Subsistence vs Sustenance

I read an interesting blog post over at CNN last night that really got me thinking.

In the wake of a US Senate debate regarding whether to increase food stamp allotments by 13% last month, an adventurous reporter decided to attempt to survive on nothing but food stamps for 28 days (or rather, the equivalent, since it would be illegal for the US government to give food stamps to someone who didn’t need them).  Now, I’ll admit there’s nothing new or ground-breaking about this particular idea.  If you Google the words food stamp challenge you’re sure to come up with several dozen websites who have taken it upon themselves to try it in some form or other.  What I found particularly interesting about this version was the writer’s resolve towards the experiment, and the heated discussions it engendered. People were extremely polarized on this issue.  One camp felt that he was working with a more than generous allowance for one person ($176/month), while others claimed they couldn’t imagine living on so little.  There certainly is a wide margin when it comes to peoples’ sense of entitlement… what some consider a need in most cases is no more than a deeply held want.  But man, can people ever hold on tightly to those wants…

To my mind, $176 is plenty for one; if you know how to cook and understand how to shop to make the most out of your grocery dollars.  As a single girl in years past, I’ve even lived on less, eating healthily and well at that.  What it really comes down to is a willingness to make the investment in time, effort and your health.  Prepared foods are expensive, primarily because someone else has done all the manual labor for you (most likely all the way in Mexico or China these days).  Whole foods are cost effective, more nutritious and better tasting, but you need to have a basic grasp of what you’re doing in the kitchen in order to make something from them.  Sometimes all that’s required is a little planning, and at others, a dollopful of creativity.  But it is definitely possible with a little bit of gumption.

These days, (including feeding the bottomless pit known as the Everyman), I usually spend about $250 on groceries a month.  That $250 gets us a couple giant boxes of fresh, local, organic, in season produce, enough meat to include on our dinner plate every night (plus leftovers for lunch) and staples like milk, eggs and flour.  We typically go out for dinner once or twice a month (which I understand is a luxury that someone on food stamps wouldn’t have), but for the most part, I cook our meals almost every night (on the rare occasions that it’s the Everyman’s turn to cook, he usually just orders takeout).  And we eat well.  We don’t live off of Hamburger Helper or tuna casseroles, but lots of delicious free range chicken, succulent lamb chops and the occasional pork chop or steak (more for health reasons than budgetary constraints), plus several servings of veggies with every meal.  There’s no doubt that it’s a somewhat daunting investment of time, but I think it’s worth it.  For instance, making your own baked goods is not only much cheaper than buying them in the store, but you also don’t have to worry about chemicals or preservatives going into your food and polluting your body.  However, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, baking can be quite challenging (as proof, see my numerous posts on learning how to make good bread).  The same goes for preserving a harvest when it is in season; a cost-saving idea, as long as you know what you’re doing…

Before you start thinking that I’m being an unrealistic pampered elitist, I’d like to point out that for almost 10 years growing up, my family moved in and out of the Canadian welfare system.  It’s not something that I talk about often, and especially not publicly, and I’d even go so far as to say that most people didn’t even know that we were poor.  I lived with my father who was a single parent, and when he was laid off in the early 90′s there were periods of time where he wasn’t steadily working for years at a time.  This is not to say he was sitting around on his butt popping bonbons and sponging off the government, though.  He was out there, every day, trying to get work wherever he could find it.  Having lived through it, I think I am fairly qualified to comment on this issue.  The experience colors my opinions and shapes the intentions I have regarding food to this day.

The point that this whole CNN blog and my discussion of the matter got me thinking about is this; is what the government mandates for food enough for people to thrive, or only to survive?  If you’re down on your luck and receiving some form of social assistance, shouldn’t you have a right to food that is good, clean and healthy for you?  In Canada, some may remember the Mike Harris era, when they cut welfare spending drastically and issued a suggested “shopping list” in order to prove that you could feed a family on their budget, which was almost exactly half of the CNN reporter’s, at $91 per month.  It included things like Kraft Dinner and the suggestion to haggle over dented cans of tuna, if I remember correctly, among other things.  The backlash against that budget was harsh, and upon analysis the media announced that the nutritional value provided by the foods on their list was even poorer than what Canada provides to people who are incarcerated.  It’s a sobering thought and one that makes me think our government sees the people they assist as second class citizens unworthy of the basic building blocks of good nutrition.

Then there was the time that it was suggested to solve the Canada goose infestation by feeding them to homeless people, which was very short-lived.  That notion on it’s own seems ridiculous to me, but I wonder; are the stipends for socially funded food too rigid, or are people’s expectations of what is required to nourish themselves way out of whack?  We’ve been told time and again that a person should only consume 3-4 ounces of meat per serving, which is much smaller than most anything packaged in the grocery store.  For example, if you buy a $10 package of chicken breasts (and shame on you, you should’ve bought a whole bird and broken it down yourself) you typically receive 2 or 3 rather large pieces of meat.  Most people are inclined to eat a whole breast as a serving, or possibly split one in half.  But really, if your package contains a kilo of meat, do you know how many 3-4 ounce servings are in there?  You’ll probably be amazed at the answer, but it’s 9-12, depending on whether you want 3 or 4 ounce portions.  Too often I think that society has become so meat-centric that they have no clue how to properly feed themselves anymore.  Asian, French and Mediterranean cultures seem to have a better understanding of this concept, and usually regard meat as a flavoring accent rather than the basis for a meal.  I’m not suggesting becoming a vegetarian (far from it), just that people often eat much more than they need, because they aren’t eating the right (healthier) things.  The ever-rising obesity rate in North America is more than proof enough of this.  So perhaps our welfare food budgets are enough; we just don’t know how to spend them…  Just some food for thought; discuss amongst yourselves.

Until next time…

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2 Responses to “Subsistence vs Sustenance”

  1. [...] Foodie and the Everyman – a really great post about subsistence living and eating on an imposed budget. [...]

  2. Steve Noel Sr….

    Your topic Greenversations Question of the Week: Do you pay attention to where … was interesting when I found it on Friday searching for food stamps as I also have articles and information posted on this subject. Thank You… Best Regards Steve Noel …

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