I could also have titled this post, “Damn, the holidays are expensive…” but I think the problem is deeper than that. 

I’m missing my farmer’s market.  I’m missing it for obvious reasons – the camaraderie, the beautiful produce, the experience of walking around in the fresh air with an array of healthful options and smiling faces before me.  And I’m missing it for not-so-obvious reasons, one of which is my currently ailing budget.

I don’t think we’re eating more.  But the big bag of grapes that looked so ridiculously oversized in the produce section on Saturday is already nearly gone.  It didn’t last us as long as two totes of apples, which is what I could have gotten for the same price at the market. 

We’re not eating more.  But the container of organic salad mix is gone in three days, whereas the kale and mixed greens I could have gotten at the market – for the same amount of money – would have stretched out for the whole week.

I’m sure we’re not eating more.  But the $40 or $50 I would have spent at the Farmer’s Market for most of our weekly produce is not buying us the same volume of food at the store, and I’m frankly surprised.

It’s not like I’m buying strictly organic produce, though I do try to shop by the Dirty Dozen and make as many reasonable organic choices as I can.  It’s not like I’m not double-checking to see if there’s a tote bag of oranges or lemons or avocadoes that’s selling for less per unit than the loose varieties.  And it’s not like I’m filling our cart exclusively with high-end luxury produce, either.  Heck, last week we got mainly carrots, turnips, celery, onions, bananas…a humble lot, to be sure.  Not a pomegranate or white asparagus or even a fresh herb bundle in sight.  It just.  Costs.  More. 

What used to be reasonable splurges that fit handily into our budget – like the sale price on smoked salmon – are now things I have to think twice about, I guess.  And you know what else isn’t helping?  THE BAKING.  Ugh.  The baking.  I love to bake, but right now the extra ingredients for our favorite holiday treats are adding easily $10 or more every week to my bill.  I can’t just stop making dinner so we have the money for the baked goods; and I can’t make myself think about foregoing the baked goods to have the money for dinner. 

So what am I doing?  Mainly, swallowing it.  And looking ahead to try to stem the flow of cash that keeps swimming downstream of my wallet.

I wish I could say that I had come up with some brilliant, money-saving plan, or that I was going to do a whole MONTH’s worth of $1 and $2 dinners to make up for the cash flow issue.  But the truth is, sometimes, I just want to eat the way I want to eat, and I want to cook the way I want to cook.  It probably makes me sound like a spoiled brat; but if I’m totally honest with myself, and with all of you, going a little over budget is not going to ACTUALLY take anything away from us in any measurable degree.  If it happens long-term, it’ll be a larger issue.  But right now, it’s something that I merely have to take notice of and observe as part of a possible off-season trend. 

I don’t remember things being this way before.  I used to find that my grocery bills went down slightly after market season, or at least, that’s the way I recall things.  Possibly, however, that was because we were still eating more substantial amounts of meat; and the produce we bought at the farmer’s market, while it went to good use, was often at least partially frivolous, supplemental goods, not strictly necessary for every meal we ate.  As time has gone on and we’ve continued to decrease our dependence on meat, as we’ve increased our consumption of fresh vegetables, as we’ve re-structured our whole eating style around better, healthier, fresher food…we’ve unwittingly begun to rely on a food system that only truly exists for half the year. 

I should mention that there’s a winter farmer’s market in Rhode Island – two, in fact – and that I can certainly make some time to get to one of them every once in a while.  But winter markets in the Northeast tend to be heavy on things like meat, dairy, and specialty items; less heavy on produce. New England farmland isn’t exactly known for its high yields of fresh vegetables underneath all the frost.  What produce there is at the winter markets tends to be either cellared, or coming from indoor growing spaces; and while those are wonderful solutions to the dearth of plant-based food available around here in the colder months, they’re still not necessarily plentiful, abundant, and affordable.

All of this is by way of saying that I’m running into both a small (but solvable) budget crunch, and a (necessary) slap in the face to my utopian reality of eating really well on said budget.  What it really amounts to is a reminder that above all other problems in the world of food politics, accessibility is the greatest factor we must overcome.  

I’m usually the education girl; I’m usually the one who’s talking passionately and vehemently about how we need to figure out ways to give people all the information that’s required to get them making positive food choices that work for their lives.  I’m not ever going to stop being that girl, but I’m setting that issue gently and lovingly aside for the immediate present so I can stare head-on at this enormous problem of access. 

If I, as an informed, educated, cooking-savvy human being, cannot adhere to my own self-imposed and relatively lavish food budget at this time of year, how in God’s name can we expect anyone with fewer resources and skills to make it? 

I know what some of you are going to say:

1) YES, BUT…You, RRG mom, you are making your own problem by not being more mindful of the little extras you’re buying right now to make Christmas cookies for your kids.  (Or smoked-salmon sandwiches for yourself.)
2) YES, BUT…You’ve told us time and again that it’s possible to do this on a budget, and you even did a whole budget challenge with dinners that came in for under $5 per person.  Why are you punking out now?
3) YES, BUT…You’re not distinguishing between wants and needs.
4) YES, BUT…You’re also still insisting on buying organics and whole grains and responsibly sourced meats; you’d instantly see savings if you bought the bargain packs of feedlot meat and conventional produce.

All true, really.  And yet, all the kinds of arguments I think we, as a society, set up in the face of the very frightening reality of food insecurity.

”Yes, but…your family is adding to its own problems by purchasing fast-food dinners instead of dried beans and rice.”
”Yes, but…people have done great things with almost nothing.  If you’d just plant a garden and grow your own food, you’d be halfway there.”
”Yes, but…food stamps are only supposed to be a supplement to what you contribute towards food from your own pocket.  Where are you spending your other money?”
”Yes, but…your kids don’t need Christmas cookies if you can’t afford apples.”
”Yes, but…you’re shopping at the wrong stores/choosing the wrong foods/prioritizing things you and your family like to eat instead of focusing on getting the most food for the least money.” 

Sound familiar?

None of the above statements are any less technically true, in the cold light of day, than the first set of statements; but when you think of their meaning, their REAL meaning, they begin to ring hollow, and callous.  At least, they do for me.

Where have we gone so far wrong that we are currently the richest country in the world, and yet so many of our people are reduced to HAVING to choose between what is healthy and what is cheap?  In what just society should we be able to divide the children of the haves and the children of the have-nots by whose parents could afford to bake cookies with them at the holiday season, rather than forego sweets to have money for milk?  And since when is it humane, is it ethical, is it even FATHOMABLE that we should look down our noses to any degree at those who are struggling to feed themselves, passing judgment on them for the simple act of choosing a food item they’d like to eat, even if it’s not the cheapest, most nutritious, most ideal choice they could make?

And yet we DO those things.  We know there are good, nutritious, cheap foods out there, and we want so desperately to solve this problem that we make ourselves believe that the answer lies simply in rice and beans and home-grown produce.  We want to believe that everyone in this country who cannot comfortably afford high-quality food for his or her family could become food-secure if only they would shop more wisely, become more industrious, use their food dollars for nothing but the “right” choices — whatever we deem those “right” choices to be.  Would those things help?  Immensely, I’m certain; but in so wishing, we overlook some very important facts about food-insecure human beings.

Mainly, that they are human.

And that human beings live flawed, human lives, in which they may have no space nor patience for that vegetable garden, no supermarket from which to select cheap and nutritious raw ingredients, no knowledge of how to cook those ingredients.  No time, between jobs, to learn.  No transportation.  Not enough food assistance for all the people in their household.  Maybe no kitchen, no real “household,” at all. 

And it’s easier to talk about budgeting and shoring up food assistance programs than it is to face the idea that it’s hard to buy rice and beans at a mini-mart, and even harder to cook them in an old beat-up microwave, or in the back of a car, or on a hot plate with no pans.  It’s easier to compare the price of Easy Mac or Chef Boyardee to the price of whole-wheat pasta than it is to admit to ourselves that there are people in our own cities who have only a can opener and a limited source of heat.  In our eagerness to offer the solutions we do understand, it’s easy for good people with well-meaning hearts to gloss over the problems that we don’t — and can’t, and hopefully will never have to — understand.

I miss my market.  In the light of a summer morning, with people from all backgrounds strolling from stall to stall, it’s hard to tell who’s there using food stamps and who’s not; we’re all just there to choose our food.  And that makes it even easier to forget that only some of our neighbors are so lucky as to be shopping at that market at all.  But now that even so small a shift as the loss of the summer markets has begun to show its impact to me, one of the fortunate ones…. Now it’s hard to forget that with winter, and the onset of heating bills, and more difficult transportation, and more illness and more medical bills and more sick days and lost wages, with all of these new challenges every action in life, including figuring out just how to get everybody fed, becomes that much harder.

The next time you purchase something at the grocery store — some piece of organic produce, some order of grass-fed meat, some item that you’re buying simply because you want to purchase it — remember this post.  And then go and buy one more item.  Just one.  Bring it to your local food pantry.  Then go home and cook your food, and remember how blessed are we all who can shop, and cook, and eat without fear; how blessed we are to have the luxury of making ourselves believe that the problem of food insecurity can be solved so simply.