I finally went shopping yesterday. It was such a mess. More on that later… let’s start with some background.
FOOD STAMP SHOPPING TRIP
This shopping trip was an emotional one. I can’t impress upon you how this trip felt to me without first telling you where I come from. You see, I grew up in a comfortable home, but at fifteen, I left home and moved in with the man who would become my daughter’s father. For nine months, I lived with him and his family, and the stark contrast between them and my family was… well, eye-opening. I have shared some of this story publicly and some I haven’t, but for the purposes of this challenge, let me just say that when he was at work, eating there and spending his work money on drugs and alcohol, I was at home, pregnant and not eating, all day, and sometimes for several days. He rarely bought food, but sometimes, he would bring leftovers home from where he worked (a fast-food burger joint–it’s where I met him). I was 5’10” tall, pregnant, and weighed 123 pounds on the day I left him. I’m big boned, with big boobs, and 123 made me look anorexic.
We had no car. He was abusive. He never thought of me. So I stole food to survive. I’m not a thief, but what else do you do? I never took just because I could. I sometimes sneaked into the back of his uncle’s house, when I knew they were gone, and would take things from their refrigerator and eat it before he got home. I got caught doing that once, and the results weren’t good. That’s when I would sometimes take little things from the 7-11 within walking distance. The man who worked there knew. I knew he knew. He knew I knew he knew, but he never said anything to me. Sometimes, though, he would give me burritos, hot dogs and pastries that had or were close to expiring. He wasn’t supposed to do that. I’m ever-so grateful he did.
I eventually went home to my parents, and my daughter and I were in good shape for some time, but by the time she was two to three years old, I was back out on my own. At least this time, I wasn’t homeless, but money was tight. I was on food stamps, going to college and working. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough money. Then, several years later, after my son was born and I learned my daughter had to have four major surgeries and would be in a full body cast and a long-legged cast for almost 9 months, I went on welfare again. In between these times, I worked and had decent jobs, but money was always tight and I was truly just one paycheck away from simply not making it.
We won’t talk about my relationship with my family that caused me to be in this situation without their support. The reasons and the whys of all that don’t matter to the reality of the situation I was in, and things with my family have changed a lot over the years.
FOOD STAMPS WERE EASIER THAN BUDGETING FOR CASH-PAID FOOD
This went on like this for years, though I wasn’t on welfare all this time. It was actually easier for me when I had food stamps to buy food for my family than it was to try to plan to pay cash for the food and determine what bill would have to slide a little, etc. When it comes down to it, food stamps can be used for food, and nothing else. Cash, however, can be used for lots of stuff, food included.
It’s important you understand that I have never done drugs. I mean, I admit to smoking some marijuana a couple of times, but that’s it. I don’t drink, never have. I don’t do drugs, never have. I was trying to go to school, but didn’t always have the money to pay the tuition and buy books. Hell, some days I didn’t have money to put gas in the car and I walked to classes and walked my daughter to daycare. The point is, I wasn’t a deadbeat, welfare mom using my money to buy drugs and booze or anything. I just didn’t have enough money to make ends meet.
It wasn’t until early in in 2001 that life began to turn around. I had a great job, started saving money, repairing my credit, catching up, and not having to worry about things. I managed to buy a house and buy a car and make payments on both for a while… But even during those more prosperous times, there was little extra to throw around. I struggled, but at least I struggled at a higher level than I once had. Still, shopping for food was a task, because it meant careful planning.
MY WORLD HAS CHANGED SO MUCH
For the last eight or nine years now, I haven’t had to really worry about food. I’ve been able to mostly buy whatever I wanted, whether it be at the grocery store or going to a restaurant or picking up a coffee or whatever. I absolutely love shopping for groceries! I love seeing all the weird ethnic things and trying different stuff. I love seeing what the bakery has made that day or what special seasonal produce has come in. I love seeing the sales items and what deals I can get too–I mean, I’m not a total spendthrift–but I haven’t had to worry about how much the checkout bill was going to be for a long time. I usually spend about four hours shopping every trip and we go about twice per month. I don’t, with my health (in a wheelchair and have to take oxygen with me when we go), get out much, so shopping is one of those fun things I get to do. It also makes me feel good to be contributing to caring for my family and I’ve got this passion for good food and for cooking these days.
But I like to eat healthy. We buy organic when possible, local when not possible. We buy foods that don’t have GMOs, MSG, too much sodium, and nothing with high fructose corn syrup. I don’t buy canned products. I try to buy as single-ingredient, whole foods as possible. I cook things instead of buying things that are processed. And the food tastes better for it, and I’m healthier for it too. But buying this way, buying grass-fed beef and free-range chicken and things that are antibiotic free, and all that jazz… it costs money. More money than a food stamp budget can accommodate.
So tonight, I started off on my grocery trip so excited. I was ready to beat this challenge, buy all the foods under budget, find some great deals! I was ready to go!
YEAH, BEST LAID PLANS, AND ALL THOSE THINGS
Well, you know what they say about plans. So I get to the store after I had spent two hours planning my budget, planning my menus, figuring stuff out, the day before, only to get to the store today, on a Wednesday, and discover that the sales circular I used to plan everything had changed THAT DAY. So my .77 cents per pound chicken was no longer on sale and the cheapest I could find was 1.00 per pound. The grapes I wanted that were .79 cents per pound ended up being 1.79–ouch! I also under budgeted for ground beef too, so when I found frozen turkey for a buck per pound cheaper, the ground beef (which would have added calories and some fat that the diet is currently lacking), went back up and I switched them out. So my budget was to spend about $96 bucks, and I ended up spending about $122 bucks (on food items), but I did manage to get more than I had planned on some really good deals I got one some stuff… which will balance out the next weeks’ budgets too, so I’m not upset about the cost itself.
It started off strong, like I said, but about 20 minutes into the shopping trip, the first thing I noticed was that I was going to go over budget. Then I noticed that there were some things I could not afford. For example, spaghetti squash was on sale, $1.23 per pound. I had to decide if I could afford that, so we weighed the smallest one and it was almost four pounds! That’s a lot of a budget, at $4.92 and it would take at least two to feed my family for a main course dish and one for a side dish. When you’re entire budget is $6 for the day (per person), you can’t spend five bucks on just a squash (even if it’s for more than one person).
I was so sad that the sale was not going on any more because they had frozen gulf shrimp, medium, deveined, for only $4 per pound. I was going to make a Thai soup with shrimp in it, was so excited to find shrimp so cheap and be able to budget for it… and when I get there, the shrimp this week is $6.97 instead. I was sad. I literally almost teared up over shrimp price differences of $3… so that started things going badly and it just got worse from there.
Next, the store was redesigned since the last time I had been there, so I was having trouble finding some stuff I used to know right where it was. I went to find bacon, which I had budgeted for, but all I could find was this expensive, ‘healthy’ bacon that was about 7 bucks per pound. It was beautiful bacon, lots of meat, not a lot of fat, marbled just perfectly, thick cut, gorgeous bacon. But I couldn’t afford it. I put it back and basically figured I wasn’t going to be able to buy bacon. I almost wish that had been the end of it, but no. I actually found the ‘other’ place for ‘regular bacon’, where I could get it for $2.49 per pound. I picked up the bacon package, turned it over to see the ‘windows’ on the back, and the only thing I saw was fat. It didn’t even look like bacon. It just looked like gobs of white fat.
I got choked up before I got pissed. It is so unfair that if you can afford to eat well, you can be healthy and have good flavor and taste and if you are poor, you get FAT in a package that they call bacon. There was no bacon in that package! And the slices of ‘fat’ were super thin, like almost see-through thin. It made me sad, then angry.
And the longer I shopped, the angrier I got. And worse, the more frustrated, embarrassed and tired and cranky I became. I caught myself whispering under my breath when talking about whether or not we could afford something on the budget, afraid someone would overhear me and think I was struggling financially. I caught myself looking around and over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching me compare products and look at prices. I hate the way it made me feel.
But here’s the weird thing: It wasn’t that different from what I always do! I ALWAYS pick stuff up, compare, look at things, look at prices. The only difference between what I was doing this time versus what I usually do is that *I* knew it was different. *I* knew I couldn’t ‘afford’ to put any of the things I was touching or looking at into my basket and pay for it. The only thing different was me and how I felt about myself while shopping. And that feeling began to grow. I wasn’t enjoying being there like I usually was. I didn’t want to look at the stuff on the shelves, because I knew, even if I wanted it, I couldn’t have it, so what’s the point? What’s so funny is, most of the time, I wouldn’t buy the things I looked at or considered. A lot of the time, I just look at ingredients to see what’s in something and get ideas and such. The difference is, I knew I couldn’t get it, even though I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, but that made all the difference in the world.
And as the self-loathing continued, as the embarrassment continued, I found myself wanting to put things in the basket that weren’t good for me. These were things I wouldn’t have wanted to eat even if I could have afforded them. But because my head was telling me I couldn’t, everything else began to crave it and miss it and feel like I needed it. Carbs, processed sweet things–I hate sweets! I love salty and sour things, but sweet is not my thing! And I was craving sweets and pastries that I never, ever eat!
So while I did all right on the budget part, and I was proud of that, for the most part, the rest of the trip was just odd to me.
I did give in and buy some meatballs that were almost $7 bucks, but in return I got four free things, including some pasta (that was on the list) and some canned sauce (that was on the list) and some cheese (that was on the list) and an Italian soda from Central Market, which I usually buy for myself as a treat (it’s an organic Italian soda, grapefruit)–the other items were free on the full-meal deal if I bought the meatballs, so in the end, the meatballs really only cost me about 7 cents more than the things I was going to buy anyway, and I got to ‘treat’ myself to an Italian soda I wouldn’t have been able to afford.
Also, it was so late when we were done shopping and we hadn’t eaten yet, that I splurged and bought a rotisserie chicken from the deli. After the ‘hot food’ is moved from the deli and it’s closed at night, and they put it out in the front to sell for the night, it’s able to be bought with food stamps, so I figured that was a ‘safe’ item to buy, since a real food stamp recipient could do it too. So I didn’t really cook anything much today.
When I got home and reviewed my receipt, I noticed that a sausage family pack I had bought, that the tag had said was $5.97, actually rang up at $10.81. The good news is that HEB takes anything back, for any reason, without any questions, so I could return it. My question to myself is: Am I willing to return it to save about $5 in my budget, or will I just suck it up and try to plan my budget around it? I haven’t decided. After the crappy way I felt while shopping, I don’t know just how crappy I would feel if I had to go back and return something for a $5 difference in price–but if I were really needing to do this for real life, would I take it back? I honestly don’t think I would. I would just suck it up, re-plan things, and accommodate the mistake. I already had to redo so much because of the mistake with the circulars–I guess this is just part of it. But man, I’m going to savor that sausage when I cook it, ’cause it was worth gold on this budget.
For breakfast, I did the green tea and yogurt again. Lunch was leftover dahl and leftover white beans and squash, so lunch was a complete freebie. Dinner was the rotisserie chicken (I had a leg and thigh and some skin) with a spinach salad, that included 3/4-1 cups spinach per person, two radishes per person, about 6 slices of onions, about 1/4 of a yellow squash each, about three cherry tomatoes each, and vinegar & oil dressing. Dessert for the night was 1/2 cup of HEB Creamy Creations ice cream–budgeted for as a treat. And then I had the Italian soda, while everyone else had iced green tea or water.
So again, we’re good on nutrition, but we were low on calories. Not bad, but low. I’ll share the nutritional stuff aggregate at the end, but it wasn’t too bad today.
Cost-wise, I did great today, because I had a bunch of free stuff with the leftovers. Breakfast was .40 cents, lunch was free, and dinner was $4.28.And that means the ice cream and radishes are now free the rest of the week/month, until used up. The chicken is gone. I will also say, usually, when we do rotisserie chicken, we get TWO chickens for the family, not one, and we don’t pick it as clean as I picked this chicken. There’s actually a ton of meat you can get off the back of the chicken too, and I saved the carcass and the fat and stuff to make my own homemade chicken broth, which I’ll probably do tomorrow.
Total for the day: $ 4.68 per person.
Running total: $ 14.13 per person.
Average cost per day, per person: $7.07 (so a little over budget still, but I have some freebies still from day one, so tomorrow, that should put me right on track, which is a little faster than I expected to be on track with the budget!)
My next job, now that I’ve gone shopping, is to work on getting the calories up. The nutrition part is okay–could be better, but isn’t bad at all–but the calories are still running too low. I’ll fix that tomorrow, and stay tuned for a great recipe tomorrow. You’ll laugh when I tell you, it’s chicken livers, but there’s a lot more to this story than you think! Stay tuned and see WHY that’s what we’re having and where I got this exquisite and expensive recipe (that will be super cheap for us!)
(About the photo of the receipt: That is the actual receipt from the shopping trip, but it contains a big bag of dog food for my 90-pound dog ($26.98) and a family pack of toilet paper ($10.97). If I were to take the $5 mistake on the sausage off and returned the sausage, I could have come in really close to my budget and I got more than I had on my list, plus all the stuff on my list too! But since I’m likely keeping the sausage, I’ve got to use the $122 figure. Then if I add the stuff I ‘bought’ from my own house’s pantry for the first two days, that brings my total spent to about up to: $ 48.77 per person food stamp cash spent. I get $180 per person for the challenge. I’m actually doing pretty good so far! More to come!)