Sunday, November 11, 2012

Approaching Day 1

Michael Getty

The circle gathered outside the entrance to an Aldi store in University City. It was time to go shopping -- on a budget of $31.50 per person for a week. Our guide on this excursion, a staff member from a nonprofit serving the food-insecure, couldn't make it, so it was just a dozen or so of us with Rabbi Susan. 

I haven't shopped at an Aldi since the early nineties when I was studying in Germany, where the chain originated. It has the same reputation over there -- dirt cheap, low quality. It was where homeless people would go after a decent haul from panhandling. 

I could be wrong, but I think there was a widespread sense of awkwardness. I think most of us haven't had to live on a food budget since college. I'd even wager that a lot of us spend $31.50 a week just on high-end coffee and artisan bread. It's uncomfortable to admit this, but most of my thoughts in the days leading up to today have focused on how much I'm going to miss my favorite, way-out-of-budget condiments and spices.

In the meantime, tips have been coming in from friends who have lived or are living on a budget close to that of the Food Stamp Challenge.

One night's menu: pinto beans, cornbread, fried potatoes, spinach (either in a can or a frozen block). I'm pretty sure that will come in at under $3. Breakfast menus are easier ... eggs and toast, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles .. all those are going to be well under $1.50 per person

I feel like such a clod, even more when I remember that to this day, my father won't touch beans or peanut butter, because when he was growing up, that's all his family could afford. 

In the circle, Rabbi Susan tells us about the film, Food Stamped, we'll be watching together at the end of our weeklong exploration. After a while, a middle-aged security guard approaches and asks us to disperse. If he lets us gather in a big group, he says to Jen, then he'd have to let everyone gather in a big group. The racial overtone is hard to miss. We disperse and go in.

It's a small store, but the products don't look half bad. Some of us have lists and menus, but Brian and I are doing it all on the fly, with just a calculator and some scrap paper. I'm thinking low-budget vegetarian staples -- rice, dried beans, root vegetables, peanut butter. You can get a lot of prepared, boxed foods -- Including macaroni and cheese for 45 cents a box, a 20-pack of ramen noodles for $2.19. Hard to pass up a bargain like that. 

The produce selection is pretty good -- broccoli crowns and a nice acorn squash for 99 cents each. Altogether, we ended up spending $31.40 at Aldi. Later, we hit an international market in our neighborhood, a food hub for many immigrant communities, and pick up a mess of dried beans, lentils, brown rice, and a big bag of carrots. I splurge on some nicer low-budget coffee. 

As we unpacked the groceries, I felt like we did pretty well, but there's no telling how soon we'll start running out of things. 

Getting Started

Andrea Kaiser

Here’s what I bought for under $31.50. I spent $31.47 between Aldi and Trader Joe’s!
  • Dairy: Eggs, Fat free milk, Mexican shredded cheese, Greek yogurt 
  • Vegetables: Yams, Red Potatoes, Mushrooms, Onions, frozen mixed veggies, frozen spinach, fresh broccoli, canned tomatoes (good value—to split for meals)
  • Fruit: Cranberry Sauce (splurge!), Apples
  • Grain: Oatmeal, Joe’s O’s (risking potential gluten-oats can be contaminated in the processing, but are gluten free typically.)
  • Meat/Protein: Deli Ham (gluten free), Sunflower seeds (good value—dollar per quantity/protein), Black Beans, Refried Beans
  • Drinks for the Week: Milk and water

Day One of the CRC Hunger Challenge:

I awaken early 6:15 to get my meditation and my day started. 
I spent the last few days preparing for this week, mentally, and logistically.

I am striving to maintain my gluten free (GF) diet in process. My #1 rule: avoid costly GF food products, including bread which costs between $5-7/loaf. This means that sandwiches are out for the week, which include peanut butter and jelly, cheese, and lunch meat (bread-free meal--okay). I am also striving to cut sugar in my diet to prevent at-risk diabetes. I generally eat some fruit and berries, but this week will treat myself to cranberry sauce, and two apples instead.
Breakfast: Joe’s O’s, milk (Hey, where’s my banana?)

After breakfast, I am making vegetable soup for the week: made with canned tomato as a base and mixed frozen veggies, and two-bean chili, made with canned tomato as well. These are my lunch and dinner. At lunch, ¼ cup of sunflower seeds (1 portion) will accompany my soup. If I am hungry, I will eat a boiled red potato as filler, with nothing on it, or a hard boiled egg.

Shopping at ALDI

Rabbi Susan Talve

My least favorite thing is shopping. Jim even does all the food shopping. But a shopping trip to Aldi was the first step in actually taking the food stamp challenge. I knew this wasn't Straub's when the security guard came up to our little group that had gathered to prepare for our shopping trip and told us that loitering was not allowed. This was not going to be easy or comfortable on many fronts. 

I had been paying attention all week to the cup of coffee that cost as much as two meals and the sandwich that would have been food for a whole day. I shopped thinking that I was shopping for two. Jim kept saying that he wanted to participate though he didn't really get the point. Having double the food stamps would make it easier to buy enough for the week but planning and coordinating meals was going to be a real challenge. 

I thought of the woman who spoke on Friday night and told us she and her five children lived on food stamps while she was going to school. I thought about the luxury of reading every label when my kids were growing up, limiting preservatives, only buying free range eggs. There were no free range eggs at Aldi. 

When I checked out at exactly $31.48,two cents short of the $31.50 allotment for the week, I thought it might be a sign that I should do this alone. But the real challenge would be for us to do this together, even if it was difficult. So here we go. 

Coffee was the first challenge. For $2.99 I bought a package of Turkish coffee (not at Aldi) that I hoped would last us the week. No need for milk. I know that for many of us it is just a week. But if it helps us to raise awareness for this life-saving program and helps us figure out how to best advocate for healthier food availability and choices for those depending on food stamps, we will be part of growing a movement that just might bring about real change.

Thanks for paying attention.