Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Hard Truth From Orlando

When the Mayor of Las Vegas, Nevada, issued the challenge; can you live off of less than $5 a day for food, responder Ms. Cottrell said what I’ve been saying for several years.

Ms. Cottrell said:
“Absolutely. We can make meals that will feed both my husband and I for at least two, sometimes three, meals for less than $10. Meals that are delicious! In fact, we eat better than a lot of people I know. The trick is knowing HOW TO COOK. I'll admit I am not as creative as my husband. I can't believe the meals he can put together on just a few dollars. What we need are more community programs to each people how to make delicious meals on a strict budget. (Now for the bad news, you're going to have to give up your coffee, sodas, cookies, and daily McDonalds runs. I know, what a horrible life).”

Ms. Cottrell has it exactly right. A bag of dried black beans is 89 cents. An onion and a can of stewed tomatoes (or raw, in-season vegetables/fruits) can both be purchased for less than a dollar. A small bag of rice can be purchased for less than a dollar. Most people have salt and pepper on hand. Most people have cooking oil on hand. If you know how to cook beans and rice, add the onion and stewed tomatoes, salt and pepper, and you’ll have a dish that is easily two or three meals, very nutritious, tasty and less than $5. You can buy a “tube” of ground turkey for $1.65, box of spaghetti for under $1, a can of Hunt’s Spaghetti Sauce for 89 cents, an onion if you like, and make enough spaghetti for one person to eat for up to four meals.

Plain, inexpensive oatmeal, not in individual serving packets but in the quart-size cardboard container, is a good source of several meals. Most Americans have never tried oatmeal as anything but breakfast material or in a cookie. Oatmeal can be cooked with soy sauce, spices, mixed with vegetables, fried and baked. And oatmeal is nutritious, filling and easy to prepare…if you think outside the stereotypical norm.

The problem is people today don’t know how to cook. They don’t know how to shop, and most importantly, they don’t really know how to problem-solve. Most suburban and urban folks have forgotten or were never taught the basics of survival. They don’t know how to prepare food, so they don’t know what to buy in bulk versus what they can onesie-twosie within their budgets to maximize their food supply with what money they have.

Remember home economics? Those of us who are older remember it was mandatory for all the girls to take in junior high and high school. And I’ve always believed it was the beginning of “unlearning” basic survival skills. There was very little cooking taught, but a whole lot of presentation. How to properly set a table, present a centerpiece, decorate, coordinate – but almost nothing of nutrition, food preparation, cooking. Well, in those days, they pre-supposed that you were learning it at home. But we were already in the generation of frozen food and TV dinners. Drive-through windows and fast-food were becoming the standard – not the Leave It To Beaver sit-down dinner that mom cooked and everybody ate.

We’re running out of time to get smarter in our choices. The economic situation is not going to get better. Gas and energy prices are going to drive the cost of food sky-high. Other countries’ citizens spend 80% or more of their disposable incomes for food. We might not reach that point, but ff we’re going to learn to survive in the new economy of making do with less and less, we better re-discover some basic culinary skills – or be prepared to go hungry.

Budgeting for $5 a day in food costs is a good place to start practicing. Take the challenge and be prepared for when it becomes a necessity rather than a personal experiment. Game on.

   Florida Cracker


Rosy said...

This is true up to a point. One of the reasons poor people are often over weight, in spite of being poor, is because they have to depend on inexpensive carbohydrates for most of their calories. (Fat in a normal diet has a negligible effect on weight, although no one should eat trans fats.) We need a way to make protein and fresh vegetables less expensive for everyone, but especially those on a strict budget. Check out Good Calories, Bad Calories, and Why We Get Fat, both by Gary Taubes, by Gary Taubes. I could go on, but I'll stop there. :)

Florida Cracker said...

I keep hearing that…that poor people can’t afford protein and fresh vegetables or don’t have access to it. I don’t find that to be true; it’s plainly a lack of education and/or problem-solving skills. The stereotype of poor people being poor decision-makers which traps them in poverty is not altogether inaccurate.

Stand in the Wal-Mart line at the beginning of any month when WIC and food stamps are issued and watch the food selections as they come across the counter. If it’s a choice between the ½ gallon of canned citrus (no added sugar) juice at 88 cents and the pre-packaged, high fructose juicy-juice or whatever of $1.25 per ½ pint, guess which one they pick? If the choice is fresh chicken thighs which can be cooked and last for several meals or pre-packaged processed chicken nuggets which are hardly enough for a decent snack but cost nearly the same as the fresh chicken package, which one gets picked? And if it’s canned vegetables versus fresh vegetables (and Wal-Mart’s generic vegetables are anywhere from 72 to 92 cents a can) and you could buy several pounds of vegetables versus a couple of cans, which one do they pick? And if you have the choice between shopping at Wal-Mart and the infinitely better prices of Aldi’s, which one do they pick? And when the higher-priced, less food value items are purchased, the money is gone. And within a few meals (especially if you have kids and you buy all the pre-packaged, microwave stuff), the food is gone, and now it’s scrounge time.

Rice, pasta, bread, tortillas are not bad choices; unless that’s all you eat. You need carbs in your diet. But the failure is in planning and executing menus by combining affordable vegetables and other protein. There’s at least two generations of Americans that are completely in the dark on how to maximize their food budgets in healthy ways. And that’s who we have to target and retrain.

It’s all in the choices we make with what we have. Money is going to get tighter and tighter. The food banks are not keeping up with demand – they have no hope of keeping up with demand. People need to unlearn some bad habits, make better choices and challenge themselves to maximize what they do have.