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Sharing the Pain

And so with the poverty diet. It's the least I could do, with so many people, many of them living just blocks from my house, who eat this way daily, weekly, annually and for a lifetime.


"We won the lottery," my husband said.

"Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could say that: 'We're not poor anymore.'" I said.

The poverty diet concept has been making the rounds, talked up through churches. It is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia Community Action Partnership, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Voices for Virginia's Children.

Obviously, people choosing the diet aren't poor, and believe me, I had misgivings about my own motives. Why, I asked myself, would it be useful? And my children complained bitterly: "Why do we have to go on the starvation diet?"

And, no, you can't lose weight on it. It's like Atkins or Weight Watchers in reverse: Carb Central.

I remember once I rode in a wheelchair, shopped, worked and so forth for a day in preparation for a business story of the coming Americans with Disabilities Act. It, of course, felt fake, and I was kind of ashamed. And yet riding in the elevator at eye level with the buttons, propelling myself over gravelly, narrow sidewalks, having people open doors for me and look at me differently — well, the experience sprinkled my consciousness with something new.

And so with the poverty diet. It's the least I could do, with so many people, many of them living just blocks from my house, who eat this way daily, weekly, annually and for a lifetime. To go along with the diet, there are startling statistics, such as that one third of households in Virginia on food stamps are single adults with kids.

My husband did the shopping and stayed under $50, thanks to a 10 percent-off coupon from Ukrop's for shopping on Saturday, something I would imagine not many people on food stamps receive. We bought store-brand light wheat bread for less than $1 a loaf instead of the hefty whole wheat loaf at $2.89, an unexpected bonus for the kids, who always beg for soft squishy bread.

And fresh vegetables were off the diet completely, although I searched for cheap enough broccoli just to prove to my youngest that he would have to eat something green during the week. We splurged, for vitamin C's sake, on some oranges. We bought the cheapest whole bean coffee possible, we avoided snack foods and small tins of fruit, for example, that my middle-schooler likes for lunch. We compromised on my youngest son's lunch and allowed him to eat the cafeteria food, reasoning that if we were poor, he would get a lunch for about 35 cents.

For breakfast we all ate a lot of oatmeal or homemade pancakes with rationed syrup.

"What? That's like no syrup at all," said the middle-schooler.

"Get used to it," said the Dad. It reminded me of a story told to me by my mother who said when she was a little girl growing up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina, she ate oatmeal three times a day, finally one day hurling it all from the back porch.

We brought the middle-schooler's tab per day for lunch below $1.50 from about $2.60, by packing our own plain yogurt with cheap applesauce and either an apple or a couple of slices of store-brand pineapple we packed ourselves. My husband and I ate peanut butter, and for dinner we had soups and stews and Mexican pizza. For example, dinner one day was a frozen spinach/spaghetti concoction with 60-cent noodles, 79-cent spinach, $1 worth of tomato sauce, a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, three kiwi fruits (a treat), and an iceberg-lettuce salad with some carrots in it. That totaled about $5, about $1.25 apiece.

My children complained about being hungry, what with no Cheezits or Chips Ahoy to devour after school. Popcorn, popcorn and more popcorn filled in and up.

The week seemed to stretch out longer than usual, but Sunday we were officially off out self-imposed week of the poverty diet. We felt like we had won the lottery. That afternoon, I unpacked grocery bags of deli ham and cheese, pretty decent coffee and healthy wheat bread, and I relaxed in my warm living room, basking in sunlight and something else I hadn't noticed before: It was the satisfaction of knowing we would be well taken care of for the week — nurtured from the inside out.

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could say: "We're not poor anymore."

But because they can't, parents skip meals so children can eat. They swim a sea of insecurity wondering whether they'll get enough to eat and whether they can feed the family. They hover at the pantry door, as I did, wondering, "Noodles and tomato sauce again?" S

Betty Joyce Nash is a writer who lives in Richmond. She is donating the honorarium for this article to the Central Virginia Food Bank.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.