September is National Hunger Month, and many of us have been reflecting on the state of food availability in this country. While ironically this month Congress cut $40 million from the federal food stamps program, the CEO of Panera joined many others in attempting to live off the per-person food stamps allocation of about $4.50 a day. News about inaccuracies in expiration dates on perishable foods prompted the creation of a new venture in Massachusetts to round up these items, determine their actual remaining shelf life, and resell them at discount prices.
My counterpart and I have been discussing a series on austerity cooking in which we also attempt to create a meal based on the food stamps budget. While we have been planning this experiment, our understanding of food availability and hunger in this country has changed.
Most people have read about "food ghettos" - the lack of grocery stores and fresh foods in many low income neighborhoods that results in people purchasing low-nutrition pre-packaged foods from convenience stores that now have expanded food options. Any fruits or vegetables t these locations are poorly kept and expensive. People without a reliable means of transportation frequently have alternative to this dubious choice. Wal-Mart has started to address this in some urban areas (including the one I live in proximity to) by providing regular shuttles from our food ghettos out to their closest stores, providing low income families access to fresh meats and produce at a low cost.
But access to food is only part of the issue. Another problem for low income families is food spoilage. Once the fresh food is in the home, what tools are in the low-income kitchen to keep it from going bad before it can be eaten? This is where attempts by well-to-do folks like myself (and the CEO of Panera) to recreate the food stamps budget only cover a fraction of the reality for low income families.
Speaking for myself, my counterpart and I have a really, really good kitchen. We have a set of professional kitchen knives that includes the professional sharpener. We also have a butcher's block cutting board. These items are important, especially if you are buying family packs of meat that still have bone and skin to get a lower per-pound price. Without good equipment to clean the meat, a non-trivial percentage ends up in the trash. Unless, of course, you have the time to stock the skin and bones.
Which we often do. We have a prosumer anodized aluminum set of pots and pans that includes a sizable stock pot. We regularly stock meat remnants and aging produce to prevent waste in our own kitchen. And many people living in austerity conditions no doubt do the same. Which brings up the issue of storage.
You've got your family pack of meat that now needs to last you several weeks. You also have several weeks worth of stock that can quickly be transformed into soup or sauce for a casserole. Here's the most significant difference between my yuppie kitchen and the typical low-income kitchen - I've got a prosumer vacuum sealer. I can portion things out, vacuum seal them, and put them in the freezer (which is as big as a standard fridge - another notable difference here) for future use. We use the same approach for leftovers. And, for food items to be stored for just a few days, we have those nice glass snap-lock containers with the inner seal. As a result, very little goes bad in our kitchen.
When we consider austerity cooking on the federal food stamps budget to raise awareness about food scarcity and hunger in this country, it's also important to note that those of us who choose to engage in this temporary experiment need to also remember that we still have significant advantages over the families who live like this every day. We have time. We have tools. We have storage space. We can ensure that what we spend our money on is properly stored and doesn't go to waste.
Which to me is the double insult of poverty - the heartbreaking realization that when you can get your hands on good, fresh food, it will just go bad before it is all consumed. The good knife not only allows you to get the most from your meat, it also enables you to quickly turn fresh produce into food. The ability to quickly and easily chop vegetables down ensures that more of them will end up in your meal, adding both flavor and nutrition, as well as preventing spoilage and waste because they are actually being eaten in larger quantities.
Probably the most important tools to prevent this are one good reliable knife that is kept sharp, a good cutting board, and proper storage containers. In this case, the vacuum sealer is not exactly in reach, but containers with a proper seal are. As the cooling weather prompts more food drives for area soup kitchens and shelters, those of us who are better off should pause and consider the need for these additional kitchen items and how we can get them out to our struggling and hungry neighbors. Basic items that we take for granted, like zipper seal bags and good cling wrap, can add days to the shelf life of leftovers and perishable foods.
As National Hunger Month comes to a close, my counterpart and I will continue planning our well-to-do version of austerity cooking. I will be mindful of my portion size and what I throw away. And I will continue to give thanks for all that I have.