My friend Rhonda is eating a salad of iceberg lettuce and sardines. My cousin is on her last fresh tomato. My neighbor Nick has found a bread recipe that substitutes beer for baking yeast.
Watching relatively affluent people trying to cope with food shortages caused by the coronavirus crisis is interesting for those of us who have lived like this for years. So now you have some faint inkling of what it feels like, we think as we stare speculatively at the last onion.
According to a 2018 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture, 11.1 percent of American households could be described as “food insecure.” Until a few years ago, I was in that bottom 11 percent. My husband and I qualified as “low food security,” meaning that we were getting enough to eat but “the quality, variety, and desirability” of our diet was significantly reduced.
Poverty breeds creativity. I repurposed stale hot dog buns. I picked nettles and dandelion greens. I figured out how to cook without oil. I learned to love the foods that keep well and can be used in small quantities to brighten an otherwise grim meal: bacon, purple cabbage, red onion. And I learned to hate lentils because they are versatile, cheap, and quick, which meant that we ate bathtubs’ worth.
Food insecurity is vastly different from starvation, a condition that neither I nor many of my fellow Americans can speak to. This is because you are poor but not destitute. Food insecurity is not a dire emergency but rather a constant gnawing anxiety. You think about food all the time. Not in a hungry way, but in a calculating way. Which is much different from the disappointment my friends are experiencing when their Fresh Direct order is missing a few items.
I came to expect cold sweats when approaching the checkout line, that last panicked bout of mental math as you set the groceries on the conveyor belt. The bread is 2.99, the stewed tomatoes are 99 cents … if it’s too much, what will I send back? Telling the cashier I changed my mind about the sour cream and the sandwich meat and the orange juice always gave me a withering and inexplicable sense of shame.
The stigma of poverty is insidious and easy to internalize. If you’re experiencing anxiety about food shortages due to the Covid-19 crisis, take a moment to appreciate that no one is claiming that it’s your own damned fault and that maybe you shouldn’t have spent that money on a smartphone.
Obviously, this time of international food insecurity is more difficult for people who already suffer from income-based food insecurity. If you can’t afford to stock up, you have the reasonable fear that there will be nothing left by the time you can. In the absence of school lunch and breakfast programs, you’re suddenly faced with providing your kids three meals a day instead of one.
Meanwhile, food banks are struggling with dwindling volunteer teams, a sharp decrease in corporate contributions, a decline in food donations from grocery stores depleted by panic-buying, and a dramatic increase in the number of people lining up for boxes. So you can expect longer lines and a decrease in the quality and diversity of available food.
On the other hand, the chronically food insecure have developed useful skill sets. Among my lower-income friends and neighbors, there’s a certain confidence in our ability to survive, to weather economic and social hardship. There’s a sense of “We got this.” One friend told me, “I’ve been training my whole life for something like this.”
If you’ve been laid off due to Covid-19, you don’t necessarily have this advantage. It sounds strange to call chronic poverty an “advantage,” but in this case it might be. I was raised poor, and when my husband and I both got laid off in the economic crash of 2008, I already had the life skills I needed to live by the skin of my teeth. I knew what to expect and I knew how to go without. I feel for the people who are experiencing deprivation for the first time while simultaneously trying to cope with the other extreme stress factors we’re all facing.
As for me, I’m lucky now. I’m looking at a pantry full of cans, a freezer full of meat and vegetables, and a crisper with a few remaining carrots and greens. We’ll run out of onions tonight. But this is nothing. This feels positively luxurious compared to the time I inadvertently lost 30 pounds because I was trying to live on the cheapest diet I could figure: scrambled eggs, broccoli, and fortified cereal.
Meanwhile, my upper-middle-class friends are “anxiety baking” and complaining about having to wash so many dishes. I’m part of a Facebook group where people are documenting their quarantine cooking. There’s a sense of solidarity and camaraderie in deprivation and in substitution. But this shared experience is very different from the quiet struggle of people who are used to going without.
Income-based food insecurity doesn’t usually appear on social media. People aren’t humble-bragging on Instagram about having to feed the kids mayonnaise and ketchup sandwiches. Poor Americans suffer their food-based anxieties in silent shame.
This isn’t intended to belittle middle-class Americans for feeling anxious about running out of baking yeast, nor is it intended to shame anyone who is, on some level, enjoying the adventure of doing without. These are anxious times and we all need to make our fun where we can.
But if you’re new to this game, remember that your creative “quarantine cooking” or “eating out of the pantry” may actually look ridiculously sumptuous to people who suffer from chronic food insecurity. For one in 10 families, constant food-based problem-solving is just everyday life, and there’s no real hope that this gnawing anxiety will go away when the pandemic abates.
Felisa Rosa Rogers is a freelance writer who lives in backwoods Oregon. She enjoys writing just about anything, but is best known for her essays on food, poverty, and the intersection of conservation and rural economic development.