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Our modern day widows are the low-income households who always invite others to their dinner table.
As a mother of three and a domestic chief operating officer, I spend a great deal of my week dealing with food. Here’s the amazing thing: I’m not a farmer’s wife in 1940. I preserve next to nothing, my milk is delivered to my door, and I have no idea how to pluck a chicken. Still, I spend an estimated 18 hours a week packing lunches, preparing breakfast and dinner, planning meals, writing grocery lists, and loading and unloading the dishwasher. I am forever looking for healthy, well-balanced meals according to the latest and greatest information out there. I feel defeated when I sit down to a sleeve of Ritz crackers (but they are soooooo good). As a result there is very little pre-packaged instant food in my house. But please, don’t have too high an opinion of me; we eat a lot, and I mean a lot, of ice cream and there are always sticks of butter in my fridge. We don’t eat prepackaged food but we eat butter-laden cookies. And there are times I check out, give up, and buy pizza or tell my children to eat cereal for dinner, especially on Sunday nights.
With so much food experience, I thought I was up for the challenge my faith community set out: reduce our monthly grocery spending by half and give the other half to organizations that feed the hungry. I thought I could at least offer a $200 check at the end of the month. I failed. Miserably.
Here’s how it started. Since January, our faith community has been wrestling with the simple concept, Have 2 Give 1. We are acutely aware of how much we have. For environmental, material, and above all spiritual reasons we have tried to defeat our consumption addiction. We began small. In January we cleaned out our closets, February our books, March our housewares, and April we decided it was time to think about food.
Until April, I was proud of our accomplishments. I honestly got rid of at least a 1/3 of my already fairly small closet. We sorted clothes and gave them to families and places who really could use them. (Did I mention I also picked out three sweaters and one shirt for myself in our clothes sorting party?) Books filled homeless shelters and schools. Housewares were delivered to an amazing local organizations, NewLife Home Refurnishing. We were on a role.
I thought that cleaning out our food pantries would be simple—we would give away half of what we had to the local food pantry. But a faithful disciple suggested something more radical. What if we reduced our spending by half, and gave the other half of our monthly grocery bill away. I was in. I could do it. I’m a grocery-shopping and cheap food-cooking expert. It’s my part time job as domestic COO.
I spend about $900 a month on groceries. Yes, $900 a month. You should see what my two boys eat! My goal was to spend only $500 and attempt to give $400 away. I figured I wouldn’t quite reach my goal, but the goal was worthy and I would have at least $200 or possibly more to give at the end of the experiment. The entire month, I kept careful track of my expenditures, wouldn’t let my husband go to the grocery store without specific warnings and threats (you cannot buy frozen pies!), took stock of my pantry, used a lot of beans and lentils, and bought as much as possible on sale. Yet there were a few things I decided I would be unwilling to do without. I would not radically cut down on fresh fruit and veggies, I would continue to buy organic celery, apples, and a few other things that make it on the dirty dozen pesticide list, and I would not buy a bunch of processed-empty-calorie-cheap food.
What an arrogant fool I am! I thought I was so smart. I knew how to cook. I knew how to buy things on sale. I knew how to make really good food (my children don’t agree) out of lentils! I could cut back our grocery bill drastically for one month. Not to mention, I was stocked up. I had lots of good basics on my shelves.
Epic fail! I have less than $50 to show for my arrogance. I knew before I answered our one month community wide endeavor that eating well costs more, but I didn’t understand it viscerally. Now I do. Here, sadly, is what I learned:
1) Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is terribly expensive, especially organic celery (one of the dirty dozen). There are some pretty good cheap frozen veggies out there, but what do you send your kid to school with? Frozen peas?
2) Buying a processed frozen meal is often cheaper than making one from scratch. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. But I was reminded of this again and again as I trolled the frozen food section looking for veggies. It was less expensive to buy my family frozen tater–tots and fish sticks than to make rice and beans with hearty root vegetables from scratch. Empty calorie food isn’t just cheaper, it’s significantly cheaper than whole foods. Even cookies! I could buy packaged cookies for $1.50 on sale; I can’t bake cookies for that little.
3) Healthy food rarely goes on sale. Ketchup goes on sale (which is a great thing in my house), but rarely fresh fruits and veggies. Gross, slimy lettuce does. And yes, apples can be reduced by 10 cents, but it’s not enough to make budget.
4) You need money upfront to save. If you have the money to stock your pantry you can save significantly. For example, my daughter lives on one particular cereal. When it goes on sale, I buy at least 8 boxes. This can save me up to $10, but if you are on a strict monthly budget you cannot buy 8 boxes of cereal. I stopped shopping at Costco during our month long Have 2 Give 1 grocery experiment. The bulk cost of Costco didn’t fit into my budget even though I knew it would save me money in the long run. In fact, I think I might have lost money this month on the savings I passed by.
5) Saying no to kids in regards to food is painful. I say no to my kids all the time. Ask them. Mom, can I have a new lacrosse stick? NO! Can I please, please, please have a pack of gum? NO! But I want the new My Little Pony! NO! . . . . But food? You might as well have slayed me when my 11 year old asked if I could buy him sourdough bread for his school sandwiches. I had to explain that it’s much more costly than regular bread. Or when my daughter saw the bright colored fruit and inquired if we could get some. No, I explained, the oranges are much cheaper. But I’m sick of oranges, she responded. I was sick of oranges too.
6) Hospitality isn’t possible on a tight budget. I come from a long line of feeders. I dream of being the mother every teenager visits just so I can load them up with plates of food and buttery cookies. Our grocery experiment coincided with April vacation. I wondered if I should tell the kids who were spending time at my house to pack lunch. I wondered what it is like for parents on a tight budget when their kid’s friends come over for a visit. Do they secretly cringe, their anxiety rising, when the football player boyfriend walks into their home at dinner time? I became deeply aware that although my hospitality is authentic, it costs me nothing. I understood more clearly Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21), the widow who gave so generously out of her poverty, to the shame of those who gave so stingily out of their wealth. Our modern day widows are the low-income households who always invite others to their dinner table.
Nothing I learned this past month is anything new. Sociologists, political activists, and food pantry volunteers have been speaking out about the limited food resources of low income families for decades. I was sympathetic, but know I viscerally understand. I have learned that grocery budgets have nothing to do with smarts, nothing to do with organization, nothing to do with coupons. You cannot purchase or prepare healthy, wholesome food on a tight budget. Being poor sucks. And it’s unhealthy.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.