Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine you are a single mother with two children. You work to try to make ends meet and provide for yourself, and get about $200 per month in food stamps. Your income goes to rent and other bills, so you try to stick with only your food stamps for food. Besides, you still have to use your "real" money to buy non-food necessities like soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper.
$50 per week to feed a family of 3. Let's look at two hypothetical grocery bills for a week's worth of food. The healthy and the budget-conscious. (Prices estimated from my own shopping experiences in Provo, Utah.)
One loaf of whole grain bread - $3.00
Peanut butter - $3.00
Three gallons of milk - $9.00
2 boxes whole grain cereal (Raisin Nut Bran, frosted mini wheats)- $8.00
Fresh spinach - $2.50
Lettuce, cabbage, kale, other greens & veggies for salads - $10.00
Blueberries - $4.00
Apples - $6.00
Bananas - $5.00
Frozen fruit for smoothies - $10.00
Greek yogurt - $4.00
Quinoa - $8.00
Brown rice - $6.00
Whole grain pasta - $5.00
Frozen vegetables - $6.00
Oh wait......I'm already up to $89.50 with the whole grains and produce, and I haven't even bought any meat, cheese, condiments, or snacks....All this healthy food would be enough to cover breakfast for the week, snacks, lunches (Peanut Butter sandwiches for the kids, salads with no dressing for the mom), and about half of the items needed for dinners. How filling will these foods be? Will the kids eat them and be satisfied? Well, since we went way over, the $50 would probably only get the produce and no whole grains. Can you fill up on fruit and vegetables only?
Let's try again being a little more budget-conscious.
Loaf of white bread - $1.00
Peanut butter - $3.00
14 Ramen noodles - $3.50
7 Canned corn or green beans - $3.50
3 gallons milk - $9.00
2 boxes cheap cereal (store brand Cheerios most likely) - $5.00
Pasta - $2.00
Rice - $3.00
Pasta sauce - $2.00
5 Packaged meal items (Stove Top, Mac & Cheese) - $5.00
1 pound ground beef, high fat - $3.00
1 pound chicken - $4.00
Bag of chips - $2.00
Package of cookies - $2.00
Granola bars for snacks - $2.00
That's better, $50.00 exactly and we covered all the meals and snacks this time. We've packed the cart and our bodies with salt, fat, sugar, and processed foods. Vitamins? Not many- probably just in the fortified cereal. Fresh fruits or vegetables? None. Whole grains? None. Lean meats? None. But our family is fed and doesn't go hungry.
Was that surprising? I hope it was eye-opening for some. Is it any wonder so many of us are obese? Unhealthy food is cheap and easy to come by, easy to prepare.
What if you were homeless? If all you have for preparing food is a microwave at a shelter, and no access to a fridge, what then? This great article answers that question: Why Judging People for Buying Unhealthy Food is Classist
And, when given freedom with some extra money, what would a homeless person really want to buy? What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Woman Shopping
Another story to illustrate this. One day I was shopping at Big Lots, which has a small section of non-perishable groceries at low prices. A woman approached me with a box of Nutri-Grains and $2 in her hand and asked if I could spare any money for her to get something to eat. I told her I had no cash. But when she got behind me in the checkout line, I asked the cashier to add her purchase to mine. She thanked me. Coincidentally, we both then walked to the grocery store nearby and I happened to get in the checkout line behind her there. With her $2 she was able to get some fresh cut vegetables with dip to add to her Nutri-Grain meal. Notice what item had to come first in priority (processed, cheap, more filling), and what a little extra money could then give her the freedom for (healthy).
I can relate to these stories in a small way because I've lived on food stamps as a single mom for a very long time. I also was homeless for one week (lived in a hotel paid for by someone else). It was definitely limiting to only get to cook with a microwave. We had lots of Cup Noodles and canned soup that week. At least I was lucky enough to have a small fridge, and free all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast every morning.
One last caveat to poverty and food, at least for me. This may surprise people. It surprised me when I came to the realization. When you have no money to go to a movie, buy yourself new pants, get snow boots for your kids, etc., that is a very helpless-feeling situation to be in. Your "real" money is always lacking, and the bank account frequently goes into the negative. There are no fun things or perks unless you have people giving you things, cause you can't even afford all the necessities.
But the ONE thing that is constant is food stamps. During the times (like now) when I'm lucky enough to have a good amount of food stamps coming in, that is the one area of my financial life where I have freedom, within a certain limit of course. I cannot "treat" myself to a movie, new clothes or jewelry, or hardly even afford to pay a babysitter so I can have a night out with friends. What is the ONE thing I CAN treat myself with?
You guessed it: food.
Let the cookies and ice cream flow.
That's the only way to reward myself for my hard work, or even unwind after the stressful days. (Now I'm not condoning this, I've definitely had an unhealthy relationship with sweet foods my whole life, there are better ways to treat yourself and unwind. Just none so FREE and easy, and enjoyable, for me.)
Now, I do love healthy food. I could treat myself to a nice Pomegranate or smoothie and I often do, but back to the cost again, it would take 10 times as many pomegranates to fill me up as it would ice cream, at about 20 times the cost (A single pomegranate is $2.50, and a whole carton of ice cream is the same price.). Junk food is much cheaper to fill up on than healthy food, as I established at the beginning.
Why the importance of "filling up"? Well this is a curious thing I have found. Hunger pains make me feel helpless. They bring home that feeling of poverty and lack of control over my own financial life. Those fat-filled sweets take that feeling away a LOT quicker and keep it away longer, so I can focus on my schoolwork, for a much lower hit to the grocery budget.
So the next time you feel tempted to judge what is in someone else's grocery cart, please remember you might not know the whole story. All of this is not me trying to make excuses, but point out the natural limitations for those in poverty. Please be kind. Maybe even buy the next homeless person you see a Pomegranate. ;)