Feeding Four People for a Week on Twenty Dollars

A while back I was talking with a friend about shopping for groceries. She and I are both pretty low on the social rungs of society in terms of our income (she being a full-time waitress and I working in an ice cream shop). I had just come back to my apartment from picking up food for the coming week, and we were talking about what I usually buy, what kinds of food I like, et cetera. We weren’t even talking about price and whatnot, but offhandedly she said, “You know, I can feed a family of four for an entire week on twenty dollars.”

I shot her a look of incredulity, and she said, “No, really.” I was too skeptical to continue the conversation, and she somewhat ended it herself anyway with, “Just lots of leftovers, you know?” Later on, the more I thought about what she said I came to believe her. You could pull off such a miraculous feat; doesn’t mean what you’d be feeding that family of four would be beneficial to them, but it could still be done.

And while reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma I’ve kept coming back a lot lately to that conversation my friend and I had. Probably one aspect of the book, more than any other, keeps bringing me back to the idea of feeding four people for a week on twenty dollars, and that’s Pollan’s reference of our shift in spending habits.

He notes Americans used to spend a fifth of their income on their food; today, though, we spend a tenth. Take into consideration, as well, how more and more of those meals are being eaten outside of the home, and it’s not that we’re even sitting down at a nice table to consume; often mealtime occurs with one hand on the steering wheel and the other wrapped around a wax paper-encased processed burger.

It seems to me our shift in spending could be viewed two different ways. One, it could be that we’ve developed as a nation to where we are financially stable enough to not have to spend twenty percent of the money we make on the food we’ll eat. For the ten or twenty percent of families that occupy the top bracket of wealth in the country, this is probably true. But I think the other possibility is much more likely: that we’re now spending less because many of us are in a financial position to where we have to spend as little as possible on food. So we should be hungry, right? Far from it.

What’s alarming is that our portions have increased while our spending has decreased. So not only are we eating lower-quality food now, but we’re eating more of it than ever. The problem is all of this is viewed as perfectly legitimate. As long as we’re fed, that’s what matters. And I don’t write that with sarcasm; I write it with simplistic, matter-of-fact sincerity because when paying the bills is an acrobatic routine in and of itself for most families, food gets the shorter end of an already very brittle stick. Even though where we lay our heads at night isn’t near as life-sustaining as what we put in our stomachs, the issue of sheer monetary quantity is what takes precedence. Rent is the biggest bill of the month, must be paid at the beginning of the flip of the calendar’s page, and thus demands every other financial decision be planned around it. My rent is easily twice the amount of money I allow myself to spend on groceries, and as much as I would like to say food trumps shelter in terms of necessity, the way in which I structure my spending doesn’t corroborate such a statement, and I know I’m not alone in that. It’s as if tiers of Maslow’s pyramid have been flip-flopped.

But the ripple effect of such displacement is wide. We could pretend it begins with our wallets, moves to our stomachs, and ends with a trip to the water closet, but this simply isn’t the case. With a decrease in food spending comes a subsequent downturn in the time food preparation requires. This means less time in the kitchen and, undoubtedly, less time around the dinner table. If you’re eating alone, the only downside is probably physiological (due to what you’re digesting), but if you’re not eating alone there comes a bigger problem. There is a holistic fostering of community that occurs when people share a meal together, and this transitory mealtime we’ve embraced leaves no room for growth of friendships or investment into the lives of individuals external to ourselves, which inevitably hampers our own growth relationally, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Such damage is not secluded to friendships, but also occurs within family units. The dinner table is an arena for reconnection at the end of the day, but food has to first be prepared, and that pre-extension of dinnertime also lends to familial growth. I didn’t learn what Bisquick even was until I started camping with Boy Scouts. Ready-made pancakes in a bottle blew my mind because it was just commonly accepted in our house that for breakfast to take place on a Saturday morning we’d need to start pulling out the flour, sugar, salt, eggs, and milk. By age eight I was a master chef of the pancakes, which I credit to genes derived from my mother, for in the Shake family it is now classic and legendary the telling of the Saturday morning Dad tried to make us breakfast while Mom was out shopping. Upon realizing his efforts had succeeded in making nothing more than black circles whose doughiness had since begun a calcified impersonation of a dried-out cow patty, the three Shake boys began, unbidden, to throw the ruined pancakes about the house like Frisbees, the kitchen sink being the hole we sought from the tee box of the linoleum hallway upon which we slid in our socks. Being in the kitchen may have taken time—time that could’ve been better spent by my parents on house maintenance projects, running other errands, or whatever else demands the attention of a mother or father—but it was time well spent when I consider how it makes for intimacy with one another and memories that still make me chuckle. For those to happen it required being in the kitchen.

Some may read this as backwards, behind the times, or a grievance against modernity, so it should be noted that 1) I am a feminist through and through, and 2) I do not view being in the kitchen as woman’s work because if I did, I would need a sex change. From a young age my mother had my brothers and me in the kitchen helping her with food preparation, and last I checked I haven’t started to mysteriously sprout physical signs of female sexuality. So for those of you who think you’re too above cooking because you’re trying to bring about some sort of revolution or social reform for your gender, you can just not eat. The rest of us will be having a good ol’ time around the stovetop and mixing bowls.

Many will feel such a diagnosis about the effect food spending has on friendships and families is an overreaction on my part, thus responding, “Nelson, it’s just food.” To that I would reply, “Exactly my point.” While I’m not one for idolatry, I do believe food isn’t given near the amount of reverence it is due. As Pollan points out in myriad ways, we give thoughtful consideration to many other types of purchases, but not food. We spend countless hours and days deliberating what kind of car to buy, which is all well and good since that’s a big expenditure, but it’s odd how we don’t simultaneously stop and consider what the ethical, ecological, and biological ramifications are of going to the grocery store in December and buying tomatoes shipped all the way from Chile. Or also, we should mull over how words like “cookie,” “chips,” or, “cereal,” have become staples of our culinary vocabulary to the point we no longer stop and ask what actually goes into making those things because we begin to just lazily assume those foods automatically exist in the form of the product we grab off the shelf. But Oreos do not grow on trees, which separates them from a shared connection we have with the base level of what we put in our mouths.

For the Christian, food is part of the created realm just like he is. We take the concept of God giving us dominion over the earth too far when we begin to believe there is no give and take, but the ecological status of our planet says otherwise. Also, the amount of questionable foods we let other people prepare for us so we can put them into our bodies shows our own hesitancy to believe dominion means responsibility rather than ownership.

In the first garden, “consumer” would’ve meant what it truly is: one who consumes, eats. In the industrial gardens of today, “consumer” is synonymous with “purchaser,” which is no different than admitting we’re now content for someone else to the do the work for us so as to free us from our connection to the earth. But, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday recently, we are dust, and to dust we shall return, so we can not deny our ties to the grass, the soil, and the ground, which is currently our avenue of sustenance as well as our future burial plot (talk about paradox).

God made the first garden perfect, a fine balance structured for our benefit and the benefit of all its creatures. If we remove ourselves from the land willingly and take with us our care and attention to the order of things, we throw off that balance, and before long it creates a nasty change in the way we eat.

This is not to say we all need to become farmers (though growing vegetables and fruits in one’s own backyard is not a difficult thing to do), but there are plenty of farmer’s markets available to us, and the number of them in the nation is growing every day. Simply making the extra effort to shop there for our food is one easy and practical way to tie us back to the land from which we came.

And I should note this vilification of the shift in eating habits is not to put the blame solely on ourselves. I’m reminded of how frequently Pollan indicts the government subsidies and hodgepodge of confounding USDA regulations that support industrial “farming” and attempt to quash truly sustainable local agriculture. But that does not change what we do with our wallets. Some of us are in a position financially where Wal-Mart is our only option, and if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. But a good portion of us are not in such a place, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in a food establishment (even if it is only an ice cream shop), it’s that product sales are watched like a hawk. If something isn’t popular with the populace, there’s no sense keeping it on the shelf. The filmmakers behind Food, Inc. put it quite simply at the end of their documentary: Every time you buy groceries, you vote.

So even if you are secluded to Wal-Mart (which I still am at times), even they have organic options for you to purchase. Will they be more expensive? Yes, but in reality most of us could afford to start spending a fifth of our income on food again. Pollan notes how the decrease in food spending has been matched by an increase in spending on television and entertainment. I don’t own a television, don’t live with internet, and only begin hurting for money when I buy too many books (a healthy addiction, in my mind), and so my budget allows me to spend a fifth of my income (or more some months) on what I eat. I personally like having that freedom.

But obviously the target is not, “Hey, let’s make sure we’re spending more money on our food!” The hope is to open our refrigerator door and have our eyes be met by a variety of healthy choices, which will undoubtedly cost more to do. Industry with its massive production is always cheaper because that is capitalism’s glorified goal, but that does not mean it is safe to swallow. But by buying locally, eating what is agriculturally sustainable, and taking time to prepare healthier meals, the immediate costs are far less than the long-term ones of industrial food, whether that be in the reduced use of fossil fuels, elimination of harmful pesticides and processed chemicals from your own body, or overall life enrichment for the consumer.

A Sears’ commercial a while back started out with the narrator saying, “We’re a nation of consumers . . . and that’s not a bad thing,” but it is very detrimental if that’s all we are. By being part of creation and placed in the garden, we are also supposed to take part in re-creation and the tending of the garden so as to make sure it will continue to produce. Doing so will require that family of four to spend more than twenty dollars a month, but the rewards of doing so are unbounded.

I will be back home in Dallas this summer with my family, and I am already looking forward to eating with them around the dinner table. Come August, I will be moving to a small town in Georgia to start work on a Masters in English, and I’m already anticipating the early morning weekend local farmer’s markets. Some will say, “Eh, that stuff’s just not for me,” but they contradict that statement every time they open their mouths to take a bite. I’m curious how much time the average person spends eating during their entire lifetime; I’m sure the number would be shocking. For eating to be so central to our very existence, it would be a shame to see apathy infest our food choices and meal preparation any more than it already has.

Much love.

2 comments
  1. Cheyenne said:

    You said it Nelson.
    A strange parallel struck me as I was reading it. The modern industrial way is to add preservatives to food, which will make it last longer on the shelves, but also force our bodies to work harder to digest it. It reminds me of our attempt to preserve bodies when the souls have left them, which is not a modern concept, but is still the common practice, with tightly sealed caskets. So our habit is not only to rape the earth’s ecosystems and produce food unsustainably (which greatly profits some, temporarily), but to withhold from the earth our very bodies, even when we’re done with them.

    • Nelson Shake said:

      That is an irony I hadn’t even thought of, Cheyenne; I appreciate you pointing that out. The role of preservatives and the mimicry of their function reaches far further into our lives than just our intestines, it would seem.

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