Marisa Miller is a married mother of two who never imagined she'd find herself relying on the kindness of others to feed her family. As a former chef, her life was filled with abundant food, and her husband had a lucrative job. Between the two of them, an organic, grass-fed, sustainable and delicious life seemed assured.
But things changed. Her husband left that job to pursue a career in a field about which he was passionate, and in the height of the recession, his salary was cut by 60%. The family became food insecure in a matter of months.
Their household income is just above the qualifying levels to receive SNAP, WIC or any other kind of assistance. After bills, Miller has just $100 left over for food, gas, clothing, band-aids, toilet paper and other necessities. She supplements her grocery-buying with trips to her local Sacramento, California, food pantry and an awful lot of thoughtful, creative cooking and meal planning.
"No one is living off Top Ramen in this house," Miller told Eatocracy in an e-mail exchange.
Here's what she had to say about dignity, practicality and perception when you're struggling to feed your family.
Marisa Miller: The first time you wait in line at a food pantry, you tell yourself that you don’t belong there and it won’t be forever because you’re not like “those” people. You act timid and unsure and give up the extra pack of strawberries because you think that lady with the dirty clothes and her kids must need it more. Three years later you become a Terminator, take all the cauliflower you can and start coaching the new volunteers on organization and food safety.
When we first started going I took my children thinking I was giving them a life lesson. We tried a new pantry and two of my 8-year-old’s classmates were there. I think the other mom and I were both mortified, but I was proud of us for doing what we need to do to feed our families. I hadn’t considered the stigma of being a “food bank kid” though, so I go by myself on the weekend now.
Eatocracy: How much choice do people have in what their family eats when they rely on benefits or food banks?
Miller: Choices for many are also dictated by what kind of kitchen they have access to. Most of us take a car to get to the store, and the stove, refrigerator and the electricity required to run them. When we accuse people of being too lazy to take care of themselves and cook a proper meal, we assume they all have pots, pans, knives, sinks. There are people on social media who get on their high horses and call people who don’t make their own pasta “idiots”. Are you kidding me?
My children were used to eating mangoes and avocados for snacks and having unlimited access to the cupboards and refrigerator. Now there is rationing. Woe to the person who eats the last egg I was saving to add protein to the salad. I turn into Mommie Dearest within seconds now, on edge all the time, trying to be the food police.
Eatocracy: What should people who have the resources to donate to food banks take into consideration?
Miller: We are all guilty of the "pantry clean-out" method of donating. Pretend it’s your child or elderly mother that is going to eat it.
Peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter. It’s the one protein I can always count on to feed my kids if there is nothing else left before payday. Multigrain toast and peanut butter are so much better for you than cereal. It can go on apples, celery sticks and pretzels.
If you have a garden or fruit trees and are so inclined, pick a case and donate it. It’s not like many years ago where it has to all be non-perishable or canned.
Eatocracy: What strategies should people use for selecting food on a very limited budget or at a food bank?
Miller: Eat food with the densest nutritional quality. If you really can’t afford animal protein, learn to love brown rice and beans with a bit of meat as an ingredient instead of the outdated protein, starch, veggie image that is burned into our minds.
Know the pull days at your grocery. When things come off the shelf, they either get reduced for clearance or donated to a food pantry, senior center, etc. Be there next to the man with the scanner and ask him to hand you that sour cream he just discounted 50%.
Be okay with imperfection. Buy the bag of smushy tomatoes on clearance, find the one that needs to get tossed, rinse the rest, make sauce. Expired milk that your kids think smells funny but is only a few days off the date? That’s the time to make pancakes or waffles and have breakfast for dinner. Most bread is going to last more than a day at your house and get toasted anyway, so get the day-old bread to start with.
Most every vegetable can be turned into soup, juiced, or preserved, provided you have electricity to cook with, which, sadly, some of the nice people I meet in line, do not.
If you live in a place where there is a large supermarket chain, ask the manager which organization they donate food to and make that your primary food pantry. Trader Joe’s pulls all the expired food on Friday for the weekend so Saturday is a great day to get the strawberries for free that your neighbor just paid $3 for. Don't be ashamed; you are feeding your family.
If grocery stores are not as plentiful where you, are most food pantries will let you come weekly for bread and produce. This can be a great supplement to any benefits you may already be receiving. If there are several pantries in your area, visit them all and figure out who donates what to where. My kids eat a well-rounded diet because of this.
Feedingamerica.org can give you a list of local food pantries.
Eatocracy: How crucial is it for people to learn to cook?
Miller: It’s everything in this fight against hunger. You cannot sustain good health on fake food. Even if it’s only part of your diet, you must have the nutrients your brain needs or you are the battle-wounded.
The thing that we forget while we’re denigrating other people’s poor life choices, is that not everyone knows how or is physically able to get up, let alone shop for and prepare meals.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, or take more than a few minutes, but you have to kick yourself in the butt and remember that it might be easier in the short haul to open a package of something but the long term effects of poor nutrition start compounding and then it is that much harder to get motivated to feed your family the right things.
One of the reasons my family is able to remain optimistic during this tough time for us is that we stay physically fit and that helps keep us making the next right choices. Being able to nourish yourself allows you to be able to nourish others.
Eatocracy: What are a few of your go-to dishes that are nutritious, economical and satisfying?
Miller: I’m partial to dishes where meat is the condiment so I don’t stress out about who got the most/biggest/best piece. Rice stir-fries don’t have to be Asian-influenced if that’s not your thing. Brown rice tossed with a few ounces of Italian sausage, garlic, roasted vegetables (a carrot, a zucchini, a few mushrooms, a pepper) and a sprinkle of Parmesan (use the dried, powdered one) is a great meal and has every food group represented. Better for you than pasta. Tons of protein for little people.
We eat falafel every other week. Garbanzo beans are an incredible source of iron. Cut this recipe in half and feed a family of four for less than $5. Or keep it whole and have leftovers for lunch the next day. (See Miller's falafel recipe at Food52.com.)
I cannot stress enough the value of an ethnic market. Most other cultures eat offal and other strange things because they view food as fuel and don’t want to waste a bit of it. They need to sometimes mask or enhance the taste; this is the reason Sriracha exists. Take a cue from these ancient peoples and explore all the condiments. Start with the less intense ones like pickled ginger or a different kind of vinegar.
Sauté or roast ingredients first if you are able to. If you have a tiny bit of extra money to spend, use butter instead of margarine.
Look for herbs growing wild in your neighborhood and appropriate them. If they are in someone else’s front yard, ask nicely. Very often people don’t eat the all food they grow and are happy to see it not go to waste. This is especially true of citrus trees. A little fresh lemon juice will make almost anything better. The same goes for using a pepper grinder at the end of cooking. It brightens the food.
Eatocracy: What do you wish the public understood about about people who are food insecure?
Miller: If the numbers one in four are remotely accurate, then you know these people. They teach your children, put out your fires, deliver your mail. Many of us have had salary freezes and were able to afford the same food in 2010 but three years later, our income has stayed the same while the cost of bread has doubled.
The image of Jabba the Hutt’s crew sitting on a couch playing X-Box, stuffing their faces with lobster, waiting for a handout is wrong. We are not all lazy, unmotivated or unintelligent. We are people with families trying to make it all work. Just like you.
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