How You Shop When You Are Poor
I had to put this behind a cut because it’s way long for Tumblr, but I really hope you’ll read it because I think it’s a very important post.
I started discussing this a little bit here, but I wanted to expand on the idea of how shopping on a very tight budget works, because obviously some people have no idea. I will add the caveat that this is how shopping was done in my family, by which I mean shopping with food stamps for a family with no dietary restrictions, with access to a car, and in a rural area of the U.S. Obviously each family’s needs are different and that is why food prescriptivism - which, remember, is a form of body policing - is fucked up.
The way my family generally shopped was this: First, you plan your protein. This is generally the most expensive part of your diet, and also the part which makes you feel like you have actually eaten a meal. If you begin your shopping with broccoli and orange juice and strawberries, you will not have enough meals. A person can eat nothing but chicken, and that might not be super healthy, but that person will not be undernourished or feel hungry all the time. If you eat nothing but fucking strawberries? You can’t live on that. Do not confuse “low-calorie” with “healthy”, especially if you are trying to feed growing children. Your first priority as a poor person is to get enough food to not be hungry, and proteins and yes, fats, are highly desirable for that. So the first part of your money goes toward the largest and cheapest quantity of protein you can get. This tends to be fatty food like chicken thighs, hot dogs, fatty ground beef, peanut butter, eggs, and highly processed “cheese food”.
"But what about beans?" I hear you exclaim. Beans are a good source of lean protein but they have a few problems:
1) The cheap ones are dry and need to be soaked, which takes holy shit forever
2) Beans every meal gets old fast
3) Not everyone feels sated from eating just beans (myself included)
4) This aspect may seem the most trivial, but is the worst for me: Eating beans as a meal makes you feel poor. I think this is one of those statements where everyone who has ever been poor will know exactly what I mean, and those who have not will be deeply confused. I’m glossing over it for now because it could be an entire long blog post on its own, but yeah. It’s not a nice feeling.
5) They really do give some people gas, which is actually a painful and embarrassing enough problem for some people that it negates any of the health benefits. Really.
The second part goes toward breads and starches because those are digested more quickly than proteins and thus sate your hunger quickly in the short-term, while proteins keep you feeling full longer. This is where the traditional “meat and potatoes” meal comes from. Potatoes make you feel full right now, meat keeps you from feeling hungry until your next meal. This is where it’s easy for people who have not been poor to become judgmental, because middle-class white culture has demonized these foods as non-essential “comfort foods”. But if you have limited options for what will make a meal, these are fucking vital. So once you’ve got your proteins, you then go for potatoes, rice, breads, cereals, and pastas. It is worth noting that in all instances white is cheaper than whole-grain.
Next, you get things which will allow you to put your base ingredients together as meals. This is where vegetables first start to enter the picture, particularly cheap flavor-adding vegetables such as onions and celery. But this is also where you buy butter, milk, cooking oils, salt, jelly, Hamburger Helper and Shake n Bake. Don’t underestimate the value of those! An extra dollar to turn a flavorless wad of beef into a satisfying meal is an extremely good choice, especially since you generally can’t afford a lot of herbs and spices or marinades, and since you’re working with pretty low-quality meat.
And this is where I will lose a lot of people: Fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t next. “Fun” foods are. Whatever food is fun for you: snack cakes, chips, beer, tea, coffee, soda, string cheese. My mom wasn’t happy unless she had tea and ice cream in the house. Why does this take precedence over “virtuous” foods? Because poor people get tired of being fucking virtuous all the time. Because we don’t have the expendable income that middle class people do, to buy other things which comfort us like nice furniture, nice cars, electronics, trips to do fun things, etc. I may be inviting a lot of hate by admitting this, but sometimes when you’re poor, eating for entertainment is the only entertainment you can afford. If a dollar box of Twinkies makes you feel happy when the rest of your life is no fun, that is a dollar well spent. Sometimes my mom and I would spend $20 per trip on just junk food, but that was the only $20 we spent on anything frivolous the entire week/month/whatever. And by frivolous I mean anything other than bills and gas money. Again, living without this stuff makes you feel poor. Sometimes you need to have some small luxuries to feel human, and personally, my need to feel human is more important than my need for broccoli.
But let’s talk about why produce is so far down the list. Above I said your first priority as a poor person is to buy enough food not to feel hungry. Your second priority is to buy food you will eat all of. Produce spoils quickly and is often an enormous waste of money, and you can’t afford to be spending money on food you will only throw in the trash. So when you are poor, you have to be very, very careful what vegetables you buy. My family bought mostly canned vegetables, but that can get expensive and is almost impossible if you don’t have a car and have to carry your groceries home.
I’m hoping this post has shed some light on why poor people make the food choices they do. If you are appalled by the amount of cholesterol and other negative aspects of this diet, work to fight the systems which deny access to inexpensive, healthy food to millions of people. But don’t engage in victim-blaming, food-shaming or body-policing, because that’s just adding to the problem.