Governor Ted Kulongoski and his wife are trying to limit themselves to $42.00 for groceries for one week. That is the amount spent by the average food stamp recipient in Oregon. The stated goal is to call attention to the plight of hunger in our wealthy country. Cynics charge it is nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Back in my medical school days I budgeted ten dollars per week for groceries. Since that was twenty-five years ago, it is probably not too far off from what the governor is trying to do now. I spend far more than that now, but lessons learned during those lean times carry over to my times of blessed abundance. Having very little makes one appreciate what is a necessity and what is a luxury. The more food is processed and packaged, the more expensive it is. Pre-shredded cheese, boned and skinned chicken breasts, or frozen dinners are luxuries. When I was a starving student, I shredded my own cheese, peeled the skin off the chicken breasts, and never ate frozen dinners. Now that times are better I still shred my own cheese, though I do indulge in the boneless-skinless chicken and keep some frozen entrees in the freezer for quick dinners. However, I recognize this as a privilege of prosperity, not a right for subsistence.
I have lived in areas with a high incidence of food stamp users. I would hear complaints that the food stamp users are buying steaks while the working poor were surviving on hamburger. I never saw that, but I did see a lot of poor economic choices in the checkout line. Why buy one pound of pre-formed hamburger patties when it twice as expensive as buying one pound of ground beef? I think a good home-economics course should be a pre-requisite for receiving food stamps.
I thought about the governor as I served dinner last night. Last Thursday I cooked a pork roast in the crock pot. The piece of meat cost less than six dollars. Four of us ate our fill and there was plenty left over. About half of the leftover meat was used for a meal of quesadillas this weekend. Last night the rest of the meat was used in some pork-fried rice. I had 2-3 serving of the pork-fried rice left over so that was put in the freezer to provide a quick meal on one of those nights when only 2 or 3 of us are home. For under six dollars, I served meat to our family of four for three meals. None of us felt deprived. If you add in the cost of the rice, beans, bell pepper, onions, tortillas and cheese, I still don’t think the cost of those three meals exceeded fifteen dollars.
Eating economically means taking the time to plan and prepare meals. It means giving up non-nutritional extras like soda and chips. It means buying the store brand instead of the name brand. It means buying a box of oatmeal for your breakfast cereal instead of the sugar sweetened corn puffs. Please do not think I am trying to belittle the plight of those struggling to feed their families. Anyone can fall on hard times, and as a society, we should always be ready to offer a hand up to those in need. I think we are doing these families a disservice if we hand them food stamps with no guidance on how to economically buy and prepare food. However, if the guidance is given and ignored by food stamp recipients, I don’t want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth about the struggles of surviving on food stamps. Rather than just showing us his visit to the grocery store, I think Governor Kulongoski should have shared his menu plans with us as well.