Tapati (tapati) wrote,

Poverty Stories

ETA: Thanks for the wonderful stories of stretching food, gardening, and so on. That's how people learn to survive hard times!


I was talking on a forum about some of the things my Mom made at the end of the month when we were low on foodstamps or had run out entirely.

She made bread soup, simply milk heated with margarine and salt and pepper to taste, and then would tear up stale bread and add that to the pot. It was quick and warm and still reminds me of her.

She would also use leftover white rice and fry it. First she browned some chopped onions, then she'd add the rice and brown it slightly, adding pepper, and then serve it with either soy sauce or ketchup. (Tastes better than it sounds!)

She also made cornmeal pancakes and cornmeal "mush" as she called it, basically polenta, which she fried and poured maple syrup on.

Potatoes are always a mainstay of any poverty diet and they can be made in so many ways, baked, fried, boiled, mashed, added to soups, etc. Starches can really stretch a meal.

Beans are also a basic staple, not canned but cooked from scratch, simmered on the stove. It is quicker if one has soaked them but my family always skipped this and simply simmered them longer. This was actually pretty cool as the smell really filled the house. We would cook white beans most often, put them over cornbread and I added ketchup on top.

Any pasta we had on hand could be used either by itself with margarine or in soups and stews.

Keep in mind that if you are really poor you don't have a pantry of foods to choose from--you use up your supply of dry and canned goods from check to check or foodstamp distribution to foodstamp distribution. There might be a little flour or something left, maybe some sugar, but you use up most of your food each month. For that matter, I've run out of basics like flour and sugar.

If you go to a food bank for some food, you may be given a bag of things that are meant to go with other ingredients, ingredients that you are lacking. Only some of the things in the bag will work without these added ingredients. Or you can improvise with alternate things or make something that is missing important elements. While still edible it won't really be pleasant. But your kids' bellies will be full and that's what matters.

As a vegetarian, the foodbank experience is especially challenging. You may be met with disbelief that you could be poor and hungry and yet still be picky about what you put in your mouth. They may be set up to simply hand out bags and unwilling to reconfigure the bag for just one family--there's a whole line of hungry people behind you, waiting for their food. So you take what you can get and then find that quite a few things are not suitable. Maybe you can find someone to trade these items with for things you can eat. Maybe not.

You may not starve completely, but you will get awfully tired of the one or two foods you have left at the end of the month. Or you may have just one or two small meals' worth per day, or give the bulk of the remaining food to your children. My mom told me how her own mother would pretend not to be really hungry, during the depression, and urge her two daughters to eat instead.

My mom was pretty creative and I learned a lot from her that I later used to keep my own children fed.


This is another one of those little stories that Dave has urged me to write about, though it seems commonplace to me.

The subject is toilet paper. While we may have learned to get along without toilet paper in the temple (though I didn't enjoy drip-drying), it is of course a staple of Western life. Yet food stamps don't cover toilet paper, laundry soap, dish soap, and so on. So every single mom on welfare and even poor working people with minimum wage jobs struggle to get these things.

I remember getting the Seventh Generation catalog when I was living in the small rural apartment we called "The Pit of Despair." I was excited by the story behind it and the opportunity to purchase recycled products, energy efficient light bulbs, and environmentally friendly cleaning products. Excited, that is, until I looked at the prices and realized that I couldn't afford any of those things. The toilet paper was only sold in large amounts--like you might purchase at a warehouse store like Costco. I was really upset at this and wrote a letter to the company. I explained that poor people like myself wanted a chance to do the right thing for the environment too, but we couldn't buy large amounts on our monthly income. I added that it was even more important to poor people to protect the environment because all too often we lived close to areas where chemical waste dumping took place and experienced the effects of poor environmental policies first hand.

I never got a response from Seventh Generation and I have never bought their products since. Fortunately other companies make the same things, and soon after I began to see recycled toilet people in four packs at the grocery stores.

Toilet paper is, of course, an uncomfortable thing to run out of. When that happens you first use any and all other paper products in your home--paper towels, napkins, kleenex, and so on. Then you turn to rags that you can use and then wash.

Historically out-houses had the old catalogs such as Sears and Roebuck for toilet paper, and thin newsprint is always an option though somewhat unsatisfactory. A clever person can also find a way to open the lock on toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms, or find restrooms where spares are kept out in the open. Yes, desperation can turn poor people into thieves, but usually in a small way.

We never could understand why essentials like toilet paper weren't considered something we could use food stamps for. No one ever explained that to us. The cash grant we got on welfare was never really enough to do much more than pay rent and utilities, plus maybe gas for a car or bus fare, and a few things per month. If you had something unexpected like a flat tire or had to buy clothes for the start of your kids' school, something had to go. In such situations, you have to revise what you think is necessary and what is optional.

If you are one of the working poor, of course the flat tire must be fixed or replaced so you can get to work. You may decide that it's a potato month and buy them in bulk. The food budget may be the only thing that has some give to it--you'll get kicked out if you don't pay rent, you won't have heat if you can't pay your energy bill. You are constantly thrown into dilemmas where competing needs must be decided upon. Will your kids start school in last year's ill-fitting clothes? Can you stand another month of starch foods? Will the brake pads last one more month? How long can you wait for that tune up?

I remember I used to put a dollar's worth of gas in the car at one time. That would be kind of pointless now, but in the mid-eighties that got me to school and back.

I wrote my college papers on a manual typewriter, sitting cross-legged on my bed for lack of a desk. I bought the typewriter as one of the first major purchases when I left Mahasraya, so I could work on my writing. I say major--if I remember correctly I got it on sale for under a hundred dollars. Later I used to drive to the Women's center, where I had a work-study job, to use the IBM Selectric there. It was so much easier than the little typewriter I had, and was, of course, electric. Later I received a scholarship and had the funds to buy a word processor. Suddenly writing was so much easier--it was like being liberated. It allowed me to keep up with the increased amount of writing at the University.

I am relieved that I no longer struggle to get basic necessities and I never take what I have for granted.
Tags: bio, poverty, writing
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