assistance (Page 2)

After only two weeks, I went to the grocery store. I could’ve made it longer if I was truly out of cash (and SNAP benefits), but, I wasn’t. I got some staples and some fresh fruits and vegetables. And fig newtons (“fig bars“) because my younger daughter had asked to try them a few days before. On Saturday, I stocked up at BJs on some bulk items. Out of habit, I bought paper towels (that I returned before I left the parking lot). I ran out when I wasn’t going to the market and I’ve become a no-paper-towels aficionado.
The length of time I go without visiting the grocery store may not be impressive. Despite this, the life changes for me have been significant. I value leftovers. My cooking is more efficient. I know (pretty well) what’s in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. I don’t get sucked into “screw it, I’m ordering a pizza.” We eat much, much, much better (whole) foods.
I suspected my cooking habits would return to the glory days when I was a new mother with my first daughter. Freezing garden harvests, quinoa with molasses for breakfast, yoghurt in the crockpot. What I didn’t predict at all was the impact on my garbage.
After picking a bushel of apples only to find they were infested with grubs, I needed to get rid of them. Certainly, I wasn’t going to put them all in the trash. I found a place for them (a woman who lives by the Starbucks I work at who has chickens and, it turns out, horses). I was nudged into finally signing up for Garbage to Garden. My ex-husband and his fiancé have been using this service for ages. Now that I’m using it, I can’t say enough good things. It’s amazing. AMAZING.
Garbage to Garden: $11/month, a large plastic tub with a lid, all my organic waste goes in there, put it out with the trash, it gets picked up, new plastic tub is left for me. I also put out a jar with cooking oil (I made potato chips) that will be used in making biofuel.
One significant effect of the no-groceries challenge, combined with Garbage to Garden is visually stunning to me:
IMG_8080That’s it. That’s our family’s garbage for the week. Mostly recycling, a 1/3 full Garbage to Garden, and one very not-full garbage bag. We used to have at least two, if not three bags so full I had to double bag them and put duct tape on the bottom. We rolled out our big trash can to hold the bags. Twice I dealt with maggots because the trash collectors don’t deal with broken bags (and I found that out the first time in the summer, once I just didn’t notice the broken bag was still in there).
Assuming this will be a pattern, that I stick to mostly not going to the market for a couple weeks, then I buy staples, some fresh fruit and vegetables, and some treats (school lunches, etc.), then I waft back into “I’ll just grab some bread since we’re almost out…” ending up with $75 of groceries. I’ll return to the “no groceries” challenge for myself. Restart. In any case, it’s one of the best things I’ve done for me and my family in a long time.
(Plus, the meat share I’ve been making payments on for several months starts delivery soon! Yay! I’ve not bought meat for ages. I simply can’t stomach eating miserable, disgusting, tortured, unhealthy meat.)

It turns out my not going to the grocery store has been more important than I realized. I’ll be out of this extra-low dip in my bank account in the next 30 days, but when my car makes grumbling sounds it’s worrisome.
That said, I still don’t think of myself “really” poor because I know I will not be in this position forever. There are ways out, and I am on those paths. A few thoughts I’ve had that I didn’t fully consider until I was in this position:

  • IMG_3427When the preschool expects all the parents to provide snacks once or twice a month, it seems reasonable. It seems reasonable until you’re not buying groceries (by choice or need). It was our turn again, and I was glad to have on hand something to bring. Still, it was embarrassing because they weren’t foods I would’ve chosen if I were to go to the market and buy something. For one, I don’t like SmartFood. My daughters have decided they don’t, either. But, I bought it at BJs because it was cheap and it’s nice to have a treat for a snack for the girls once in a while. Second, the fruit cups in the not-environmentally friendly packaging were my backup for when I’m out of fresh fruit. As I said in my last post, this challenge of mine isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s not pretending either. The combination of feeling embarrassed that my snack wasn’t what I would’ve liked to bring and also using up what turns out to be important food was uncomfortable. I could tell the school I’m not able to contribute, but that would be humiliating. And, the truth is, I can contribute. Things aren’t that bad. That’s for me, though. What about the families for whom it really is “that bad?” I think preschools and other organizations expecting parental contributions should offer a kind and quiet alternative, a box that simply says, “Unable due to financial hardship” or something like that. No questions asked. 
  • In a similar vein, a friend and I made plans to go out and she made it clear before we got together that she wanted to pay my way. She even deflected some of my dependence on her generosity by pointing out that I was “driving down there,” and was therefore already making a contribution. This was helpful in several ways. First, it allowed me to go out without the knot in my stomach thinking “I probably shouldn’t be doing this.” Second, it took the weight off of me because I knew I didn’t have to bring up money. If you have a friend who you even suspect might be struggling financially, inviting them to do something and insisting that it be your treat—pointing out that it would make you happy to pay the bills—in advance may make their day. It’s a horrible feeling, not paying my way. But when my friends offer and remind me they really want to do it, I can accept their gifts (some of the time).
  • Potlucks can also be tricky in the same way these first two issues are. Just assuming it’s an easy thing to bring something to share can make those of us without a lot feel uncomfortable. For me, it’s not that I can’t make the contribution, but I’ve become more aware of what it was like when bringing something to a potluck meant that much less at home for me and my daughters.

This whole experience is still quite surreal. As many of you know, my background is certainly one of privilege. My ex-husband is much more generous than the law requires. My work brings in decent money when I have the time to do it. It’s strange to be talking “as if” I’m poor when in many respects I actually am and in many respects I’m not at all. I hope my sharing about this experience might help other people be more aware (and, therefore, more sensitive) to people who are living with not-enough money.

In my first post about the “no groceries challenge” I set for myself, I mentioned that I would likely make an exception for milk (that I would probably buy it). I also mentioned I might look at the sale rack for fresh(ish) produce. A day or two ago I did, in fact, go to the grocery store for milk. I also checked out the old-produce sale section and was delighted to find a big bag of onions. I was down to two onions and regretting I hadn’t noticed I was so low when I did my “last” shopping last week.
So, for $10.37 I purchased milk, a bag of onions, a couple bunches of bananas (most are in the freezer now), and some cucumbers.IMG_3349
I also got a bag of coffee from Starbucks which will give me a credit toward my “free” fancy drink that I look forward to every few weeks. My use of coffee, however, has gotten much more mindful despite the fact that I’m allowing myself the coffee beans purchase. I don’t make it as much, or as often. I have had fewer 1/4 pots of tepid coffee sitting on the coffee maker from making too much in the morning.
As for these “cheats,” I feel comfortable with them. This is not a game for me in the sense that I’m making it up. I honestly can’t afford to just get anything I want, so, being extraordinarily cautious about what I buy isn’t just for kicks. If I was playing at being too poor, I probably would’ve used the CoffeeMate and made my daughters use the remaining soy and almond milks that I have in the pantry before I went to the market. This isn’t about pretending, though.
Most dramatic for me has been how much more valuable every morsel seems. I see each unfinished item as something that might be saved. The difference is that while I have always been a saver of perfectly good food, I am now actually using it instead of saving it, forgetting it, and then tossing it in the trash because it seems too gross (even if it hasn’t gone bad). Food matters more now. This is good.

Avoiding spoilage by using ingredients that could go bad before using longer-shelf life ingredients is an important goal in my “no grocery store” challenge. But, what do I actually have on hand? Again, time plays a big part in successfully managing food and sustenance for my family. Taking the time to know what I have, where it is, and what should be used when, all of these are elements I must consider.
A few years ago, I connected with the idea that I can’t keep a space uncluttered if the Things in it don’t have “Homes.” I began to be relatively strict about having things go back to certain spots. Our home is still full of stuff, and sometimes I get behind in keeping the clutter under control, but, for the most part most of our Things have Homes. The musical instruments are in that basket that lives on top of the radiator. The silk scarves are in that basket by the play kitchen. The playmobil people are in that drawer, the animals are in that drawer, the structure pieces are in that basket. The more precise the categories for Homes, the easier clean up turns out to be.
On Wednesday and Thursday, my daughters were sick. What this meant was I had no childcare (so I couldn’t do much billable work) and for the most part, the girls zoned out in front of Winnie the Pooh and a bunch of movies. An unexpected appearance of “free time.”
I decided to make Homes for the Things in my refrigerator.
First, I took everything out:
Then, I consolidated, re-containered, and assessed:
I grouped things in way that made sense to me, though there are some tougher categories that may lead to some re-disorganization (foods for school lunches vs. foods available for meals).
I put the items back in the ‘fridge (before and after):IMG_3212IMG_3223
I took a peek at the pantry to get a sense of what’s in there:
In the last 24 hours or so since I’ve had it organized in a way where certain categories have “Homes” in the refrigerator, it has been easier to take things out and put them away and still know what’s in there. I think this will help me cut back on waste and improve how I use my time planning and making meals.
My children were sick, so they were out of my hair for a long stretch of time. Taking the time to do something so “unimportant” isn’t something I would’ve likely done otherwise. Normally, I’m dealing with staying on top of things as a parent, running the household, and getting work done to have an income that’s almost sufficient for me to live on (when combined with support from my ex-). Again, I am very aware of how lucky I am. Things are difficult, but so much less difficult than I know they are for people who live in real poverty.
I differentiate myself from people living in “real poverty” not because I think it’s bad that I have so little money, but, because I am aware of the advantages I live with in my life. When I think of what it would be like trying to do something like this project if I were working a regular full-time job and carting children back and forth from childcare and managing all the rest of life’s regular tasks, I know it would be too much. If it hadn’t been for the surprise break, I’m not sure I would have done this—justifying doing “unnecessary” tasks is difficult. I already know this new organization system is going to help me make the best use of the food I have on hand. It’s truly a luxury during this difficult and somewhat frightening time.

On my mind a lot is the point when I will have no more fresh produce. I’ve been anxious about it. I almost cooked the spinach I have, though it will last a while so I’ll leave it be.
IMG_3108In the name of not letting things go bad, I decided to make one of our favorite soups (Rosemary Red Soup) for dinner on Tuesday night. Already, I’ve noticed how much more I think about advanced preparations. It’s not as if I was leaning on prepared foods or takeout, but, knowing that it “won’t be an option” to pick things up at the market, it all seems more weighted. I want to use everything, I want to waste nothing. I had everything needed for this soup (wrong kind of lentils and wrong kind of miso, but that didn’t matter) and we all love it. The recipe would make plenty to freeze for another day when I didn’t have time to cook. So, great, right?
IMG_3109I got to work. I’m chopping away, proud of myself for gathering the ingredients first as I have a tendency to find out 3/4 of the way through I’m missing something essential. And, well, it turned out I did miss something essential. “Lower heat and simmer 40 minutes.”
I needed this soup for the table in a total of about 30 minutes, including prep time. Duh. It’s not a long-simmering soup, but getting it ready in time for dinner wasn’t going to happen. I kept on with it and will use it for our next meal.
This left me without a dinner plan, so I scrambled and came up with this:
That’s leftover salmon, a tortilla with melted cheese and salsa, carrot sticks, and some Romaine lettuce with mayo. It’s a little embarrassing laying out for all the Internet what I gave my daughters for dinner. But, sharing this is part of what I want from this experience.
“Coming up with dinner” takes mental energy and planning. It’s not a simple thing that takes no time. Add the stresses of bills barely paid, health problems, and work deadlines (let alone more significant issues I don’t face, like violence in the home, children struggling in school, or active addictions, etc.) and “coming up with dinner” is a major emotional drain.
Why do people make unhealthy or expensive food choices? Convenience is my first answer. Second is “I know my kids will eat it.” I happen to have children who are relatively great about eating, but, at the end of a terrifically long day, spending time cooking food knowing the children may find it inedible can feel overwhelming.
So, the bits I’ve learned already:

  • every trace of food seems more important. I have half-drunk cups of milk my daughters didn’t finish sitting in the fridge to use for my coffee, for example, that probably would’ve ended up down the drain last week;
  • planning and deciding what to cook and how to best use the ingredients on hand takes time, and that’s not just time in the kitchen, it’s throughout the day as meals approach or planning for the days ahead;
  • I already made an exception and let my parenting partner bring oyster crackers, ginger ale, and pedialyte popsicles to our daughters because they were sick. It felt a bit like a cheat, as I would’ve gone to the market for those things if I could’ve left the girls at home to do it. I have a supportive ex- and that means my daughters don’t have to only rely on me for their love and care, and for extra food when the need arises;
  • I’m out of coffee and haven’t yet decided if getting more coffee counts since I generally get it at Starbucks and that purchase goes toward my credits for an eventual “free” fancy drink. We’ll see… I did put together fixin’s for chai tea concentrate, so, maybe I’ll get my caffeine there.

I’m barely a couple days into this and already I feel hurried and worried. Trying to stay in the present moment (where we have plenty of food) is already a challenge. My refrigerator and shelves are full to bursting, but instead of just feeling grateful for that I feel especially stressed about making the best use of all of it so it will last as long as possible and will be the most healthy and delicious. I’m living in a deeper awareness of the time required to manage food and sustenance.