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Dinner on a Budget: The Daily Struggle to Make Something out of Nothing
Photo by Flickr user elitatt
Years of working as a waitress in college and beyond taught me how creative some people can get with food. I was always fascinated at the complex and exciting dishes that chefs could prepare from some of the most unlikely combinations. Horseradish and mascarpone? Delicious! Ancho chile and cinnamon? Perfection!
Even still, I’m far more impressed by the creativity displayed by those who can’t afford exotic ingredients and still manage to put together a meal for their families. Anybody can make something delicious with a kitchen stocked with fresh ingredients and an extensive spice rack. But it’s much more difficult to put together something when you have practically nothing to start with — like tens of millions of U.S. households today.
A new study from the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC) revealed that food spending has fallen dramatically in the past decade, particularly from 2000 to 2002 and 2006 to 2010 -- periods when the economy was struggling the most. Rising food and housing costs, combined with falling wages and inflation, caused millions to tighten their belts to unhealthy levels.
In the study, spending for the median household was measured against the Thrifty Food Plan, the absolute “barebones” food budget necessary for families to get by in emergencies, established by the U.S. government.
The results of the latest study by the FRAC showed that spending on food for the median household fell from 1.36 times the Thrifty Food Plan level in 2000 to 1.19 times that level in 2010.
Considering the starkness of the Thrifty Food Plan, these numbers are devastating. Originally developed to help families in the Depression Era, the budget was called “The Economy Plan,” and was designed to be used only for a short, restricted period of time. And while this was considered basic survival, the standard for “reasonable measure of basic needs” for a healthy, sustainable diet was measured to be more than 25 percent higher than that of the Economy plan.
Successfully following the Thrifty Food Plan also requires several things that low-income families often do not have these days — easy access to inexpensive transportation and bulk food stores or supermarkets, facilities for food storage, knowledge of food preparation techniques and nutrition, and time to prepare meals from scratch (about 3.5 hours a day).
What does that mean? For most low-income families these days, successfully following the plan wouldn’t just require creativity — it would require a miracle.
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