Families such as the one I grew up in are often in a precarious place with food, balancing competing needs for time, money, health and convenience. We pool resources and skills to make the most of what we have, and still the limits are felt — often at mealtime.
Too many times in my life, beginning in my childhood, I’ve found myself limiting food costs as a way to help make ends meet. I’ve frequently relied on day-old staples, pared back shopping lists and limited costly, quick-meal shortcuts to stretch food stamps, labored to grow fruits and vegetables alongside multi-generational neighbors, and pooled produce vouchers to put up fall harvests for the colder months.
These strategies are useful, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. If I’m making these calculations, I know there are more Philadelphians who make the same — or deeper — cuts. Ironically, during the years my family and I were employed in some aspect of the food industry, our low pay reflected the deepest need for food assistance. Our experience is by no means unique: The research of Saru Jayamaran finds that servers are twice as likely as other Americans to be on food stamps due to a wage system that leaves tipped workers unable to consistently afford their own food.
So where does this all leave us?
Think back to a home-cooked dish you enjoyed. Remember the people you may have shared it with, the hands that prepared it, the space in which it was savored. This dish relates to who you are and is an expression of your place in this world. We can use food to nourish ourselves and each other, to express love and to gather together. Now, think of an instance when you weren’t able to make this kind of meal. Can you remember a time when the cost of ingredients alone was prohibitive?
A life of true sustenance is a life that is self-determined. As such, I believe we all have a right to food that is nourishing, culturally relevant, physically and financially accessible, and that sustains an ecological and worker-centered approach to food production and preparation. There is much work to be done on various levels.
Let’s start on our common ground. Shopping at a co-op can give someone like me an opportunity to approach food with dignity, to support a food system that I am more responsive to, and one that I am more involved in shaping. Whether in a month that has me scraping by or saving toward a special meal, I want the ability to take my spending power and move toward more abundant tables across this region. Won’t you join me?