Exhaustion with a side of rice and beans

August 29, 2014 12:00 AM

Emily Zimmerman It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I am exhausted, and I have a headache that I can’t seem to shake. It started slowly creeping along my forehead around noon, trying to elude my usual my mid-morning coffee. But today, like the last six days, it had nothing to fear, nothing to slink away from. I haven’t had coffee or caffeine in seven days because I can’t afford it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on chronic food insecurity in the Heartland, and I chose to take on the SNAP challenge. As such, this week, I am living on just $31.50 (4.50 per day or $1.50 per meal). I tackled grocery shopping the day before I planned to begin the SNAP challenge; this was a challenge in itself. According to this recently published graphic, people in the United States spend an average of just 6.6% of their income on food, a value that is among the lowest in the world. We have become experts in the policies and processes required for the production and consumption of cheap food. Yet, even here, amongst this land of relative low-cost food, I was struggling to remain within my budget. I zigged and zagged up the aisles, carefully pulling items from the shelf, doing the math in my head (could I afford this?!), and then debating whether the item in my hand was worthy of being tossed into the small pile in my cart. One thing became quickly apparent as I raced up and down the aisle: the perimeter of the grocery store (i.e., where the fresh items are) where I generally get most of my groceries was far outside the budget. I was instead relegated to the land of the interior, the land of processed, prepackaged, and canned foods.

In the end, my purchase for the week included no fresh produce or meat. For breakfast, I purchased a box of cereal and a gallon of milk. For lunch, I purchased two options: (1) mac & cheese with canned green beans and (2) white rice with canned beans and canned tomatoes with chilies. Dinner was similarly simple. I purchased five boxes of HyVee brand Hamburger Helper and 3 additional cans of beans to be split throughout the week. Reading through the list, what stands out to you? One of the most immediate and striking conclusions that I came to as I stood in line waiting to pay for my groceries was that my cart had no fresh food, lacked many essential nutrients, and was pretty much the same – carbs with the occasional vegetable or protein. In trying to maintain an appropriate daily caloric intake within my budget, I had sacrificed freshness, nutrition, and variety.  As thought about my cart, I nervously recalculated the grocery bill in my head, meticulously glancing through my food and trying to decide what I could live without should I have to put something back. The nerves were luckily unnecessary because the total bill for my groceries: $31.05, just $0.45 within budget.

These themes that occurred to me in line at the grocery have remained strong throughout my week. The lack of fresh produce is a really tough adjustment for me. Fresh produce makes up a large proportion of my diet, and the lack of variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet during the challenge was a staggering difference. Moreover, because the fresh produce was largely replaced with starches, I often feel full but exhausted – the key nutrients that maintain my body and allow me to feel energized and optimistic seem to be missing. I also think about food far more than usual during the week. I daydream and fantasize of returning to a variety of foods (okay in all honesty, coffee, beer, and cheese tended to appear more than other foods), of being able to join colleagues and friends for social gatherings at restaurants and bars again without passing on food and drinks, and of being able to access food that nourishes my body.

As grateful as I am that my week is nearing its end, I struggle with the simple fact that for 1 in 6 Story County residents, this is their continued reality. Their week doesn’t come to an end – it merely begins again. Their struggle to access food, not only for themselves but for their families, remains a constant stress, worry, and concern. As communities we must begin to address the realities of hunger that plagues our neighbors. So, now I’d like to challenge you: sign-up to volunteer for a shift at your local soup kitchen or food pantry, donate a row of your garden or extra produce to a food pantry—or take the SNAP challenge yourself! Hunger in the United States, in your state, in your county, in your community is real, but together we have the power to change the narrative, to end the hunger epidemic.

Live in Ames? Check out these great opportunities to volunteer:

Food at First Kitchen
Food at First Market
Food at First Garden
Mid Iowa Community Action
Plant a Row for the Hungry

The author, Emily Zimmerman, is a PhD student in the LESEM and PLUS Labs at Iowa State University.

Comment 1 

Response and an excellent article 
Submitted by Carrie Chennault  Wed, 09/03/2014 - 11:08

Emily, thanks for following up your original post with your experiences doing the SNAP challenge. I really appreciate your description of the physical and mental stresses of eating on a limited diet without fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, or your favorite pick-me-up treats. Exhaustion and headache. Your story shows that we are what we eat, which to me is both really sad for the current state of American nutrition, yet also a source of hope for the future.

Andee sent me a great article today concerning yet another challenging aspect of eating within budget contraints, entitled "The Joy of Cooking?": http://ctx.sagepub.com/content/13/3/20.full (doi: 10.1177/1536504214545755)

A snippet from that article:
"Yet in reality, home-cooked meals rarely look this good. Leanne, for example, who held down a minimum-wage job while taking classes for an associate’s degree, often spent her valuable time preparing meals, only to be rewarded with family members’ complaints—or disinterest. Our extensive observations and interviews with mothers like Leanne reveal something that often gets overlooked: cooking is fraught."

Thinking about your experiences with a SNAP budget diet, coupled with the stress many women (and men) experience managing jobs and families, it's a no-brainer that we would have a food-related health crisis in this country. Even if we had all the fresh fruits and vegetables in the world, do we have time to prepare them and do our family members like unfamiliar food items? Maybe this is a far leap, but thinking on these issues leads me back to fundamentals about how our society is structured in terms of where we are concentrating our financial, natural, and human resources. Given my background in business, I think about the potential for businesses to be part of the solution. I want entrepreneurs and innovators in our country to begin making a stand, to engage in ventures that contribute to essential human health and well-being, which somehow has been replaced by manufacturing expensive gadgets and distractions. I am hopeful that America's economic system can be used to make healthy food easier to access, give families the time they need to prepare them, and provide community support for families. Unfortunately, in business school, we are taught that profit is profit, and profit is ethical as long as it is legal. Philanthropy is a "nice to have" on the side if a business can afford it. Both of these lessons in the business education system need to change. I think it's time that we call for ethical entrepreneurism, redefined. The leaders and owners of businesses need to be pressured into considering how their products and services contribute to essential well-being, not just the satisfaction of societal demand influenced by marketing. Businesses have enormous power to make change in this society, perhaps more so in the current climate than do political organizations. Imagine what if every entrepreneur in this country woke up this morning and said, "I want to figure out how I can use my skills to create a business that improves the well-being of everyday people and do so in a way that makes sense as a business investment for me." Hmm, I know it's a stretch, but it's nice to imagine such a world. Planting those seeds in business schools might be a good start to a solution.

If anyone is interested, we can chat more about your insights during the SNAP challenge and about the article I posted above in a lab meeting, and I can write up a summary as a blog post.

Thanks for your dedication to the issue and to reporting on it Emily!

Comment 2 

Response and thoughts 
Submitted by Emily Zimmerman  Fri, 09/05/2014 - 08:27

Hi Carrie,

Thanks for the response and the article. The article highlights yet another challenge of the food system. It's not just about the budgetary constraints of procuring nutritious and fresh food; another challenge exists when you bring that food home. The concerns expressed in that article are very real to a lot of families. The time and energy costs, the stress of preparation and clean-up, and the concern over approval of the meal by family members are strong deterrents to cooking fresh, new meals.

Though I openly expressed that I took the SNAP challenge because I have never experienced chronic hunger, this article really hit home. As a kid, we always had to eat dinner together as a family. I really admire my parents for making this a priority in our daily lives because some of my best memories were sitting around the table, sharing a meal together. But, both of my parents worked full-time jobs and were often not home from work until 5:30 or 6:00 each night. Then, it was a mad rush to get dinner on the table, off the table, and make sure we had our homework finished and were prepared for school the next day. Though my dad was always pitching in and helping out in the kitchen, I can remember my mom being pretty stressed in the evenings as she tried to juggle work and family. I think the really eye-opening part is that I lived in a two-parent home with a comfortable upper middle class income, and our family struggled with these issues -- thinking about a single parent living on a highly limited income such as those folks in the article must make these stresses increase exponentially. Wow, eyes opened!

I'd like to hear your thoughts about integrating businesses into tools that might make buying, preparing, and eating nutritious food to help us become more physically and mentally healthy. I'm especially interested in a discussion of ethical entrepreneurism. Let's chat at our next lab meeting!

Thanks for the comments, Carrie! Good thoughts!


Comment 3 

snap budget 
Submitted by tim s on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 00:22

Some observations: SNAP program, the s stands for "supplemental" nutrition assistance programs. I believe in most cases those payments are in addition to funds a family might use for purchasing food. I agree there are situations where that isn't the case.
In regard to the box of cereal.The box that holds the cereal costs more that portion the farmer received for her portion of the grain that goes into the cereal. You are correct in noting that the ability for today's "homemaker" to plan and prepare meals is not what it used to be.
Hamburger "helper" really ? That is an oxymoron.
School breakfasts and lunches also contribute to the families food budget.
Why the high rate of food insecurity in Story County? College students signing up for SNAP money?
Sounds like some entrepereneur should establish some community gardens. $20 would buy a lot of seeds for each plot. Canned (mason jars) food would taste pretty good in the middle of winter. And yes, it would mean work.

Comment 4 

Response and thoughts 
Submitted by Emily Zimmerman on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 07:53

Hi Tim,

Thank you for the comments and thoughts. It's great to see discussion on the blog, and a good opportunity to think a bit more about some of the things that I wrote about!

I do agree with you; certainly the "supplemental" is important. Many families that are simply unable to make ends meet rely on the program to some extent, and the dollars provided to those families is on top of their budget for food in the home. There is more information on SNAP eligibility on this website: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligibility, which is provided by the USDA. As a single person household, I cannot qualify for SNAP benefits if I have a monthly net income of more than $958. As a result, if I am receiving these benefits, I probably don't have much of a budget, for food and so SNAP is probably pretty vital -- especially after paying for other things (rent or mortgage, utilities, car payment, insurance, etc.).

I also agree with your comments about the box of cereal, time and preparation of meals, and the oxymoron of Hamburger "Helper". I think the box of cereal demonstrates some of the issues with the food system, in addition to simple access and nutrition. Farmers get very little of the actual profits from that box of cereal, with much of the profit being gained by large agribusiness and marketing, grocery firms. There is a lack of return to the actual producer of the food and the individual or farm that takes the risk to produce that good and that labors over its production. Preparation is more difficult and marketing campaigns like Hamburger "Helper" and other processed or partially processed foods have been advertised to "help" the homemaker. While I am not an advocate of using these, I know that there are pressures that I don't understand (single-family homes, multiple jobs, lack of time, etc.). But, I do think that fresh foods are not as difficult to prepare as people may think -- how do we change people's attitudes and habits to acknowledge this? How do we engage with people about the importance of fresh foods that their neighbors may actually be producing?

Again, I agree that school breakfasts and lunches are intended to make sure that children are getting at least one meal a week. But, schools get a small amount of money to feed their students with, and we've all seen the typical school lunch -- much of the same that I ate during my week of SNAP challenge. Starches and processed foods still dominate the plates of students. While veggies and fruits may be on the plate, they come from a can, often times with additives, especially salt for veggies.And, we're doing a better job of including fresh veggies and fruits. Many schools have school gardens (Ames HS has one, http://ahsgarden.weebly.com/), and we are beginning to think about what is on the lunch plate. We're starting to do better -- and that's a bright spot in our food system!

I don't have a good answer to your question about food insecurity in Story County. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by that as well. I think that you are probably right about the college students; many students struggle to make ends meet. A recent article (http://thegazette.com/subject/news/education/higher-education/university...) noted that the average student leaving Iowa State with an undergraduate degree will have incurred nearly $30,000 in debt for that education. Whether that's reflective of SNAP figures, I don't know, but I certainly think it's a possibility. I also volunteer at Food at First, which I mention above, to cook meals and distribute food at the pantry, and there are a 50-100 people a night that come for a free meal and 20+ that come to the distribution center that I volunteer at once a week -- that's quite a few people. Again, I don't know if that's reflective of SNAP or not, but something that I think is worth mentioning.

Community gardens! I am a huge fan of this! Yes, we need places like this and we need people to encourage and invigorate others' passions for this! I volunteer at the Food at First garden, which is located at 3626 Ontario St in Ames. The student group for our department, the Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, manages the garden and donates all of the produce produced to Food at First for use in the kitchen and pantry. Our budget is small; much of our seeds are donated or leftovers from bigger operations. This year, we have also started processing a lot of the food. We have roasted squash and tomatoes and frozen them for use in the winter. We also made a lot of pesto with the herbs from the garden to use in the winter. We'll be processing more food this weekend that is donated from Mustard Seed Community Farm for veggies in the winter! I think that teaching skills like gardening and food preservation in schools could be a great way to instill the pride and commitment to producing our food in our gardens.

Boy oh boy -- great things to think about and discuss! Thanks for continuing the conversation, Tim!


Comment 5 

cheap food 
Submitted by tim s on Sat, 09/20/2014 - 15:51

Your ability to write exceeds mine by volumes. I had some thoughts written a few days ago but lost the post when I went to a link in your post. I'll try again.
" people in the United States spend an average of just 6.6% of their income on food, a value that is among the lowest in the world." That's fine if one earns a median income. Unfortunately, if one is at minimum wage. 6.6% of not much becomes very little in terms of dollars for a food budget. We do have "cheap food", perhaps good healthy food that was inexpensive would be a better goal.
On the topic of "food rejection", some that turn away from "fresh and nutritious food". Is that a problem of our culture's view towards food? So much of what is promoted as easy and tasty is really bad and nasty in terms of nutrition. It seems if food doesn't have a high sweet or salt factor or is deep fat fried then it doesn't taste good. I believe much of that does lie at the feet of the food processors, manufacturers, retailers. Once the consumers taste buds are tuned into that it is difficult to break away. Unfortunately, it also affects our health in monumental ways.
My meals growing up mostly consisted of meat, potatoes and a vegetable, and fruit of some sort. We were not well to do, but good meals were always on the table. What has changed in the past 50 years? At one time mothers passed their cooking skills on to daughters. Or at the very least the daughters paid close enough attention that they were able to prepare a meal. Todays family structure is a part of that transformation. Sadly, the best meals some kids get today is the breakfast and lunch they receive each day at school. Fast food resturants, microwave meals, convenient store food have all taken a toll on how individuals perceive what is good food.
Back to the SNAP payments, my daughter worked as a check out person at a local grocery store during her senior year of high school. One thing that always bothered her believe it or not was that fact that those who used the SNAP card (Food Stamps then) also felt compelled to purchase beer and cigarettes and other poor choices with their non government money. So, in effect, the SNAP money was used to buy food they probably could have purchased with their own money. The SNAP money simply extended their buying power for less important items.
Perhaps a remedy to the "eat more fresh food" would be to demonstrate to those who prepare the meals in the home that carrots, broccoli, etc. can be cooked in a inexpensive steamer can heat up tasty vegies in 20 minutes or less.
I've strayed quite a ways from your original premise of "surviving on a SNAP payment food budget" and hunger in a land of plenty. It is a complex issue that has it's roots in economy, culture, and how our society views food. There are solutions but they involve change and hard work. It looks like you are doing both to try and help out.