by Mariam Williams
Today I inhaled a regular-sized, chocolate milk shake from Steak-n-Shake, which I purchased for half price during the chain’s weekday “Milk Shake Happy Hour.” And it made me happy indeed.
This was a rare treat for me. Even before I was laid off, 10-dollar lunches with or without coworkers were isolated incidents rather than the norm. I saw more value in group cycling or muscle conditioning classes at noon, followed by anything I could scarf at my desk. That being my habit, cutting off dining out in favor of greater financial stability demands no great sacrifice. The treat, then, is the milkshake itself: real ice cream, measured out with a scoop, mixed with milk I wouldn’t dare delude myself into thinking is fat free, topped with whipped cream and a cherry, and served to me – the Pink-Slipped Girl suddenly craving comfort food as both fulfilling full-time work and her Zumba instructor’s six pack look increasingly unattainable.
I blame my recent diet recklessness on the desire to quickly pacify bouts of doubt and anxiety, but many newly unemployed or underemployed workers could fault the economy for the same behavior. The correlation between poverty and health is well documented; the poorer your zip code, the shorter your life expectancy, and the more likely you are to be overweight, diabetic, or have life-threatening illnesses. Poor people make poor food choices, sometimes because good food isn’t readily available within a reasonable radius accessible by foot or by public transportation, and other times, because the healthy stuff just costs too damn much.
On a recent episode of Oprah in which Dr. Oz and Men’s Health editor David Zinczenko counseled obese teens and their parents on better food choices, the mother of one such teenager voiced concerns that her family couldn’t afford the Swiss cheese over the cheddar. Dr. Oz thought it was a good point. He said something like, “The best way to gain weight? Take about $20,000 off your income.” He went on to note that people who purchase their food with food stamps tend to choose cheap, unhealthy alternatives.
When I heard Dr. Oz’s observations, then ran into a post about putting on recession pounds on reuters.com, I decided to do a little experiment. How much would I spend if I went to the grocery store and filled my cart with natural whole grains, fish, poultry, and fresh organic produce? How much would I spend if I filled it with high-calorie, low-nutrient items?
Total cost for items in cart full of healthy stuff: $157.60 (See the cart by clicking total cost)
Total cost for items in cart full of not so healthy stuff: $83.26 (See the cart by clicking total cost)
I should note that since I would never fill my grocery cart with the latter, the easiest course of action was to shop for the items online. THIS IS NOT THE WAY I NORMALLY SHOP FOR GROCERIES. I’ve previously noted my coupon obsession, and I try to always use the coupons when the items I have coupons for are also on sale, thereby saving myself even more money. (That’s how I can get a box of Multi-Grain Cheerios for less than one dollar when the regular price for one box ranges between $3.50 and $4.86.) Some of the items I chose were on sale, but most were not, and shopping online prevented the use of coupons. I should also note that I was thinking about a family of four, with at least two heavy eaters, and that I have no idea how long the amount of food I picked out would actually last for such a family. I also couldn’t take Dr. Oz’s suggestion to save money, support the local economy, and buy fresh by shopping at local farmer’s markets, although I remember organic strawberries costing about $4 per pint at the outdoor markets available in St. Matthews (Louisville) from May to September. And no, that’s not cheaper than the grocery or mega-store chains.
In keeping with experts’ findings that energy dense foods are less expensive – and in paying homage to the food from my chunkier childhood – I didn’t just replace “natural” or “organic” items from the healthy cart with non-organic or “regular” items. I made it as unhealthy as possible. I eliminated fresh produce completely, opting for the canned variety. Yogurt was replaced with another popular source of calcium: ice cream. Instead of almonds and organic pretzels for snacks, I chose potato chips, regular pretzels, and cookies. Soda and that gallon-size jug of punch (also known as grape, lemon, or orange drink) with about 10% juice, 50% water, and 40% sugar stepped in for 100% apple or orange juice. There’s no fish in the junk cart, and breakfast items include sugary cereal targeted to children, white bread, and donuts. I forgot the can of pork and beans, but I did add Ramen noodles to the unhealthy cart. I don’t mean the good ramen that my American roommate born to Korean immigrants bought at a specialty store and made for me and our third roommate our freshman year in college. I mean the stuff that has no nutritional value, costs 25 cents per package, and that I swore to myself years ago that I would never eat, no matter how bad things got.
I still refuse to eat Ramen, and I probably do better than most in my situation for food. I’m fortunate enough to not live in an area in which subsisting off of food found solely in and around that area could kill me (here’s the story of one brave soul who did it); I walk less than a mile and run into two chain grocery stores, one natural market, an Asian restaurant with at least 20 vegetarian entrees, and an Indian restaurant with the same option. Yes, I pass at least six fast food restaurants and one popular bakery on my way to the healthier options, but at least I have choices. And for now, the choices I make aren’t bankrupting me. (If I swear off comfort food, I’m sure I’ll be even more frugal.) I’m tempted to try the fast food chains instead of the grocery store for two weeks, just to see what how much money I would spend — or save — by living like the bachelorette that I am instead of a housewife in training. But I’m too accustomed to healthy living, I’m a little to vain to force that much of a setback on the body I’ve worked so hard to get, and as it is, I just don’t feel like I’m spending that much money.
I’ll be posting real grocery receipts soon. Until then, look for coupons, remember that there’s nothing wrong with the store’s brand as long as the ingredients are healthy, be good to yourself, and try not to get fat while you’re living life laid off.
McDonald’s is playing on your weaknesses. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2009/jan/27/mcdonalds-posts-profit-low-prices-menu-cited/
Food Security in Louisville, KY
Will American’s Put on Recession Pounds?
Louisville Free Public Library
I searched magazines and academic journals under Research Tools for the “well-documented” facts about obesity and poverty. I can’t give you the links to all the info I found because it’s saved under my account, but you can find and read tons of full-text articles yourself from your own local library.
© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.