A challenge

My hero, Howard Beale.*

I am not sure what it’s going to take to get people worked up about the crappy quality of their food. Education, surely. A little effort. Maybe less time spent in front of the t.v.

I got an email from a dear friend yesterday. (Funny: I had considered using his daughter as an example of the sorry state of meat in this country. They moved back here from France, and he sent her to the meat aisle at their grocery store to pick up some chicken, and she returned saying she couldn’t find it. He went to the meat aisle with her and pointed out the chicken. “That’s not chicken, that’s turkey,” she said (in French).)

Hi sweetie,

I have a challenge for you, or I should say, an interesting problem. I’m following your blog rants and nodding so hard my neck is stiff. What’s amazing to me is that there is a need for this discussion.

I’ve heard several debates on this and doing the quick math in my head tells me there is something here worth figuring out.

However here’s the challenge:

Assume two heads of household earning minimum wage each at a full-time, no benefits, job. Assume one has another half-time job eating up evenings, weekends etc. Assume three kids between 10 and 4. Assume this family lives in a place like C_____ (i.e. far from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and maybe even a real truck farmers market). Assume they have one car. Assume whatever patchwork child care is in place consumes a considerable portion of the week’s budget and that the care-givers can not contribute to household chores. Assume there are no huge debts or expensive problems from the past. Assume everyone is healthy but using the clinic for care. Kids are public school and get subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.

Design a menu for one month. Logistics obviously must be accounted for.

No fair inventing a local mom and pop organic grocer who give away food. Kids can’t be relied on as garden tenders. And there’s no cow out back.

I think, frankly, that much has been lost in our access to the “progress” our modern grocery store represents. Finding nutritional, unadulterated food WITHIN a grocery store is also something of an art. And then there’s family pressure (kids, relatives) of those who really aren’t willing to go along with “new foods.” Whole foods take longer to cook. Time’s a big issue for people who love their televisions. And then there’s that very un-American thing: cooking! Cooking without opening a can or a package, cooking without the microwave. Cooking has also died a slow death, despite the rise of cooking shows on t.v.

So I don’t know how to respond to my friend’s challenge. Do you?

*he of the movie Network, and the tirade “I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your heads out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!'” The problem with Mr. Beale of course is that he ranted and ranted, and then nobody wished to listen to him after a while.

11 responses to “A challenge

  1. Let’s see… Eating well requires a time commitment, in that you’re cooking from scratch nearly every day. Processed food is quick, easy, and much too cheap. You can’t tell the difference between organic and feedlot ground beef. Corn is so highly subsidized that it depresses the real cost of everything from meat to cheese to poptarts.

    How do you even begin to reeducate?

    I continue to hope that programs like Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard program are successful in creating good eaters by teaching kids how to appreciate good food from the ground up. I’m just not sure how easily you can retrain adults who have grown up on McDs and Hotpockets.

    A dear friend of mine is a social worker in center-city Philadelphia. For years she did home visits and would tell me many stories of the shockingly large TVs or fancy footwear that her clients had. Their several children often slept together on a mattress on the floor, but by golly — they were well-dressed. I imagine good food was not a priority in those households, partly because to low-income folks, good food doesn’t bring status with it. Yet “eating locally” is now being tagged with the elitist label, so maybe that will change?

    The Eat Local Challenge group blog is going to try to address some of these issues this spring with a challenge that’s based on a food-stamp budget, and Jeff & Joyce are documenting the cost and time of cooking local on their new site Nitty Gritty.

  2. I don’t know how to come up with a full solution, but to address real cooking vs processed food: there is a whole army of people on the internet doing Once a month cooking – I don’t go that far, though I do very often make things in enormous batches and freeze the leftovers. This works extremely well for casseroles, curries, chili… all of the comfort foods I really like to eat.

    Unfortunately, I suspect this approach works better for people in rural or smaller town areas, where big chest freezers are more common, and there may be more openness from a cultural perspective of “putting food up” for later.

  3. I don’t buy the “eating well is just too expensive” argument. I live in a split household. I eat good food and my husband eats junk. I also do the grocery shopping and know darn well what costs the most. It isn’t the stuff I’m buying for myself. I wasn’t raised in a family with a lot of money. My mother had a huge garden. She canned and preserved things for winter. She froze food. My two siblings and I picked strawberries for hours in June when we were pretty small so we could have jam and frozen berries all winter. We helped cut corn to make enormous pots of chicken corn soup to be frozen and consumed during the winter. We did not eat hot dogs and Kool-Aid.

    First, one person needs to quit their job. There is no way a person making minimum wage is making more than what is consumed by childcare. Plus with what a working person spends on gas and/or other methods of transportation in getting to work, there can’t be anything left of that person’s earnings and is probably costing them money. The other person should also quit their job and get a job at Walmart. Hey, dire straits mean dire actions. Walmart pays at least $8/hr and there isn’t a place in this country (except for maybe Vermont) that doesn’t have a Walmart. Note: I am not advocating Walmart, just attempting to bulk this families take home pay above minimum wage level. So that leaves one person at home during the day with at least one child (4 year old) and no car. I’m assuming they have some kind of yard (must not live in an urban area since no access to health food store or farmers markets {many of which accept food stamps}). Start a small garden. Even if it is just the basics (lettuce, peas, tomatoes etc.). Somebody now has the time to do it. If you buy open-pollinated varieties that means a one time purchase of seed will last in perpetuity provided you have a reasonably successful harvest. You said no cow out back, but what about chickens? For a very small sum, one can purchase enough chicks to have eggs for their family and to sell as well.

    One adult can go shopping on a weekend day (or drop off working person at work so they can use the car) and buy enough food for that week. Buy in bulk. Make your own bread. Make large quantities of soup/stew with inexpensive cuts of meat and freeze them. My grocery store (Giant) now has a store brand (Nature’s Choice) that offer’s no antibiotics, no steroids, no hormones etc. It is slightly more than regular meat most of the time but goes on sale and is cheaper fairly frequently. There is also organic produce. Again, sometimes more expensive, sometimes on sale. Eating well is not easy. It is less glamorous and actually takes some work. But it need not be expensive. It takes planning and requires bulk purchasing and buying things when they are on sale. You might not always be able to get or afford organic options, but eating real food instead of horrible processed junk is still a better choice. So, the monthly meal plan…..things like oatmeal (84 cents a pound in bulk) for breakfast. Not-instant, not blue, not pop in the microwave, but actual rolled oats boiled in a pan. If they purchased chickens, in a few moths they’ll have eggs. Go to a used book store and buy a cookbook from the Depression. There are a million ways to stretch your food budget and still eat balanced healthy food. Back then, people were literally dirt poor and they still got by, and not by eating hot dogs and Kool-Aid. I still make a soup that my great-grandmother called “depression stew”. It is just browned ground meat, tomatoes and elbow macaroni and water. I don’t know, the whole “its too expensive” thing is just an excuse. It just isn’t easy.

  4. El,

    I can answer your friend’s challenge. Or more to the point, I answered such a challenge a while back among my own musings.

    First I’d have to point out two things about the challenge. 1)The list of ‘assumes’ is a bit artificial. Assuming two parents tying up all their time working for minimum wage and paying the expense of farming out their children and then wondering why they can’t eat well is a little like saying, “And the youngest child will only eat lobster, now design a menu that feeds the family on $100 a week.”

    First, you tell the youngest child that they can eat something besides lobster or starve, no? Likewise, economic blinders are so firmly in place that two minimum wage jobs and childcare are the only option allowed means that we’d say to the parents, “Manage your affairs some other way or be doomed to eat crap.”

    2) But that not withstanding, the challenge is based, would you not say, on the more important assumption that the family will take whatever money they can budget for a week or two weeks and go to the mart or grocery and buy the food for that week and then do the same next week. Well, don’t do that.

    Here’s my answer to the challenge:




  5. I still think the money is the thing. Tell a family that is worried about keeping the heat on, or worried about keeping a roof over their head that no, no, sometimes organic produce is cheaper….and suggesting that one of the people just quit their job so they can stay home and raise the kid, tend the garden, and bake their own bread is completely unrealistic. Anyone working a minimum wage job has just about zero job security…having two people working, even if one’s salary is negated, is the only way to make sure you’re not totally screwed if someone gets fired/sick/whatever. I would also argue that anyone who is struggling day-to-day would hardly have the time to even think about baking bread, planting a garden, buying in bulk, and planning ahead. I think villifying people for managing any way they can (and, yes, acting like they are lazy is villifying them…) is insensitive and elitist. I live near Detroit. We have some of the poorest people in the country in my area. I would challenge anyone to spend a day in their shoes and then say, hey, my life sucks, but at least I’m not eating hot dogs. Give me a break.

    El, sorry to rant on your rant 🙂 Fun stuff!

  6. Meresy:”First, one person needs to quit their job. There is no way a person making minimum wage is making more than what is consumed by childcare.”

    Several economic self-help types including Dominguez and Robbin’s Your Money or Your Life tell how they counseled family after family after family who were operating on two incomes. They showed conclusively that they were LOSING money having both of them work. They were spending more on the expenses of having the second spouse work (transportation, clothes, child care, meals out, lack of time to prepare meals at home including meals to take to work, etc.) than the second spouse earned.

    And yet, and YET, the myth was so strong in their heads that if they didn’t have the second income they wouldn’t have enough money, that they always said they could not afford to quit and stay at home.

    Highly recommended then is the book Shattering the Two-Income Myth by Andy Dappen.

    And, by the bye, a minimum wage job is the most rock solid secure income you can have. If you lose that job, there are twenty others waiting for you at which you are guaranteed to earn no less than you were already earning.

  7. “And, by the bye, a minimum wage job is the most rock solid secure income you can have. If you lose that job, there are twenty others waiting for you at which you are guaranteed to earn no less than you were already earning.”

    Yes, but meanwhile, what is your family going to do while you are between jobs if there is no other income coming in? Even a minimum wage job cannot be attained immediately…even to work in a grocery store or gas station there is an application/interview process. Yes, it may be only a week, but a week or two of absolutely nothing coming in when you’re already struggling can be disastrous.

  8. Perhaps things are different in other parts of the country, although I most sincerely doubt it. Here if you leave a minimum wage job at noon, you can be working at another by one in the afternoon.

    But even at that, to take on raising a family when the only tool in your bag, the only arrow in your quivver, is the ability to command minimum wage, is an exceedingly hard row to hoe and one shouldn’t be surprised if life is a bit hard having made that choice.

  9. I can’t accept the assumptions because they are not entirely possible. If two parents were making minimum wage while raising children they would be eligible for food stamps and most likely free or reduced childcare, and if the children were young enough WIC. Foodstamps would be close to 300 monthly easily enough to create a budget of whole foods-perhaps not all organic, but still brown rice, beans, fish, and hormone free dairy could be easily boughten. WIC also provides certificates to farmers markets in the summer.

    I also can’t accept that cooking takes too much time. If both parents help out preparing simple wholesome foods like spaghetti and stir fry’s, a nutritious quick meal can be prepared.

    Can I prove this can be done? Let’s just say I have been there. I was married with two step-children a couple years ago and we managed. We both had low paying jobs and I was going to college. For a time I wasn’t even working but homeschooling and going to college. We had no microwave, no television (we did watch movies). We had plenty of time for cooking reading and our meals were nutritous. It takes an effort to step out of the typical American lifestyle, but it is possible.

  10. My Mother-in-law is in the “they need to get some leftover ham bones from the butcher and make some soup” camp when it comes to the poverty of Scotland’s diet. The absence of butchers, free hambones and in many cases cookers, pans and cheap fuel in the most deprived areas passes her by.
    I can cook well on a small budget if I have to but then I have the pans,knives,the spices in the cupboard, the education and an ability to store the bulk cooked items in a fridge or freezer.
    Yet I don’t think that it is just an economic thing- I live in a very affluent village where many women are full time homemakers and many still feed their families rubbishy ready meals and fizzy drinks. Even worse to my mind, they often feed their children the real rubbish and then eat higher quality ready meals seperately with their partners.
    The obviously emotive issue of working parents is an interesting one but not essentially the problem with the food I think. Here it is much easier for women to get the kind of low paid service jobs that you are talking about – perhaps cooking classes should be targeted at boys as they are more likely to become the parent at home in this scenario.

  11. Jane made an awesome point about the fact that many affluent people feed their family this junk, too. For instance…the nephews and niece I referred to before are not from a poor family..they are solidly upper middle class. Yet if you open their fridge or cabinets, all you will find is processed, chemical junk. I went off on a tear there about the people living at poverty level because I was trying to make the point that for some people, eating the really good stuff is not an option. Far too many people, though, have the option and still choose not to eat well. We will have to agree to disagree on whether poor people can truly eat well or not, whether it is circumstances or laziness that keep them from eating better food. I know which side I’m on, but I seem to be in the minority. All I can say is that that is my experience in the area I live in and having worked in public school systems in my area, and before that, having worked my way through high school and early college in a grocery store. I think that the issue is bigger than just saying “that’s what they choose to eat.” As El said in one of her other posts on this, she doesn’t want to take a “let them eat cake/let the idiots eat their twinkies” road on this issue. I think as a nation we have a lot of work to do on improving our food supply. Special interests will have to take a back seat to what is actually good and healthy for our citizens. If you want to see an outrage, all you need to do is look at the federally-subsidized school lunch programs (the very same ones that poor kids who qualify for free/reduced lunch are fed daily) and the junk they are full of. When I worked in schools I was horrified at what was considered a “healthy lunch”—fish-shaped fish sticks, frozen french fries, and a piece of fruit. Change needs to start at the top. As el pointed out, farmers are rewarded for growing the same bland veggies, treating their livestock in unhealthy ways, and just keeping with the norm. It’s just wrong. And whether its citizens are lazy, or uneducated, or not, I believe our government has the responsibility to watch out for the health of its citizens. Call me a bleeding heart, but widespread change will not happen until our government takes a giant leap forward in its agricultural policies.

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