Guest post by Food Bank Office Assistant, Lauren Strouse: While the Hunger Challenge is over for some, for many it is a way of life. I participated, successfully, last year, but opted out this year since I have “been there and done that,” having actually lived the challenge at several different times in my life. I grew up in a small Midwestern rural community. The closest town was five miles away, possessed one tiny grocery store where my mother shopped in a pinch, and a butcher shop she frequented on special occasions or when she needed to buy some meat from someone “on credit.” The closest bon-a-fide supermarket was 10 miles from our farm and we only had one car. My dad was a printer and made enough money that we probably qualified as lower middle class, but he was also a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for playing dice and cards so my mother often had to make due with a pretty limited food budget. There were no Food Stamps and although there was a commodities program, it was not available where we lived. There were also no free or reduced lunches in rural America during the 60’s. It is amazing that I still like peanut butter given how much of it I ate as a child. I hated my thermos, but I appreciated the hot soup it carried during the winter time.
I learned how to cook and shop from my mother. By the time I was 16 I could make gravy with just about anything – butter, flour, and milk with dried chipped beef for chipped beef on toast; ground beef and milk gravy over potatoes; sausage and gravy over biscuits; and when times were really tough, gravy made with crisply fried salt pork. We always had evaporated milk and powdered milk on hand, always had staples like flour. I could feed 8 people with a pound of hamburger. We made a dish called “goulash.” The more people, the more ingredients – one pound of ground beef, elbow macaroni, canned diced tomatoes, onion, celery, peas, corn, kidney beans, and sometimes even carrots to really stretch things. I learned how to cook and bake everything from scratch “just in case.” Since we only had one supermarket, I learned how to shop sales, stock up when something was really a bargain, and eat seasonally. We always had a summer garden, raised chickens for eggs, and picked wild berries to eat fresh and for jam. There were a few rather ancient apple, and plum trees on the property when we moved there as well as an overgrown asparagus patch – we used all of these things. We had a farmer friend that grew strawberries and he would let us pick our own for less money. My mother did some canning, mostly fruit, froze vegetables, and made pickles. She also made gooseberry wine and one spring we tapped our sugar maples and cooked our own maple syrup. (It was a fun experience, but a lot of work) We didn’t eat fancy, but we never went hungry, even the time my dad lost most of his paycheck shaking dice. We weren’t totally deprived; we had popcorn and a glass of RC Cola when we watched the Saturday night movie on TV and my mother made the best homemade hot fudge sauce ever; when the money was there we did get treats – real popsicles, potato chips, Twinkies instead of homemade cookies, but I grew up learning how to make do without those things. I also learned that to eat well with limited funds took planning and it was work. I learned that to eat healthy and not go hungry meant making smart choices; we didn’t get the latest fancy sweetened cereal to hit the shelves, we got Cheerios or Wheaties or my mother cooked Malt-O-Meal or Cream of Wheat. Snacks at our house usually consisted of fruit or graham crackers, saltines or celery with peanut butter.
My first job after college was working for the Ramsey County Welfare Department as a Food Stamp eligibility worker. I learned quickly which clients managed well using Food Stamps and which ones were always challenged: clients that were from Asian or Hispanic families who ate a traditional diet did fine; older people, especially those who had lived through the depression or the World War II did fine; but younger people often did not because they were the ones who did not know how to cook from scratch or how to comparison shop or even how to plan well.
I got divorced in 1998 after 29 years of marriage. I went from an income of $100,000 plus per year to living off of $8 an hour working for a small nonprofit. My spousal support covered my mortgage payment. Because of my spousal support I did not qualify for Food Stamps. I was confident about my ability to survive, however, because I grew up learning how to successfully meet the Hunger Challenge and most importantly – I never forgot.