On Potlucks, Tunnel Vision and Scarcity, and Eating in Society

Conclusion of A Social Experiment of One

Today is April 1st and my social experiment of one is over. I skipped blogging last week because I had so many different ideas rolling around in my head I couldn’t settle on one. Still couldn’t decide, so you get a bit of a mish mash today.

My Goal

My goal of doing this experiment was not to prove a person can live on $126 a month on groceries. I knew that going in it could be done. I’ve done it in the past when I was on SNAP and many, many people and families who receive SNAP benefits do it every month. Some more successfully than others.

Nor was my goal to provide tips and tricks and recipes for living on a budget as there are already blogs and websites that address this topic.

My goal was to help give some insight to those who have never had to experience poverty in any form as to what people living in poverty go through to make ends meet. People are in poverty for many reasons. Yes, some of them have made poor life choices. But, most are there due to circumstances that are not in their control. People lose jobs, people get sick, people get abused, people face one tragedy after another and get stuck in a hole they can’t get out of on their own. Most people who receive SNAP benefits only need them temporarily. When we have insight we can move from derision, move from pity and sympathy, and move to empathy and caring.

What saddens me is how often those of us who have are cruel and mean to those who have not. Most of this comes from a lack of understanding – we haven’t been there so we just don’t get it. It’s hard to feel empathetic when we have not experienced the same pain. Some of it comes from fear. In a time when wages have not kept pace with inflation inside we know we are just a couple of paychecks away from poverty ourselves. It’s easy to lash out with pithy sayings, soundbites, and memes on social media. We try and reduce those in poverty to less than human by requiring them to prove how poor they really are by giving up what we consider luxuries. We expect them to give up any signs of affluence; cell phones, tattoos, nice clothing, a car to name a few. All of which could have been bought and paid for before needing assistance. All of which could be gifts from friends and family. But somehow we expect when someone finds themselves in reduced circumstances they should instantly give up these items. We assume if they have these items they can afford to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads with proper budgeting. In reality those living in poverty are probably better at budgeting than financial planners. They have to be good at budgeting because every cent that comes into their lives counts. And some do it better than others. Just like there are those do well at budgeting and those that are poor at budgeting in the haves. The bottom line is we are all people and there are less differences than similarities.

Potlucks

One of the requirements of receiving SNAP benefits is that you, and only you consume the food. No sharing. When I received SNAP benefits my living situation had a communal kitchen. I had to have a plan to keep my food purchased with SNAP benefits separate from the food of the others. I labeled a milk crate with my name.

The Vulcan side of me understands the necessity of this rule. The SNAP benefits are there to assist that person through a difficult time. If those dollars are spent on others there are less dollars to make it through the end of the month.

My human side, the side that lives in community knows that community is most often built in the sharing of food. The People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) have a history of sharing food as a way of strengthening community. If someone was a guest at your table they were under your protection. If you travel to the middle east this is still practiced today. It is not uncommon for a stranger to be invited home to share a meal with your family. Other religions and other cultures also use shared meals and food as community builders. What is a harvest festival, a wedding, a celebration, or a holiday without food?

I confess, sometimes I used my food purchased with SNAP benefits as part of a communal meal. Its the whole stone soup story – everybody contributes a little and every one has a fuller meal. Therefore I had no problem in my experiment by spending some of my money on ingredients for carrot cake and attending a potluck to celebrate a friends birthday.

Food as a Part of a Group

The biggest challenge I knew I’d face during this experiment was meeting up with several groups socially. At restaurants.

When I was on SNAP benefits I had a couple ways to cope with these social situations that demanded cash. The first was I’d save up money by forgoing things. Maybe only put $10.00 or $15.00 in my gas tank to get by rather then filling up. Or, pass on buying a coffee or a treat. I was earning $50 a week plus room and partial board for full time work. So, I had some cash coming in. The other way was buying only a coffee or a drink, “Oh, I had a late lunch today,” is a great way to explain why you are only sipping a lemonade and not enjoying a burger and fries.

I admit, during this experiment I caved a couple weeks ago at at knitting night at a local microbrewery. And then caved several more times, because the first cave made the subsequent caves easier. I can give you excuses (I was uncomfortable not spending money at these establishments while meeting there, I have a super long commute and was ravenous – I didn’t want to cook when I got home, I wasn’t feeling well between a cold and an asthma flare up and it was easier to get take out, and so on). But, the bottom line is I caved. No matter how legit my excuse sounded. I could cave because as someone with a decent job I could afford to cave. I didn’t have to worry if that $7 would prevent me from buying shoes for a child, medicine for myself, or enough food for my family. If I was one of the $2.00 a day poor I would not have the option to spend that $7.00 on a burger, fries, and pop without risking a budget upset.

The following night after my first cave I was at a local tap house and coffee shop with another knitting group. One of the women who comes is without a full time job right now. She has a part time job which pays okay as a second job to supplement a full time income. I don’t know if she is on SNAP. What I do know is when she arrived she opened her wallet and had $4.00.  I recognized the challenge. Especially since with my caving the night before the topic was at the forefront of my mind. She was out with friends socially, at a business that depends on the income our group brings in. It’s an unwritten rule of these social groups that meet at eateries and pubs – we’re taking up space therefore it is expected you buy something. There are some who would say she shouldn’t have come if she couldn’t afford it, but community is vital to mental well-being and a lot of community is built over food and drink. I knew that $4.00 would not buy her a tasty beverage, she would need at least $5.00.  I also knew the coffee and tea drinks are suggested donations as this establishment is a non-profit. She could offer to pay less and she would still be served. But, I knew she wouldn’t take this option. I said, “Hey, let me buy you a tea.” The friend next to me who routinely buys for folks in the group said, “My tab is still open. Just give them my name.” She came back with a bottled fruit juice. It’s what she could afford with $4.00 and not feel obligated to myself, our mutual friend, or whoever rang up her purchase. Did she get the hot tasty beverage she wanted? No. Did she maintain her dignity. Yes. And when you are going through a tough time dignity and saving face is so important.

Which brings me to another resource for you.  A resource than can help you understand more what it means to be in poverty, in America. The book $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. This was the Reads book for my local library. The authors follow real people in poverty and the very real struggles they face and how they manage. The first chapter is an introduction covering the history of food stamps, cash welfare, and what is now SNAP. It also begins introducing you to the people interviewed. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 address issues in different metropolitan areas of the country. Chapter 5 was the hardest chapter for me to read. Chapter 5 covered the rural poor in the Mississippi delta. Following chapter five is the afterword pulling everything together. It’s not a large book. Buy it, check it out of the library, borrow it from a friend. It’s a book worth reading.

Tunnel Vision and Scarcity

I’m a podcast addict. One of my favorite podcasts is Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The March 20 episode 65 was Tunnel Vision:

“When you’re hungry, it can be hard to think of anything other than food. When you’re desperately poor, you may constantly worry about making ends meet. When you’re lonely, you might obsess about making friends. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the psychological phenomenon of scarcity and how it can affect our ability to see the big picture and cope with problems in our lives.”

It’s just under 37 minutes and worth the listen.

Final Thoughts

Yes, you can eat on $126.00 a month. What it takes is:

  • Planning, the ability to look ahead
    • listen to the Hidden Brain podcast above to understand why this can be difficult, even for the best planners
  • Cooking skills
    • I’m not taking about chef level cooking, I’m talking about basic skills that not everybody has nowadays
    • If I had had to rely on boxed food sources I would not have stayed in budget
    • Shopping the perimeter of the store and cooking from scratch is less expensive in the long run
      • The couple bunches of spinach I bought, for example. The leaves I used in salads and sandwiches. But, by planning ahead the stems and wilty leaves are currently residing in a gallon plastic freezer bag with other peelings and raw veggie scraps in my freezer – they’ll be used to make a rich vegetable broth
      • The corned beef and cabbage I splurged on? I got a bazzillion meals out of it and the recipe I used creates a rich broth. It’s in my freezer for the next time I make a recipe that calls for beef broth. Corned beef and cabbage recipe can be found here – recipe. I made it in my Instant Pot and it was amazing
  • Eating Simply
    • It becomes harder to stay on budget if you have to cater to allergies or special dietary needs. Gluten free or dairy free for example
    • It becomes harder to stay on budget if you are catering to any number of healthy eating and diet plans aside from eat less and exercise more
    • It can be done on a vegetarian diet. You may have to limit tempeh and spendier protein options, but there is an amazing variety of recipes involving lentils, beans and eggs. Most of my meals were vegetarian, I don’t know if I could have done vegan and stayed on budget as I have never been a vegan and don’t know what it would take meal-wise to avoid all animal products
  • Having a nearby grocery store
    • Living in what has been termed a food desert is hard.
      • You have to travel a distance for fresh food
        • this is easier if you have a car
        • this is not so easy if you depend on public transportation
  • Having a car
    • You can drive to where fresh food can be found
    • You can visit several stores to get the best price on different food items

Did I stay in budget? Yes, with over $16.00 to spare. Part of the reason I still have $16.00 is because I didn’t go grocery shopping this week so I made due with what I had. I hate grocery shopping and usually put it off too long.

Food Budget Food Diary – SEO

What am I doing with that $16.00? Buying food for a local food bank. They collect food year around, not just during the holidays.

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