Did you know that 1 in 5 families in the Twin Cities metro area struggles with hunger? To bring awareness to the Greater Twin Cities’ United Way Stop the Growl initiative, I am sharing a little about my own experiences with food insecurity.
I am the founder and editor of a magazine about food for children. People mostly assume when they hear what I do that I am a consummate foodie who follows trends and chases extraordinary gastronomic adventures.
Molecular gastronomy? Nope.
Cold-pressed nut milks? Nope.
Artisanal toast? Nope.
While I can appreciate these food trends, they just aren’t me. Most people who know me would likely be surprised to learn that facing food insecurity was my impetus for learning how to cook. What and how I eat are rooted in my first job. I started first as a bagger at age 13 and eventually spent the better part of my teen years as a cashier at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. This was the beginning of my informal-formal education about food and food justice.
The grocery store itself was a “supermarket” with lots of square footage and a wide assortment of products. It was situated near a college campus at the crossroads of very socio-economically diverse neighborhoods. I came from the solidly working class neighborhood to the west, but my regulars included well-heeled academics who bought things like olive oil in tiny bottles for ten dollars and a homeless old woman who carried a doll and always bought bulk candy with change when I worked the overnight relief shift. I saw it all there.
As I was trained to be a cashier, I learned about the many different transactions a cashier makes and all the rules that underlie them: how to issue a returned-bottle deposit refund, how to card for beer sales, how to redeem and ring a rain check, how to authenticate food stamps by matching the serial numbers to the books, and how to redeem a WIC check for approved products. The front-end manager emphasized all the rules and all the exceptions and tried to make us aware of all the ways that people attempted to game the grocery system. When I think about it now, the sheer amount of food that dragged across the eye of a scanner and stacked in doubled paper bags is astonishing, but more astonishing is the education I received in how to shop, cook and eat from it. I got to see something really intimate: what people bought. I saw the wisdom or haphazardness of choices. I saw money invested and squandered. I saw thoughtful and thoughtless choices. And all of this prepared me for when my life shifted radically.
When I was in my teens, my parents were divorced, due in part to my father’s addiction issues. I had once felt secure in my home life, but now our home was foreclosed and we were displaced and on our own. My mother had largely been a homemaker with occasional part-time jobs. Life was scary and out of control. We qualified for food stamps, and we needed to use them. Since I had the most experience with them from my job and because my mother felt shame about using them, grocery shopping fell to me and my sister, because I was too young to drive.
I knew what to do and that things would be okay. Mostly, I tried to see myself as a steward of the public assistance that I was provided. I used what I had learned checking and bagging groceries. As a cashier, I had once sold $47 of cut cantaloupe from the salad bar to a customer who purchased it with food stamps. Given the rules about hot versus cold prepared foods, it was a “legal” purchase. All I could think about was the opportunity cost of that purchase, about how a little one would likely pay for the purchase of that convenience food when it was gone and there was no food left, about how many bags I might have filled with smart shopping and couponing (though I think of people today who might be in a situation similar to the one I was in, and I know that SNAP benefits are no panacea to food insecurity). I tried hard to plan meals that were nutritious and soul-satisfying, since the hug that food can provide was one we all badly needed in this transition. I started learning to make different kinds of soup. I made it a game to perfect them and make them robust enough for a meal. Many years later, I still find that I eat the same way. I like my protein and veggies together, providing the ease of a nutritious meal in a single bowl.
A good bowl of soup? Yep, that’s exactly who I am. And having access to affordable, nutritious food literally helped write my destiny to become a food author and educator for children. When you Stop the Growl, you feed someone’s future. Support the Greater Twin Cities United Way in fighting hunger this Give to the Max Day.
Chicken Noodle Soup
Makes 6-8 servings
cutting board, sharp knife, large saucepan, wooden spoon, ladle, peeler, oven mitts
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
½ cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped celery
2 cups carrots, sliced 1” thick
8 ounces cooked chicken breast meat, roughly pulled
3 (14.5 ounces) cans chicken stock
4 cups water
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
6 ounces egg noodles, uncooked
1. Place pot over medium heat and melt butter slowly. Add onion to butter and cook for a minute, then add celery and carrots and cook vegetables until they are slightly translucent, about 4 more minutes.
2. Add cooked chicken, and stir in with vegetables for 2 minutes, so flavors mix together.
3. Add broth, water and oregano, basil, bay leaves, and garlic powder.
4. Allow soup to simmer for 20 minutes at medium heat. Ten minutes prior to serving, adjust heat to medium-high and bring soup to a boil. Add uncooked noodles and cook for ten minutes or according to package instructions.
Stop the Growl
When dollars are short, shoppers often turn to inexpensive food in order to stretch their budget and stave off hunger. This price difference between fresh produce and processed foods means that poor families often consume foods heavy with sugar and fat. The high price of fruits and vegetables comes at the cost of many struggling families’ health. Additionally, succeeding in school, securing a job, or having enough energy for the day becomes increasingly difficult when hungry. The cyclical nature of hunger and poverty continues as the need in the Twin Cities increases.
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