July 20, 2010

I Don't Buy it

There is a very interesting story on NPR this morning.  It's entitled, "Eating Nutritiously - A Struggle When Money is Scarce".  They chronicle the morning routine of the Williamsons of Carlisle, PA.  The focus is on eight year-old Alex, who, "ate a blue ice pop for breakfast".  According to the article, Connie, Alex's mom, tries to get him to eat healthy but if Alex gets up early he "grabs what he wants for breakfast".

The article's main gist is the correlation between poverty-stricken families and obesity, and how it's a growing problem.  One food pantry worker is quoted as saying, when told that the aforementioned Alex drinks orange soda instead of milk:  "A gallon of milk is $3-something. A bottle of orange soda is 89 cents," she says. "Do the math."

I know firsthand how hard it is to feed a family of four on a VERY limited budget; we didn't have much growing up.  In the Seventies and Eighties, my dad made about $10K/year.  We lived in an apartment.  We had the "reduced lunch" lunch tickets (SO embarrassing).  Going out to eat consisted of McDonald's on my Dad's payday - a HUGE treat for us.  My dad sacrificed his vacation time and took the money instead to make sure we had great Christmases and new school clothes (and we did).  But I never felt like we were "poor" (even though, technically, we fell below the poverty line).  And my dad was far too proud for us to ever go on Food Stamps or assistance.

Flash forward to January of this year.  When Brian and I decided together that I was going to quit my 9-5 job (and the insurance and money that went with it), the goal was to somehow make up my salary by cutting other things out of our lives (mainly: prepared foods, going out to eat, vacations and my Etsy habit).  I'm proud to say that we've succeeded on all fronts and as of the 6-month mark of my new artist career, we've not only managed to save what I would've made in salary, but we've exceeded that amount.

So pardon me if I don't buy this story of the Williamsons.

I'll give you an example:  yesterday, which was "market day" for me, I spent, for the week, $23.96 on my groceries.  Yes, that's 23 dollars and 96 cents.  And that included a 4/$9.98 soda deal (Brian's hooked on Diet Pepsi; I don't drink soda at all).

You may ask how on earth I do this.  Well, I'll give you the breakdown of this week's menu:
Monday (yesterday) - we had dinner with my in-laws, so that meant a freebie day for us (and incredible cedar-plank salmon to boot).
Today (Tuesday) - I'm making enchiladas tonight, one of Brian's favorites.  I make between 5-6 enchiladas, which ensures leftovers.  Cost for tonight's food:  $3.65 (I had leftover tortillas from a meal last week).
Wednesday - tonight is Spaghetti pie, made with whole-grain spaghetti.  Cost for tonight's meal (using leftover spaghetti sauce): about $2 (the cheese is the most expensive part).
Thursday:  Smorgasbord night.  We're leaving for a trip to Michigan on Friday for my grandfather's memorial service, so we want to eat all the leftovers so nothing goes to waste.

So this week is a little odd, but you can see that my meals typically run between $2-$5.  And that's not per person; that's for the whole meal.  I cater my menus around what's on sale and the coupons I have for the week.  So if you eat at Chez Kolstad, be prepared to eat something made with chicken, Bisquick and frozen vegetables, or possibly a quiche, casserole or crock pot dinner.  If you're lucky, you may hit a steak night (about 6 times a year).  Breakfasts consist of cold cereal for Brian and yogurt and a banana for me.  I always buy cereal on sale - mainly, when you can get 4 huge boxes of Kellogg's cereal for $6.  That cereal will last us about 4 months, on average.  Lunches consist of leftovers or half a can of Chunky Soup (which is the recommended serving size) and a slice of bread.

The Williamsons get $600/month in food stamps.  Now, before you call me heartless and think I'm going to go off on "welfare recipients", I'm not.  I wholeheartedly believe in these programs, but I also think it's not an excuse to go out and buy the worst/most expensive possible food you can think of just because you can (it used to gripe my dad's butt something fierce to see people paying for lobster and steak with food stamps, when we NEVER got to eat those things ourselves).  If Alex's mom is so concerned about him eating a blue ice pop for breakfast, then why are they in the house?  For the same money, and clipping coupons, he could've had a banana and a cup of yogurt.  I don't think it's necessarily a matter of not having money; I think it's more likely ignorance about how to eat properly.

Yes, the Williamsons are a family of four.  But all the meals that I prepare for the two of us are usually 4-person servings (it's hard to find recipes for just two people).  If you prepare foods from scratch, you will save SO much more than if you go out and buy a Stouffer's lasagna.  My in-laws would spend one or two Saturdays a month cooking for the weeks ahead so they could just pull something out of the freezer instead of being tempted to go out because they'd be too tired to make something. 

I guess all I'm saying is that if you want to save money and eat right, it can be done.  Brian and I are living proof.


  1. Ain't it the truth! Well said, Mel!

  2. You are not only cute, but very clever.
    I totally agree here. The other thing is to grow what you can, and buy in bulk what you can.
    Still haven't figured out how people use coupons to eat free, but if you take that one on please share.

  3. Thank you Eileen and Jill! I even forgot that part - we're growing a "salsa garden" this year - tomatoes, cukes, green peppers and onions! That'll save us even more money, especially if I learn how to can those tomatoes. Jill, I WILL learn how to eat free; that is a goal of mine. And as soon as I learn the secret, I'll totally pass it on! :D

  4. Hi Mel, as a person who grew up in poverty and was also overweight, I can speak to some other issues that play into this story that they didn't touch on - from personal experience.

    One major component in so many poor families is that the parents don't have good life skills, or anything resembling what it takes to climb OUT of their poverty. By the same token, they don't have the life skills to do the great things you're doing for your family.
    For example, the only vegetable I was ever exposed to was the corn my mom sometimes threw into the macaroni and cheese. Dinners were goulash (basically canned spagetti sauce with pasta and hamburger) with loaves of white bread and butter (yep, whole loaves, there were 6 of us kids) or 78 cent freezer pizzas. More than half the time, I (as the oldest child) prepared the "meals" without any adult supervision, so there were times when we had welfare cheese on white bread melted in a toaster oven with ketchup "sauce" and sugar cereal from the food box for dessert. Sometimes I got creative with food box items, which as they noted in the NPR story often contained people's throw-aways, and would make weird pies with pop-tart crusts and outdated pie filling mixed with boxed pudding mix. (I'm surprised my siblings survived with me taking care of us!)

    We all overate whenever stuff was available, I think because took comfort from food - even the weird food we had (and it seemed normal to us at the time) since it was one of the few things in life that made you feel nurtured. Sorry for writing a book, just thought I'd add to the story from a child's perspective. :)

  5. WOW Treebelly - I thank you so much for writing! You certainly did give a completely different perspective on this story! I totally agree with you - you DO need life skills in order to make this work - that's why I think that ALL kids should be taking classes like this in school. Just think about what a difference a class like that could make. I don't know what the sitch was in your house (like both parents worked two jobs or similar) but if no one is teaching young people how to make it in the world, how are they supposed to learn? Also, that class should touch upon other skills like how to read insurance forms and all that other "unpleasant" stuff that adults have to deal with. I really believe learning these things could mean a lot to a lot of kids.