"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Poverty Diet

I haven't written about food in way too long.

One day in 2006, two things happened that led to an experiment that changed the way I think about food and what I eat. The Department of Agriculture released its latest guidelines as to what constituted a healthy diet and stated that the minimum required to eat healthy was $31.42. These studies are done frequently, as the government decides what to spend on food stamps or on feeding prison populations. $31.42? Really?

After reading that, I spotted two couples I knew having lunch outdoors at a cafe and I joined them for a pint of Guinness (no, drinking at noon is not common for me); their total was about $140. They had spent a week's food budget on one lunch. I had spent $5 (okay, $6. I did tip.) - a day's food budget. My dining companions were all obese and I wondered if money weren't part of the nation's obesity epidemic, that most people simply spent way too much money on food and the poor, through lack of options or knowledge, were eating a lot of food with little nutritive value.

So the experiment I formed in my head was to start the week with seven $5 bills to spend on food for a week. I'd given myself a bit more than the minimum, but because I also was running 60 miles per week, I was consuming 3800 calories per day, as opposed to the 2000-2500 used to come up with $31.42. Being well-versed in nutrition, I knew (I thought) how to do it.

Restaurants became an extreme rarity. Because I was buying and preparing all of my own food, it took considerable thought and time and the meals became more meaningful. There were luxuries I was not going to do without: coffee, tea, chocolate... I wanted to cook with wine, but even "3-Buck Chuck" was too expensive, so I made my own (there's a two-week lag between juice and wine that was a long, long wait that first time).

One ends up eating a lot of vegetables, as they have a lot of nutrients, are inexpensive and many keep well. It did remind me, however, of my sister-in-law who grew up in England during the food rationing after WW II, who had cabbage for dinner every night for years and stated, "I will never eat cabbage again!" That's another problem: one's choices narrow, one eats a lot of leftovers, the monotony gets unbearable at times; this very monotony, however, also causes one to eat less, as the food just gets less appetizing. It's very tempting to change flavors by adding herbs and spices, but they are very expensive - I remember buying a poppyseed bagel (such a purchase became memorable) and thinking "Poppy seeds! Do you know what they cost?" (I also shuddered, as I heard myself turning into my parents.)

I got invited to a pot-luck dinner. What was I going to do? I made an apple pie, as all the ingredients except cinnamon were cheap (cinnamon became my go-to luxury spice; breakfast oatmeal is palatable with cinnamon even the 50th time); people at the party were astounded at the presence of a homemade pie. "No one bakes any more!" I looked at the collection of mostly grocery store deli selections and the food had become nauseatingly rich and artificial and foreign. Nonetheless, there was a lot of things I hadn't had in quite a while and looked like quite a treat. That was another shocking development: a dessert was a real luxury, rather than the part of a meal that the rest just led up to. Afterward, there was so much food left over! I could live on that food for weeks, I thought - and yet, none of it was appetizing just then.

I hadn't set an end date to the experiment, but as time went on, my thinking started to derange a bit. Meat was a luxury and I found myself using it as a flavor, as in asian cuisine, rather than downing a slab of it. I started thinking about going fishing... a lot... but the local lakes are not particularly healthy. I was swapping things from my garden with my neighbors, neighbors I hadn't gotten to know until their overabundance of squash or strawberries became something I desperately wanted. I know a mycologist and suddenly had time to go mushroom picking with him.

Hunger makes me a better companion.

It is possible to eat well and cheaply, but it takes a radical departure from what we think of as customary American life. After a while, that departure seems like a good one to make. It's that first month that's almost impossible.


SteveQ said...

20000 hits and 500 profile views! Woo-hoo! Suck it, you unpopular people with real lives!!!

Becka said...

I cannot imagine spending that little on food in a week. Nor can I imagine cooking. Or running enough to burn off 3800 calories. Interesting post.

Mark Thompson said...

Good post, thanks.

wildknits said...

Ah - reminds me of the days raising a family on a single income. Often people who found out what we lived on (poverty level) were amazed by how well we ate, etc.

Grow your own food, bake your own bread, live simply. Very little processed foods back then. Oh yeah - and opportunistic carnivores (ate mostly vegetarian).

I think my monthly grocery bill up until a few years ago was $400 (including coffee which in our house is NOT a luxery but a necessity) for 4 people.

Now that I work full-time there is less gardening and cooking. Kids are gone so our grocery bill should be lower. Though with two folks working full-time there can be less time for cooking/baking, etc.

I work with patients that are very low- income (think food vs medicine) and it can be a process to educate them on how to eat healthy on a budget. It can be done but takes time and effort.

joyRuN said...

Cheetos are on sale. Cheap cheap!!

My grocery bill is definitely lower when I plan ahead & cook more, but that only happens 2x/year

Jean said...

"No one bakes any more!" I get a similar response from my colleagues. I frequently bring homemade cookies and other baked goods to the office. And I usually plan out my week and make something on the weekend so I can have leftovers for my lunches at work. Saves a lot of money that way.

Of course, I confess that due to poor planning, today I had to resort to a #5 with hot peppers from Jimmy John's for my lunch... :)

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Suck it, you unpopular people with real lives!!!

Okay, but I WON'T swallow because that's not in my budget.

Seriously, we Americans are pretty disgusting on this issue of waste. People in some countries live on what we would call garbage and would throw away.

Our response to that? Move to a better country!

Then, we build walls to keep them out. Why? Well, this actual letter to the editor in my county can explain why. And its logic is UNIMPEACHABLE.

RBR said...

Hunger makes me a better companion

I think you will find that it makes me a f-ing nightmare, when we go running make sure you have snacks. And NEVER run out of coffee. NEVER. Forewarned is forearmed.

@G: Okay, but I WON'T swallow because that's not in my budget.

Ok, that was really f-ing funny.

keith said...

If poverty makes such a great diet how come so many poor people are obese?

SteveQ said...

@G: It's a good thing that no one reads newspapers anymore, especially hyphenated areas. "Raritan-Huntington?" Sounds like a made-up name.

@Keith: It's a matter of nutritive value, I think. In order to get the nutrients one's body needs, one has to eat a LOT of Cheetos and White Castle. Empty calories are fantastically cheap.

Xenia said...

I keep planning to experiment and see how well I do spending 15-20 GBP per week on food. I know it's doable, but I wonder when I'll crack from the monotony of it all.