mayor of Phoenix was going to eat on a "food stamps" budget for a week. The same week while grocery shopping, someone commented to me that a product was expensive and said, "but you just buy whatever you want without regard to price."
I replied that I was buying it for a treat, for dessert, and it was an extravagance. (It was organic fresh squeezed orange juice, just in case you're thinking caviar or something!)
The comment bugged me though. I noticed I felt defensive and kept wanting to come back to the conversation and somehow defend myself. I didn't. Instead, I took to the "work" book and wrote my heart out, taking a closer look at it. I uncovered that defensiveness right away and under it, guilt, and under that, fear. The guilt was about being a poor steward, not only of Dear Hubby's hard-earned wages, but more, of our ample blessings. And we are blessed. The fear was that my kids might not get what they want, or need, or (worse in my mind's eye -- not reality) that they might think I didn't love them.
But beneath all that was something else, something more. I had bigger purposes lurking beneath that rancid pool of dark water. I have a purpose to feed my children a wide variety of whole, healthy food; I want them to think about food as a sensory experience, a loving experience, and a family experience. I want them to know that healthy food is good food too.
There was another intention too, beating soundly and slowly beneath it all. I have chosen to be a good steward. I want to share good things with my children, yes, but with others as well. I want the money I save through sales, coupons, planning and compromise to be used to help others. So many are hurting and hungry. It's my intention to share.
Then and there, in recollection of my larger purposes, I resolved to take more time in planning, reading sales and shopping to get the reasonable values. The Governor's story, too, resonated with me and I talked to family about it. I explained there would be little or no eating out and that even our choices at the grocery store would be affected. Together we decided to try a week on a food stamps budget and we chose this week, the week before Christmas. We have a big Italian feast planned for Christmas Eve so we chose this final week of Advent to practice more frugality.
At the outset, I was nervous. Could we do it? I had no idea. Pepper helped me plan a cost-saving menu and as we shopped, we were both nervous. It took so long. We normally pay attention to prices when we shop, but this week we had extra pressure. We were seeking to feed our family of 7 on $225 a week. Clearly, some choices were out; we decided to forgo our favorite Clementine oranges ($3.50/pound) for an 18# bag of grapefruit for only $7. Almost nothing we purchased was name brand as the budget couldn't afford it. The Captain's school meals ate up $10. My organic salad greens are nearly twice as much as the standard kind but I argued for them and prevailed. "It's lettuce," I whined, "so full of pesticide and the Littles love it. It's necessity not luxury" It was challenging.
4 days in and I have to say, it's actually wonderful. I did not realize how much money we threw away on needless luxuries each day, things that do not enhance our quality of life. The way that we eat, cooking most things from scratch, does make food more affordable. We will finish the week, I'm happy to say, with money leftover. [To learn about what we ate on this budget, check out this Bright Love post]. Pepper thinks the government should invest some money in teaching people to cook because "its' healthier and cheaper too." It's a valid point.
That said, no extras were included in our week. No Christmas stocking candy, no desserts for birthday parties or school. I allowed limited school lunches and no eating out for anyone. The girls did eat out, but on their own dime (both painful and eye opening for them!) We also took advantage of our larder. We ate a roast we cooked and froze a while back, a whole chicken we got free, and a surprise offering of a bean pot from my mother in law. Without these, we'd have barely broken even. Economy of scale helped a lot too. And I found it very stressful. Feeding a family with consciousness is hard; firm financial constraints definitely increase the pressure.
Our take away is that we need a longer experiment to fully appreciate the difficulties in having such limits on our food dollar. I am proposing that we conduct the experiment for the entirety of Lent, this time with no-one eating out unless it comes from the budget. It may be a hard sell, but I have an adventurous crew, I think they'll go for it. It will make our Easter joy that much fuller, especially our
appreciation for the bountiful choices we have about how we eat.
On Monday, we will brave the Christmas Eve crowds to go as a family to the grocery store with $75 and fill bags with groceries for the food pantry. [Post publication edit: we actually spent a little less and bought a large grocery gift card for a friend in need.] This will be our Christmas offering when we head to Mass at 6:00 PM. I promise you this, as we sit down to our feast on Christmas Eve after church, I will be expressing gratitude for the moment of good fortune that bore me into my particular family and I think the rest will feel the same. I wish to take nothing away from how very hard my parents worked (and Dear Hubby's too) to clothe and feed us. They were magnificent in providing for us. Yet we are also extremely blessed. Please remind me if I ever forget.
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