Paying to Eat

Posted August 22nd, 2015

The grocery store was the second-to-last stop. We had picked up a prescription at Walmart, had dinner at Lin’s Hibachi Grill and were headed to Bomboy’s for ice cream. A normal group of errands on a normal summer Friday evening.

My Dear One said there was a worthy one-day sale on meats. Whole chickens were very cheap, 77 cents a pound. We needed apples to throw out to the deer and red peppers for roasting would be a good idea. Just a few things.

We wandered into Weis’ Market, started in the bakery. Rats! None of the good seeded rye that we like. Never mind.

On to produce. We picked up ten pounds of apples, and ten red lovely peppers that cost a dollar apiece. The cabbages didn’t meet my Dear One’s exacting standards so we passed and headed toward the meat counters. There was a deal on the sweet Italian sausage we like so we grabbed a couple of packages. The cheap fryers that had attracted our attention in the first place were Halal and looked great so we added three of them to the cart.

Anything else? No? We found a cashier, handed over our Club Card. Coupons? No, for once we had no coupons. We packed our purchases into our shopping bags, took our receipt, thanked the cashier and exited into the muggy August evening.

I glanced at the receipt, as is my habit. Looked like we spent $34.14. What was this? We saved $33.16, a savings of 49 percent? Without a single coupon? We paid half of what those things would have cost were they not on sale and did we not have a Club Card?

the receipt

the receipt

I wasn’t sure whether I was tickled about the money saved or disturbed by the fact that the cost of food is so arbitrary.

More to the point, that $34.14, the cost of a single fast-food meal for five or six, had enough serious nutrition to feed a family of six for at least a week. Toss in some rice and potatoes, a pound of pasta, maybe an onion or two, perhaps a bag of frozen peas, corn or beans and there’d be some serious suppers. With leftovers for lunches.

That made me think.

I see people shopping with food stamps or EBT cards all the time. Their carts look like anyone else’s—mostly full of frozen and highly processed foods, stuff that is outlandishly expensive given the quantity and nutritional quality of the food.

And that made me think some more.

I suspect that a lot of America’s poor actually don’t know how to prepare a meal from scratch. (I know way too many of America’s middle and upper classes are clueless in the kitchen.) Perhaps no one taught them how to shop and cook. Maybe they live in homes without functional kitchens equipped with the most basic cookware. The concept of a larder stocked with “the basics”—flour, sugar, oil, rice, potatoes, onions, noodles, a few herbs and spices, salt and pepper, some cans of tomatoes, some bags of frozen vegetables, peanut butter and bread, milk—is unfamiliar. I’m not even going to go near the problem of “food deserts.”

Is this a challenge that could or should be addressed by our school systems and our welfare offices? Seems to me it is.

In my impoverished youth back in the 1970s and 1980s, I shopped on a very restricted budget. One summer in 1972 I subsisted for about three weeks on a pot of chili that included about half a pound of ground beef and a whole lot of kidney beans, canned tomatoes and jalapeño peppers. Living paycheck to paycheck as I was, I needed all my money for something I wanted more than a varied diet. The point is I knew by the age of twenty how to turn some pretty ordinary and cheap stuff into reasonably tasty, filling meals.

But what does one do about people who go hungry because they don’t have the wherewithal to made good use of their food dollars? How does one transform at least the denizens of the lower rungs of the economic ladder—in a society addicted to fast food and nuke-able suppers—into a community of cooks? Not foodies, mind you, just plain, old fashioned, Joy-Of-Cooking cooks.

How does one feed the homeless and ensure that fewer children and senior citizens go hungry? Or make cooking a feasible option for people living in semi-habitable urban tenements or in suburban and urban shacks?

Can we take back some of our dollars from the international conglomerates that pay giant dividends to investors, and even heftier sums to advertising agencies that persuade us that we want convenience more than we want nutrition?

Do we really have to spend twice or thrice or more on food than apparently we need to?

Don’t even get me started on the amount of good, nourishing food that we consign to landfills every day.

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