When we began plotting this food scarcity series, I think I most looked forward to this part.
I knew eating on a tight budget would be cumbersome.
I seldom heard the words ‘food pantry’ prior to the pandemic. I learned what food insecurity meant through various stories and learned the struggle many Southeast residents endure.
It wasn’t until 2021 — when I recognized how many food pantries existed in Colorado Springs — that I understood how privileged I was as a child. My brothers and I certainly didn’t eat steak for dinner every night. But we had dinner. Each night.
Same goes for breakfast, lunch and snacks. We never missed a meal. We occasionally struggled — I’ve had a syrup sandwich a time or two — and had to craft meals from whatever we had in the fridge.
But that was the exception, not the rule.
When I decided to write about food scarcity in the Southeast, I knew I had to get hands-on rather than only talking to the same health and hunger folks people in the area I’ve often quoted before.
This struggle needed to be felt and understood with a fresh perspective.
So I spent the week of April 18-24 learning how complicated eating in the Southeast could be firsthand.
BALLING … EATING ON A BUDGET
First, I wanted this to resemble the average cost of a meal in Colorado Springs. According to Feedingamerica.org, the average meal in El Paso County [where more than 10 percent of people are food insecure] costs $3.35. This meant I had about $10 to spend per day or around $70.35 for the week.
If I exceeded my budget, I had to put an item back. This frightened me because as an adult, I’ve never experienced returning an item.
Even contemplating it was a difficult experience. I cannot fathom the pain of those unable to afford certain foods.
I planned meals based on SNAP’s (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) list of foods.
Oh, and no grocery delivery services either. Too big a risk they could grab the wrong item and potentially I could exceed my budget. I needed to know every aspect of this life and did not want the luxury of food services.
Delivery services cost nearly $20 in some cases. That would siphon nearly 30 percent of my budget.
I also chose to walk to the nearest grocery store in the Southeast rather than drive. This would add another obstacle and increase my understanding of the struggle many households face.
The plan was to eat as healthy as possible with my limited budget.
I wanted to eat; 1 veggie, 1 fruit, something with protein (I’m not really a meat-eater unless it’s my cheat meal; this also helps simulate a picky eater); 2 snacks, bread, and whatever else I could find.
According to USDA’s website, SNAP permits: Fruits and veggies; meat and poultry; dairy products; snack foods and non-alcoholic beverages; seeds and plants (which produce food for the house to eat).
While searching for SNAP’s food requirements, I learned, per Hungerfreecolorado.org, the average Coloradan using the service “receives just $1.29 per meal in SNAP benefits.”
That equals $3.87 for three meals and is $27.09 for the week. Naw, man! That’s absurd and I could spend that on a single fast food trip.
WALKING AND SHOPPING
I found the one day the wind wasn’t blowing in April to walk to the grocery store.
The nearest store to me is a Safeway ... 40 minutes away.
This wasn’t a huge burden. I could get some therapeutic time away from life and didn’t have to bring my dog, Harry.
Please understand, I recognize everyone doesn’t have this luxury, especially during work hours.
I thought about that as I walked to the store with my gym bag to carry everything home with more ease.
The paranoia of going over budget also grew during my walk. I calculated the prices repeatedly to ensure I didn’t play myself. But the thought still lingered.
I arrived at Safeway and placed my gym bag under the grocery cart and completed my shopping. My total came to $56.35 - exactly $14 under budget.
Flawless execution? Not quite. I skipped bread, peanut butter and jelly to save enough money for a cheat meal later in the week.
Doing this meant no lunch PB&J’s that would have been quick, easy and would satiate my appetite for several hours. In hindsight, I should have purchased the trio of items, but I wanted my cheat meal. It’d be the lone break from monotony for the week.
I visited a mobile food pantry April 22, five days into this story, to view their inventory and to learn if Pikes Peak United Way had food to supplement my needs.
Before anyone gripes, no. I did not take food. People require these services and I did not grab food just for my report.
The pantry regularly stocks a solid selection: chicken, fish (tuna and bagged), milk (dried and in a carton), grapefruit juice, oranges, garbanzo and pinto beans, pistachios and raisins.
I learned about that selection afterward though, becauise I misjudged how swiftly these resources would be depleted.
The mobile food truck opened around 11 a.m. I arrived at noon. I was 15 minutes too late. All available items were obtained by those who arrived early and boxes of food in a nearby vehicle were sent to Centennial Elementary School.
Elizabeth Quevedo, Pikes Peak United Way community impact director, informed me people arrive as early as 7 a.m. early for these trucks, hoping to feed their families.
Pikes Peak United Way, along with the other mobile food pantries, can help those on a budget supplement what’s not obtainable at a grocery store. Quevedo explained for their mobile food pantry, they usually have between 150 - 250 families they provide food. That number double to around 500 - 550 families in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
Those numbers have since declined back to around 150 – 250. But it’s painful to think so many people required help.
LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT x6
Rather than bore you, I will say I ate the same meals every day:
Fruit before the gym; yogurt post gym; Clif Bars and Mott’s gummies for lunch; brown rice, mixed vegetables and black or kidney beans for dinner; orange juice sprinkled in randomly throughout the day.
No room for variety. No Wednesday cheat meal, a staple per my usual routine. Just copy and paste for six days.
At our office, we had vegetarian burritos during an Earth Day clean up. Guess who didn’t participate?
Hopefully I wasn’t visibly angry, but inside, I was hangry. [Ed note: He did appear hangry.]
I turned down free food because not everyone’s job provides such delicacies, and I didn’t want to cheat.
Remember in old-school cartoons when someone set a pie on the window seal to cool down and the aroma carried the character toward the dish?
That’s what Wingstop did to me, with that $14 I saved on my shopping trip just sitting in my pocket.
I order the six-piece, bone-in meal and a drink for $12.97. This pushed my food budget to $69.32. Whew, $1.03 to spare.
Magnificent execution with the budget and a well-deserved meal for a mentally taxing week.
I thought the meal would zap my energy, but I felt fine the remainder of the day.
I managed to clean my apartment, take Harry for a walk and ended the night with an episode of The Walking Dead – check my April 21 Indy Now for that experience.
Wingstop was also my only meal of the day. Typically, if I eat fast food, I won’t have another meal.
I instantly feel sick if I eat like my metabolism resembles my teen-self.
This was bulls***.
Living on a $70-ish budget for a week is not feasible, yet folks in the Southeast live this life.
Many of you have aspects of your life that would make this even tougher: children, picky eater(s), food allergies, added difficulty in transportation to grocery store, etc.
Also, had I kept this going for a month, I’d subsequently have had to make three additional trips to the store.
That would mean more time in the grocery store, more time away from home and a growing need for free food.
I’m disciplined with my eating and stick to a tight budget in my normal life, but this endeavor frustrated me.
It is absurd how many obstacles families face just trying to feed their children. This excludes other financial burdens Southeast residents already face.
The numerous food banks and pantries are valuable to compliment groceries, but they aren’t always the most convenient either. A single parent with a 9-5 and, potentially, without a car? Damn, you’re in a quandary.
Obviously, I couldn’t capture every aspect of the food struggle, but I have a greater appreciation for how people make ends meet.
Hopefully the Southeast eventually becomes a hub with nearby grocery stores and more healthy options where parents, guardians and individuals can access what they need.
I’m one person and just one week of this lifestyle sucked. I can’t fathom how troublesome this is for people who live this year round.