Grocery store trip:
Everyone said that I should I plan my meals out so I know exactly what to buy on my limited budget. But I hate planning, and dislike feeling like I can’t buy things on a whim, so I went to the grocery store with no plan whatsoever. I did not go to my usual grocery store, because I knew that my 90$ would not be stretched very far. I went to the grocery store that is known for cost savings while still being healthy.
The store was an entirely different experience. First, you needed a quarter to get a cart. All the carts were chained together and you must deposit a quarter to free your cart from the bunch. A bit unsettling, and kind of made me feel like a criminal. Once my cart was free, I entered the store. Much to my surprise, I was not in the produce section, where so many other grocery stores have you enter. I entered in the chocolate, cookies, and alcohol aisle. As if that’s what this store was trying to sell the most. I’m glad I was kid free, because I know my boys would have wanted to spend all our money before leaving hearth of the entrance.
Besides the appearance of the store, my shopping behavior was much different. Everything I put in my cart, I had to ask myself, is this necessary to feed my family? I looked at the price, comparing different brands, calculating price per oz/number. Quickly I realized I was not buying any brands that I typically purchase. I tried to read the labels, not wanting to cut cost for poor quality ingredients. There were some things I had to buy regardless of price-milk for my sons, ketchup and ranch so they would eat, and food for lunches for them at school (chicken nuggets and mac n cheese).
I tried my best to buy lots of fresh fruits and veggies; which I did. However, instead of buying what we liked best and a variety, I had to buy based upon what was on sale. Luckily, mangoes were on sale at 39 cents each, so I bought 5 of those. Zucchini was another thing on sale, so I bought 10! (probably will never want to eat another Zucchini again), 10 pounds of potatoes (they did not come in a smaller bag), 5 onions, 1lb of bruised apples and another pound of pears. I splurged for my kids and bought strawberries and baby carrots. The one thing that I could not afford, much to my husband’s dismay, is organic food. First, they only had a few organic options, second, it was at least double the cost and could not justify running out of food for organic produce.
Finally rounded out my purchases with protein. I realized after I got home that I bought hot dogs, brats, and sausages; apparently, I was really into the linked foods. These were the cheapest that my family would eat, but overall very salty and fatty and probably not great to have 3 times in 5 days. I could not afford to purchase fish (which we usually eat once a week), and chicken breasts (I could afford thighs, but we don’t like thighs).
When I was done, my bill was 72$. However, this did not include milk, which we already had at home and I was going to apply to the bill, increasing the bill by about another 10$. And then I wanted a few extra dollars in case we needed something during the week.
My shopping experience was very eye-opening. First I was surprised that I could get so much food for so little, compared to how much we typically spend on food. However, I know I sacrificed brand names (is this a sacrifice?), organic labeling, and diversity to stretch the dollar. Second, I had to buy much more in bulk, especially for the kids’ lunches. I usually by individually packaged meals, but that was much more expensive. I think this will mean more prep time, which I will need to plan for during my already crammed schedule. Lastly, I spent 2 times the amount of time in the store than normal, analyzing each individual purchase I made. I did not make any luxury purchases, which means no chocolate or seltzer water this week!
The thing that touched me more than anything during my shopping experience was the structural violence that shoppers experienced at the store. First off having to unlock a cart with money is intimidating, and gives an uneasy feeling. And then, showcasing unhealthy food-cookies and chocolate and alcohol, sets shoppers up for failures, as studies show that buyers purchase more of what they see first in the store. Furthermore, much of the produce was overripe, bruised, or floppy. The grocery stores I typically frequent in a wealthier neighborhood, would not sell that poor of quality for the sake of hurting their brand. I wonder if the store’s lack of concern for the customers’ opinion, unconsciously feels demoralizing? All things that I will want to keep in mind next time I discuss a family’s access to food in my clinic.
Halfway done! Only 2 more days. I feel ashamed that I am counting down to when I can go back to eating whatever I want, whenever I want. So far everyone has been full and still eating “healthy”, but has taken much more effort than normal and is mildly annoying. Some examples of meals below:
1. Breakfast: My husband and I- bran cereal flakes, my kids generic of frosted mini wheats. Also mangoes and strawberries for the kids, and my husband and I ate apples and pears.
2. Lunches: Salads with sautéed zucchini and onions with heated up frozen chicken nuggets with ranch dressing or leftovers for my husband and I. The kids had chicken nuggets, mac n cheese, or leftover pasta always with a side of fruit- either grapes, apples, strawberries, or mangoes.
3. Dinners: Pasta and red sauce with sautéed zucchini and onions, pizza kit with added cheese and veggies on top with more sautéed zucchini, pork tenderloin with asparagus (this was our “extravagant” meal).
My family completed the SNAP Food Challenge! I will never look at food and purchasing food the same way. We just finished with dinner last night and I am currently enjoying snack of pretzel chips while writing this entry.
I was never hungry during the SNAP Food Challenge, but I also was often not satisfied. I viewed food as a necessity to survive instead of object that provides pleasure or fulfillment. I realized that so much of our day is centered around eating and drinking, and it plays an integral role in fostering relationships. Whether it is going out for a meal with friends or family, giving joy to your children by offering a chocolate treat, exploring new tastes or following an old family recipe, food is the often the key ingredient in creating happy memories.
On a budget of 4.50$ per person per day food only provides sustenance, arguably maybe not only that. During this week, my family was unable to ask a family over for dinner last minute, when we typically would, because I did not have enough food/money to feed additional people. I did not have any chocolate to give my son to eat on the back porch during a thunderstorm, which has been our tradition to squelch fears. I had to pre-plan my kid’s lunches and snacks, preparing food at night after the kids were in bed during which I usually spend time with my husband. All things that weakened relationships. Which is not a bid deal, when the challenge is completed in a weeks’ time, but becomes a burden when food insecurity is your daily reality.
Honestly, I did not fully experience the limitations of being dependent on SNAP. I have money beyond food stamps to purchase diapers, my children’s medications, toilet paper, and other needs. My entire SNAP budget went to food, which is unrealistic. I could provide healthy and fulfilling meals to my family with some inconvenience using the full 4.50$ per person per day; however, it was tight, and any additional monetary burdens would have caused me to fail to reach that goal. I also had a car, so I could go to a select grocery store, instead of limitations to what is available at the closest bodega or minimart. I am also very educated, and understand nutritionally needs and the importance of healthy eating. I have support from my husband and am not trying to raise my children alone as a single working mother. There are so many more struggles and stressors that studies show low income families disproportionately must endure, and the financial aspect of food insecurity is only one part.
What can we do to help? The purpose of taking the challenge for me was to provide better and more empathetic care to my patients. The reason I am blogging about it is try help others understand the plight of food insecurity. Once we understand, we then have the knowledge and empathy to fight for these marginalized persons. In the current political climate where funding for our public safety nets are being cut, we must remind our elected officials on the importance of mitigating food insecurity with SNAP.
Jennifer Mrozek, MD, is a pediatric resident at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Not sure what The SNAP Challenge is? Read Part One.