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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food Insecurity: An Insider's View

It's coming to that time of year again. Food banks will start making impassioned pleas for donations as the holiday season approaches, and they will frequently point to the USDA 'food insecurity' statistics as a way to bolster their case. An article recently appeared attacking the use of these statistics, and I read it with some interest. As part of my job I collect this data every year, and the article makes many valid points. One point that needs some expansion, however, is his point that many of the 'food insecure' are also obese. In my opinion, the most likely connection for this is due to the types of food which are available cheaply.
Think about this: How much does a loaf of white bread cost? Or a box of generic brand cereal? Or pasta? Not much for the quantity, right? So it APPEARS to be a way to stretch food dollars, fill bellies more with fewer resources. But these foods are not nutrient-dense and carry LOTS of extra calories in the form of sugars into the diet. Whereas a cut of lean meat starts about $4 per pound (if you're lucky and catch it on sale and don't mind it having been imported from Mexico); whole chickens are inexpensive but how many people know how to break one down; and pork can be inexpensive but there's still a lingering fear of disease from pork.
So you're in the market with your $50 and have to shop for the week. Oh, look, there's a chicken, it's a nice, plump chicken and will cost you $9. Now you think, that would make a nice dinner. Of course, you need something with it, maybe potatoes, veggies, and pretty soon you're up to $15-$18 for a single meal and your budget is shot. So then you go back to the pasta aisle and grab five boxes of pasta and a couple jars of sauce and call that five dinners for the same $9 and you feel pretty smart about things. Or maybe you just say, I don't have time to do that, it'll be an hour in the oven and little Johnny has football and Sally has soccer and Jamie has dance, so you grab the $3 frozen pizzas. And then they're going to be hungry in between meals, since they're running all over the place doing activity after activity, so you buy them the energy bars and maybe a pack of Monster for yourself, and don't forget that daily coffee from the drivethru for $4, and pretty soon all the money is gone, you don't know where it went and you don't know how you'll make it stretch for the weekend and you're FOOD INSECURE.
And a final issue which is peripheral to this is AMERICANS DON'T KNOW HOW TO COOK. Mostly. By and large. And by that I mean we can't take the basic ingredients and make a meal then use the leftovers to make another meal. We either don't know how or don't have the time or don't have the inclination, so instead of making a gravy from drippings and broth and a little flour we buy a jar with all the chemical crap to keep it stable on the shelf and throw away the drippings. We can't take the time to make a chicken broth from the bones so we buy salty soup in a can and feel good about being convenient and managing our time. We want fried chicken so we go to KFC instead of doing it in a pan at home for half the cost. We want hamburgers so we buy the frozen pre-formed patties (maybe all-beef if we're lucky, but often stretched with soy protein crumbles to lower the cost) instead of grabbing the fresh bulk package.
FOOD IS IMPORTANT. That is such a basic concept it's not surprising that we've lost track of it.
EVERYONE in the country could eat, and eat well, on less money than we spend, if only we would get away from the easy and convenient and get back to investing some time. On a Saturday afternoon, after all the activities are done, teach your kids to cook with you so you spend time; trust me, knowing how to make their own meals will be much more useful when they're 20something than the dance lessons that drag you away for two hours three times a week! Rein in the convenience foods, the easy foods, the quick grabs. Did you know YOU can make trail mix? It's easy, it's quick, and, if you price it out, it costs LESS than the pre-mixed stuff in the stores - and you know what's in it! Make big batches of stuff and freeze it! Yes, it will cost more up front to buy ten pounds of ground beef and all the other stuff, but if you make ten meatloaves out of it and freeze them, you have the best of BOTH worlds - convenient AND fresh & wholesome!
Invest in yourself by taking the time, effort and money to do your food the right way. In the long run, you will be happier, healthier, have more time with your family, and have passed on valuable skills in planning, budgeting and cooking to your kids.

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