For the last few weeks and over the next month, attention to hunger will be at its annual peak. People will donate turkeys, time and checks, canned goods and garden produce to food pantries. Many of us will find ourselves thinking of those in need in this season. We'll dish out cranberry sauce and decorate cookies, volunteer at the food pantry or in the shelter kitchen, and focus on making sure that the season of lights and joy is also one where people aren't forgotten. This is a very good thing.
It is also important to remember that most of the regularly hungry or food insecure people in the US experience hunger and food insecurity 12 months a year. Some of us work on these issues all year 'round, but the cycle of media attention and all the other pressing issues to work on mean that for many Americans, November and December are the only time to remember that food is a struggle on many tables at many times.
My skill set for getting along on a tiny income was honed by necessity. As a college and graduate student I lived on less than $15 per week for long stretches. Our first year in upstate NY Eric made 19K for a family of four. Although we have leeway in our budget now, I still remember those times clearly and their lessons have helped our family live comfortably with minimal debt (mortgage) on an income that only ocasionally breaks 50K per year.
Not everyone can eat cheaply in the ways I am proposing. Single parents with multiple jobs, homeless folks, those living in shelters or in motels with limited cooking facilities and those with no cooking skills at all have more limited choices. Still, many of us can do this - it isn't terrifically time consuming or that expensive. Moreover, eating cheap means mostly eating lower on the food chain and focusing on what's available with a minimum of packaging or processing and in season. Cheap eating can be a gift for all of us if we have the good fortunate to have a home or a place we can cook and store food - at the same time, let us recall that we are blessed, because not everyone does..
How do you cut back your food budget when things get tight? This may be obvious to a lot of people, but the truth is, there are millions of Americans who can't make the money meet the end of the month, and who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Of those millions, a majority are children and the elderly, two of the groups most vulnerable to even short periods of malnutrition. Making sure that whenever possible we can provide a healthy, balanced diet even when we're poor is urgent.
It is obviously not just the already-poor who need these skills. These are essential skills for living well on a single income when someone loses their job or has a health crisis. These are adaptive skills for the most likely consequences of all the ecological concerns that face us - most of which come with economic consequences.
Not only that, but the diet can be healthy, delicious and flavorful, especially if you can afford even a few basic herbs and spices. Indian and asian grocery stores are an excellent place to find cheap bulk spices to flavor everything well.
So what do you eat when you are poor? Well, your friends are going to be beans, lentils and grains. They are nutritious, tasty, simple, accessible and store well. If there's any way you can come up with the money, buy them in big bags in bulk - a minimum of 10lbs, 50 is better - much cheaper per pund.
Whole grains and dried beans store nearly forever (brown rice is an exception here - it isn't a whole grain, and it goes rancid quickly - white stores better, but is less nutritious). You say you can't use 50lbs of beans? I bet you can - over 5 years. They will still be good, just need a bit longer to cook. You have to think ahead a bit here - remember, you'll need to soak the beans or throw them in the slow or pressure cooker or on the back of the stove the night before.
The obvious thing is beans and rice. Sweat an onion on the stove in a little oil, throw in a carrot if you've got one, some garlic. Add spices - cumin, coriander, bay and dried chilies are good, but is almost any combination. Add the beans and a little liquid - water, broth, flat beer if you've got it lying around. Cook any kind of beans for a short while, until you like the way they taste, add a little salt and eat them over rice.
But what about beans and pasta? Noodles are cheap, and white beans, red beans, kidney beans - all are terrific in vinagrette with noodles, and perhaps some vegetables or sprouts, garlic and thyme. Or what about a loaf of whole wheat bread with a bean salad - cabbage, various beans (multiple kinds are prettier), sprouts, sliced carrots in a dressing of oil and vinegar.
How about curried lentils? Cook the lentils till tender, and in another pan, sautee onions, ginger and garlic. Add curry powder and a splash of soy sauce. Serve with rice, or over chapatis, which are simple enough - mix 2 cups whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup of yogurt (if you have it - if not, just omit and add more water), some water, salt and a tablespoon of yeast together until they form a slightly wet dough. Knead briefly, set aside for 45 minutes, and then break off pieces, flatten them between your hands and cook them in a lightly oiled skillet until brown on each side. Or you can add a tablespoon of sugar to these, and serve them with jam or dip them in maple syrup.
Your other friends in fresh food department are root vegetables and cabbage. If you are shopping at the grocery store, these will be among the cheapest items available. If you can get to a farmer's market or farmstand, they will be even cheaper. Again, bulk is better - my local farmstand is selling cabbage 10 heads for 10 dollars - and these are large, heavy heads that will keep you fed for a while. Even a single apartment dweller might eat cabbage twice a day, raw in a salad, then sauteed with garlic and pepper. 3 heads will last two weeks sitting on the counter in a place with reasonably low heat. If you can afford your fridge, two more heads can be crammed in. The other five can be turned into sauerkraut or kimchi and will last even longer. 10 heads of cabbage could easily provide a large portion of your vegetable needs for 8 weeks or more for one person.
Potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, onions and carrots are generally fairly cheap at this time of year. Roasted vegetables make a superb cheap staple meal. Throw a collection of whatever roots chopped into bite sized pieces in a large roasting pan, add a bit of oil, herbs, any seasonings you like, and roast until the vegetables are carmelized and sweet. They make a great main course, a terrific side dish, a good salad mixed with sprouts, a nice sandwich between slices of bread or wrapped in a tortilla with a slice of cheese melted on them.
Squash are also often available reasonably priced, and have the advantage of requiring minimal preparation. Most can be baked in the oven until soft, with oil or butter, a few spices, and then spread upon bread. Or puree them and turn them into soup. Sautee a little onion and garlic in a touch of oil, add some curry powder or lemon pepper, as you like, add water or broth, to your taste, and the insides of a baked squash you've mashed up with a fork. Whisk until smooth.
Bean soup may be the platonic food for poor people - delicious, rich, hearty. Chop up onions, potatoes, garlic, carrots and parsnips, and sautee until just tender. Add beans - lima, white, fava, black, adzuki - you name it, and liquid. Cook until the beans are tender. Season with tons of herbs or spices, a little wine, maybe soy sauce. If you'd like a one dish meal, throw in some pearl barley, or rice towards the end. Or bake bread, make chapatis, make cornbread or tortillas.
What about meat? Frankly, I don't recommend buying any kind of meat that is cheap - it is almost certainly industrial meat and not good for you or your body. But if you are accustomed to meat, one option is to learn to hunt. Venison, rabbit and wild turkey are great, healthy meats.
You might buy very small quantities of healthy meats and stretch them - for those whose growing season is still going, my favorite ground meat stretcher is grated zucchini - you can use it 50-50 with ground beef or turkey. Or simply use the meat as a flavoring, they many cultures do. A small bit of chicken in a stir-fry can transform it to a heartier seeming meal. A delicious chili can be made with a half pound of beef for a large pot, a wonderful sausage soup made with cabbage, carrots, onions and a half pound of intensely flavored sausage. Try the ends of meat from a good deli - often available for free.
Consider talking to your local pastured poultry producer about buying the parts they often can't sell. Chicken feet make terrific soup stock. Livers are rich in vitamin C and Iron, and absolutely wonderful tasting. Bones are often discarded by butchers of livestock, and can make wonderful, meaty tasting broth. But remember, meat is not necessary to good health, and if you are poor, you probably won't be eating a lot of it. That's ok - it isn't necessary to make food taste good, either. Vegans can do fine as long as they can afford supplemental multivitamins.
Use up every scrap of your food. Leftover garlic bread? Tomorrow's salad croutons. Stale bread? Bread pudding - mix milk or soy milk with an egg and a tablespoon of soy flour (a cheap way to replace eggs) or two eggs, add honey, sugar or maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and pour it over stale bread, and bake. Or better yet, add some bananas gone black - either the ones you shoved in the freezer or some on the day-old table at the grocers for 10 cents per pound.
Did you peel the broccoli stems and cook them? There's another meal there. Don't forget sprouts - sprouting seeds bought in bulk are cheap and can cover much of your vegetable and salad needs. What about vitamin C? Rose hips bought in bulk are cheap, but your cabbage will take care of that too.
Eggshells can be baked in the oven, ground up and added to flour for additional calcium. Forage for greens from your lawn or the area around you (make sure you use unsprayed areas) in season. Eat them fresh, but hang some up to dry and then add them to your flour as well. Try using half as much tea and coffee as usual, if you are still drinking them. Cut back on sugar, salt and fat as well - after a short while, you'll get used to it.
What's for breakfast? Oatmeal. Or if you don't like oatmeal, apples are cheap now in many places, and you can make applesauce easily enough. Then warm it up on the stove, and mix in raw oats - add a little more cinnamon - yum! Or how about rice pudding, if you have milk or soy milk. Or what about cornmeal mush/polenta - add cornmeal gradually to a couple of cups of boiling water, until it makes a thick porridge, and eat it with sweetner.
Consider accepting dinner invitations or attending events with free food. You might dumpster dive (google "freegans") or consider just asking politely of your co-workers as they toss half their meal "can I have the other half of that sandwich?" It takes courage - our society looks down on the poor so much that advertising your need seems shameful, but it isn't - the truth is that much of the growing poverty has little to do with the choices of ordinary people.
If things get really desperate, there are further options. First of all, consider applying for any poverty support programs you are eligible for - I know a lot of people resist accepting charity, and that's wise - but don't be foolish, and risk your health or your kids. If you are eligible for food stamps, WIC or or some other program, apply. Or consider visiting your food pantry when you need to. Healthy adults may be able to go to bed hungry once in a while - children should not as long as there are better options. And there still are. Talk to people at your synagogue, mosque, church or temple, or at your community center if you are hungry - they may know about resources or be able to offer help. The simple truth is that the times we are coming into may bring many people to desperation through no fault of their own - don't let shame prevent you from eating.