhile the guy mowing her lawn is using his $50/day wage to provided food for his three kids.

The commenters raise some good points (rotisserie chicken wouldn't be available to be purchased via Food Stamps, for one thing), but generally need to chill the hell out, a point not lost on other contributors to the al-dente blog.

Here's my only real conclusions on the matter:
  • Eating well on $7/day is not terribly difficult.
  • The spirit of United Way's Challenge, I think, is to replicate the challenge of living on Food Stamps, so I think the restrictions of not buying things you couldn't via Food Stamps is a good idea.
  • This is not a "living in grinding poverty" challenge, and I have several friends who were or are currently on Gov't nutritional assistance and they have a working vehicle, even if it is a little beat up. If Ms. Schneider uses a car to go grocery shopping, let that one slide.
  • Tracy Schneider may very well be what is described as a Bohemian Bourgeois. For the rest of us, it is OK to roll our eyes or even snicker at those that have to totally rethink their grocery shopping and eating habbits to fit them within a budget that a lot of us might consider to be lavish.
  • Name calling and making personal attacks are NOT ok, and it does nothing except make yourself feel like a bigshot, while everyone else feels embarrased for you. Maybe you should slide over to the message boards at Fark or 4Chan. You'll fit right in. Or maybe get eaten alive by some professional grade trolls.
  • Yeah, give me a jar of Prego, some Barilla pasta, a bag o' salad greens, and some Yoplait, and I could recreate that $35 recession budget meal (*snicker*) for about eight bucks. Some of you tightwad superstars can certainly do it for less.
  • Just because you're on Food Stamps, it doesn't mean your diet should move to ramen, Bar-S hot dogs, Hormel Chili, and Wonderbread. If you can still eat Whole Foods groceries on Food Stamps, then that's great! I'm glad to see you're doing OK, but the next time you try to get sympathy from me by complaining about how poor you are, I am totally permitted to give you a swift kick in the ass for bitching about it.
As for me, I just used my budget from last year to calculate how much per month I spent on groceries last year. It averaged to about $154 per month, or $5.10/day, which isn't bad. Some explanation on this this number:
  • It includes non-food household products, such as toothpaste, deoderant, soap, etc.
  • I also filled up a pantry with canned goods, and my freezer has filled up nicely on this $5/day.
  • I do my grocery shopping locally (there's a grocery store in town about a mile away, the nearest Wal-Mart is about 40 miles away).
  • The United Way's challenge stipulated you had to pay for breakfast lunch and dinner. A lot of times, I skip breakfast, so for me, it's probably closer to something like 2.2 meals per day, not three.
  • I try hard to avoid most instant and microwaveable over-processed foods, opting for fresh produce, dairy, and meat; but a can of chili or a Totino's Pizza still slips in now and then.
  • If I started with a totally empty pantry and fridge and ended them the same, I could feed myself on... I guess...$4/day.
As for buying fancy stuff, I just try and keep it fresh. I still have a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli in the pantry that has a use-by date of November 2008. As long as I possess this unopened can of bland pseudo-food, I know that I'm winning the nutritional war in the Kitchen.

Eat well, and keep it civil, folks!


Tiffany said...

I think it's probably worth pointing out that a person with a white collar job and parents who taught him/her to cook has a very different experience on $7/day than many recipients of food assistance do.

I mean, people live on ramen and hot dogs not just because they're cheap, but also because they don't require a ton of prep. Coming home from your one 8hrs/day job where you got to spend most of the day sitting and then preparing a meal is certainly not the same as coming home from your 10 hour shift at the Big Box store where you've been standing and dealing with the public all day, and then preparing a meal.

Meanwhile (at the risk of going all Stuff White People Like), you and I are fortunate to have grown up in a home where our parents encouraged us to learn to cook and properly stock a pantry from a relatively early age, because they had learned those skills from their own parents. (Well, okay, one parent and his parents, but Mom was certainly supportive. ;) ) A lot of people (and I mean A LOT of people, not all of them in poverty) don't even have that basic advantage, either because their parents were the ones working the 10 hour shift at the Big Box Store and then not cooking, or because their parents were the high-powered corporate types who didn't have time, or because their mothers and grandmothers saw cooking as the domestic drudgery that feminism liberated us from but their fathers and grandfathers had never learned how.

I mean, I'd like to believe I'm exaggerating, but no joke, I'll say something like, "I didn't feel much like cooking last night, so I boiled some spaghetti and threw some sauce on it and pulled out some meatballs I froze the last time I made some," and a friend or coworker will boggle and say, "That IS cooking." And then I boggle and say, "That's boiling some water."

You can get whole chicken from the store for like a buck a pound, even in DC, spend 5 minutes in the kitchen, and then make stock from the carcass for the beginnings of soup, all for less than 10 bucks here, and probably less than 7 bucks elsewhere, but many people really have no idea how to do that, and they may not even have a roasting pan.

So I guess my point is, sure, one CAN eat well on 7 bucks a day, but that doesn't mean they know HOW. I firmly believe that good kitchen education is as important to resolving food insecurity problems as actual nutritional assistance is.

But YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES on the chilling the fuck out advice. The point of the experiment is to get middle class people to think for a minute about what it's like to have to take a calculator to the grocery store lest they be unable to pay for the whole cart at checkout, and then develop some compassion for people in that situation, not to point out all the ways that a middle class person fails at pretending to not be middle class.

MWBartko said...

I get $200 in food stamps a month, but much like you guys I know how to shop and cook. When you add to that friends covering me to go out and meals with my family and families form church and I eat very well. I also understand people who go out and buy steak, pre-made french fries, and cola for a dinner (aka stupid easy to make meal that tastes okay) and cant make meals like that happen 3 times a day.

Fuzzy said...

Cooking well, or totally from scratch, yeah, that's pretty tough. But, that quasi-cooking example Tiffany gave (boil some pasta, jar of tomato sauce) is still a pretty reasonable meal. As is Taco Night, or even just grilled cheese and tomato soup.

You don't have to cook elaborately, but I still think all but the most people can at least boil pasta, brown some ground beef, and mix a few basic ingredients.

And as mwbarko mentioned, there is a social network of friends family to rely on. Some may not have large networks, some may have networks with as tight resources to work with as themselves, but everyone has a least a few friends, a food bank, maybe a church run organization that shuttles people to the grocery store and back.

I think we call a agree that if you are in the worst case scenerio, which is something like no car, cut off from friends/family, 12 hours a day at work, zero kitchen knowlege, then yes. you are in for a rough time and a simple $7/day restriction isn't reproduce that.

But just because Tracy isn't getting the full poverty experience doesn't mean the execution of her challenge is invalid.