Tightening a Belt with No Notches Left

Clip coupons. Stop eating at restaurants. Grow a vegetable garden. Learn to do without.

Everywhere you look, the mainstream media–finally waking up to the economic reality facing millions of poor and working-class Americans–are suddenly full of “helpful” suggestions for those feeling the squeeze of rising food prices.

But are platitudes about how best to tighten our belts the answer?

Food inflation is at its worst in more than 17 years today, with prices having risen nearly 5 percent in the past year. The price of staple products is climbing event faster–milk and dried beans are up more than 17 percent; cheese is up 15 percent; rice and pasta 13 percent, and bread 12 percent.

With the official unemployment rate jumping by a half percentage point in May–the biggest one-month increase in 22 years–gas prices climbing to more than $4 a gallon nationally, and a growing number of families hit by skyrocketing mortgages, things are looking exceptionally bleak for many working and poor families across the U.S.

In a new USA Today poll, 54 percent of those surveyed say their standard of living is no better today than five years ago. “Fewer Americans now than at any time in the last half century believe they’re moving forward in life,” concluded a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.

That includes their access to food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of U.S. households today are either at risk of, or experiencing, hunger.

One bleak sign: Hormel, the company that produces the canned pork product Spam, reported a 14 percent jump in profits for the last quarter, largely because of a spike in sales of their exceedingly cheap product.

Anita Rhodes, a single mother of three living in Oakland, Md., who makes $374 every two weeks, recently told National Public Radio that she has been forced to begin shopping at a local grocery store selling expired food and damaged goods at discount prices. “The things there are all way, way past their due date, but I tried it,” Rhodes said. “The first box [of cereal] I opened had bugs in it.” She returned the box to the store to get her money–$1–back, because she couldn’t afford not to.

The family has been forced to cut out paper towels, bottled water, chips, cookies, candy and toiletries. “I don’t even look at roast right now, just because it’s so expensive. I looked at a chuck roast, and it was $15.”

According to Rhodes, if things prices continue to rise, she may be forced to take more drastic action. “I can shoot a deer,” she says. “I can do that. I can shoot a turkey. So I will feed my kids one way or another.”

And it’s not just people in rural areas who are being forced to make such choices. High school senior Brighton Early, who lives in Los Angeles, told NPR that she has gotten used to “finding flexibility” in her weekly shopping trips with her mother.

When shopping at the regular grocery store became too expensive, Early and her mother started getting their food at the local Chevron gas station–where the cashier gives them a 40 percent discount on leftover apples and bananas. As she wrote in an essay:

To ensure the best selection possible, my mother and I pile into our 20-year-old car and pull up to the food mart at 5 p.m. on the dot, ready to get our share of slightly overripe fruits.

Chevron shopping started like this: One day my mother suddenly realized that she had maxed out almost every credit card, and we needed groceries for the week. The only credit card she hadn’t maxed out was the Chevron card, and the station on Eagle Rock Boulevard has a pretty big mart attached to it…

Grocery shopping at Chevron has its drawbacks. The worst is when we have so many items that it takes the checker what seems like hours to ring up everything. A line of anxious customers forms behind us. It’s that line that hurts the most–the way they look at us. My mother never notices–or maybe she pretends not to.

I never need to be asked to help the checker bag all the items. No one wants to get out of there faster than I do. I’m embarrassed to shop there, and I’m deathly afraid of running into someone I know. I once expressed my fear of being seen shopping at Chevron to my mother, and her eyes shone with disappointment. I know that I hurt her feelings when I try to evade our weekly shopping trips.

As food prices rise, many families are being forced to ask for help in the form of government assistance and food stamps.

In some places, applications for food stamps have doubled in the last year. According to federal statistics, in March alone, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps–up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier. Nearly half of households receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults.

And with food stamp benefits averaging just $1 per person per meal, many recipients who found the benefits pitifully small during the “boom” are now finding it nearly impossible to stretch what little they get.

Debby Missimi, director of food services for Family and Community Services, which offers hot meals and runs food pantries in Kent and Ravenna, Ohio, told the Akron Beacon Journal, ”When people think about the hungry, they think of a homeless person walking down the street without food. With this economy, that’s not the case. It could be your neighbor. It could be someone in your family. It could be someone who sits next to you in church. In this economy, the face of hunger has changed.”

Laura Diaz, a mother of four, whose husband works as a machinist in Chicago, got $332 in food stamps to feed her family–for the entire month of June. Her husband’s paycheck, she told NPR, goes almost entirely to pay for the family’s mortgage. And while she would like to work, without a high school diploma, she fears there’s no way she would be able to make enough to even pay for child care.

The money isn’t enough to make it through to the end of the month, so Diaz volunteers at, and receives assistance from, Casa Catalina–a neighborhood food pantry that serves more than 300 families each day.

According to America’s Second Harvest, the largest food bank in the U.S., demand across the U.S. is up 15 percent to 20 percent over last year, and many food banks are having difficulty coping. CBS News recently reported that virtually all food banks in a recent survey said demand was growing–and more than 80 percent said they were unable to meet that rising demand.

“Having a job isn’t enough anymore,” Marcia Paulson, spokeswoman for Great Plains Food Bank in North Dakota, recently told Reuters. “Having two or three jobs isn’t enough anymore.”

“Milk is just as much as gas prices these days,” a tearful Stephanie Smith told CBS News as she waited to pick up food with her daughter at a mobile food pantry in Dover, Tenn.–where the number of families signing up has almost doubled since October.

Smith was forced to leave her minimum wage job when her salary could no longer cover the cost of child care and her commute to work. “This is hard, to have your kids watch their parents go through this,” she added.

Unfortunately for Smith and the hundreds of others who have come to rely on the Dover food pantry, the state money that funded it is due to run out this month–and has not been renewed.

Olga Medina, who works full time providing home care for the elderly in Douglas, Ariz., told Reuters that her $1,100 monthly paycheck is no longer enough to support her, her parents and her sick child. To make ends meet, she now looks for milk, fruit and vegetables in dumpsters outside of her local supermarket each week. One day last month, she waited in line with 147 others outside the Douglas Area Food Bank for a grocery handout because she had no bread.

“We have to put up with a lot of humiliation just to survive,” she said, putting on a pair of sunglasses to hide tears. “It’s not dignified, but we are hungry, and hunger is ugly.”

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Andy said on June 14th, 2008 at 8:27am #

    The moral of the story is not to have kids unless you prepare for it (save money).

  2. Vincent Fischer said on June 14th, 2008 at 9:01am #

    Thanks for including the article on this website. It is important.

    Here is the CBS video about food lines Tennessee:

  3. Edwin Pell said on June 14th, 2008 at 4:03pm #

    Overpopulation. Time to close the borders.

  4. Jack D said on June 14th, 2008 at 5:44pm #

    And even hungry people still desperately cling to the belief that a
    Democratic Congress/President will somehow(magically) save them
    (from themselves).A Democratic president signed NAFTA, not that it
    matters. Any president will sign ANYTHING he/she is told to sign by
    their Keepers. So, as the jobs flowed OUT of the country, the immigrants
    flowed IN.It doen’t really matter if they’re legal or not, their impact on
    a rapidly dwindling job supply sjould be obvious. Some nationalities are
    just better educated than others, typically. Indians and Asians are
    assimilated into almost any small town today as easily as a metro area.
    The generally less-educated Latinos ( certainly not all, of course) must
    congregate in metro areas mainly, where unscrupulous contractors will
    pick them up from the throng that gathers daily at 7-Eleven, for cheap
    day labor, and no benefits costs.The fading availability of jobs in the
    Midwest precludes their participation in that market, unless folks who
    can’t speak English want to do telemarketing.
    So what’s this got to do with all the people dining at the Market St.Family
    Rescue Mission tonight ? Alot. In the not-too-distant past, Americans
    who were willing to hustle could find work. Climb the economic ladder.
    Now, in more and more places in the U.S., these same Americans and
    their children CAN”T FIND WORK. Thank you, NAFTA and uncontrolled
    immigration! Do you self-righteously proclaim that the millions who
    have lost their homes were either gluttonous consumers of uneeded
    crap at Circuit City, or imprudent real estate speculators? No, actually
    the bulk of them will ultimately prove to be folks who could not foresee
    they would lose their job, and now they CAN”T FIND WORK.
    Human nature, as a defense mechanism, shields itself from the harsh
    realities that we witness crushing other human beings, here and around the world. Not all, but most of us ignore, even ridicule the plight
    of the other, until, of course, we become they.Until we lose our job.
    Until we can’t afford the essentials. Until we find ourselves surrounded
    by people who may not speak English, but who can somehow find a job,
    and can afford the essentials.
    This grotesque and even deadly situation in America today is no accident.Years of carefull planning and political manipulation by our
    Keepers has borne fruit for them.And yet the Zombie Nation sits
    staring at their TV”s like it’s still 1953. The pod people religiously march
    in lock-step to the lies of their barking dog Republocrat or Demopublican ( Manchurian) Candidate. And we paid for all this
    present and future horror with our taxes.
    In light of just this small bit of revelation of our mountainous ignorance,
    and if Karma is a reality ( It is), should the surprise be so terrible if we
    too, soon find ourselves munching on Spam, with moldy pastry
    for dessert ?

  5. Hue Longer said on June 15th, 2008 at 2:00am #


    “Some nationalities are
    just better educated than others, typically. Indians and Asians are
    assimilated into almost any small town today as easily as a metro area.
    The generally less-educated Latinos ( certainly not all, of course)”

    India does not border the US….the Indians going there do not represent the millions of others. You are making some logic errors in your assumptions. There are plenty of folks in the US from South and Central America who are better educated than the average US cit.

  6. anonymous said on June 15th, 2008 at 7:34am #

    The last sounds like an idea for the next TV game show. After all, we’ve already got ‘are you smarter than a 5th grader?’ Maybe it will be Univision that does ‘are you smarter than an American?’

    Of course, the only way the Americans have a chance is if all the questions are trivia about American Idol contestants.

  7. corylus said on June 15th, 2008 at 11:06am #

    Closing borders? Saving money years in advance to buy food just because you have a kid or two? Andy and Edwin, misanthropes and racists. Go to hell, both of you!

  8. Jack D said on June 15th, 2008 at 1:39pm #

    I don’t usually enter a second reply, but do so with respect for
    Ms. Colson’s timely article . My take on immigration issues, errors in
    logic notwithstanding, are informed by my having “immigrated” to
    CA, PA, NY, NJ, VA, and TN, from my base in OH ( dreadful place,sorry )
    I have lived in the homes of several Spanish families. Most of my
    immigrant friends (and girlfriends ) hail from throughout South and
    Central America.Enough said about that.This country was built on immigration. When a wave becomes a tsunami, however, and, at least in
    the Southwest, much of the tsunami appears to be antithetical ( Nation
    of Aztlan ) towards the current non-Latino populace, it’s an issue.
    But only incidental to this article, which is about food.
    So now I’m going to say some things that are going to make some folks
    angry. Excellent. Anger motivates , or at least it should.
    Alot of people in America DESERVE to be hungry ( Gee, I hope I”M not
    one of them!) Not that I concur with Kissinger infamously branding
    80% of the world as “useless eaters”. Actually, the sooner Henry stops
    eating, and breathing, the better for all of us.
    It’s just that we sat on our fucking asses, for so many years, watching
    OTHER people starve and die, on TV. TV! Not even in person. If we had
    been there in person, our gut reaction would have been to help, right
    now, somehow, someway. And unfortunately, for those kind souls who
    do donate money or essentials, their largesse often winds up in the pockets of some miserable little fascist bureaucrat, ours or theirs.
    Much of America’s tax dollars goes to accomplish genocide. Either
    overtly, through outright illegal military invasion, or covertly, through
    the satanic machinations of the C.I.A. , Americans have financed
    the Apocalypse.
    So now, perhaps, the chickens of a blase, mindless, flag-waing Americas’
    ambitions have come home to roost. Maybe God just saves the white people for last. Whatever. But as I mentioned in my prior reply,
    individuals, and nations, do not just walk away from their Karma. It must be met. Lived through. After all, America, you always said you
    can run, but….

  9. Edwin Pell said on June 15th, 2008 at 4:56pm #

    Corylus how do you figure I am racist. I favor ending all immigration regardless of skin color. For the benefits of all Americans regardless of skin color. Race has nothing to do with overpopulation. Overpopulation is caused by too many people (regardless of skin color).

  10. Giorgio said on June 15th, 2008 at 5:37pm #

    “Overpopulation. Time to close the borders.”
    writes one,

    “Thank you, NAFTA and uncontrolled immigration!”
    writes another…

    Now it’s the rabble, the uneducated Latinos and others that can’t even speak the master’s race Lingo and have invaded the US that are at fault !
    They are the source of ALL of America’s present problems…

    So here is my advice:
    Join Ron Paul’s REVOLUTION!
    It’s his agenda to control immigration into the States. He says instead of policing the borders of nations thousand of miles way, rather bring them home to control the US own borders!
    And I fully agree with Ron Paul because I know he is an honourable Man and that he would do it with understanding and HUMANELY….

    Then the “80% of the world’s “useless eaters”” would be able to have off their backs the other 20% of rapacious gluttons of the world, and get on unmolested with their own lives….

  11. Giorgio said on June 15th, 2008 at 5:56pm #

    * 20% of ‘useful’ rapacious gluttons of the world…

  12. Brian Koontz said on June 15th, 2008 at 9:21pm #

    “The moral of the story is not to have kids unless you prepare for it (save money).”

    Capitalism will be screwed if poor people stop having children.

  13. Hue Longer said on June 15th, 2008 at 10:35pm #


    My take on Paul was that he was a gatekeeper to the truly pissed of the Republicans. Watch for his upcoming endorsement of that shitty pilot

    No man owns the truth, so when a lunatic starts speaking parts of it, it shouldn’t mean that we should accept the lunacy that goes with him. I would love to have the debate between libertarians and socialists, but unfortunately, the pigs in power are so bad that they make Ron Paul’s capitalism and xenophobic wave (he may not have technically created that wave, but he’s riding it) look sane in comparison.

    To the rest of the Ron Paul Supporters…party loyalty to the end–so much so that immigration and tax cuts were put in front of you as things that were more important than perpetual war. Ron Paul may talk a lot about war, but every time I see anything from his supporters, it’s this bizarre mix of immigrant bashing, constitution waving and bleeding for the “self made” millionaire.

  14. Giorgio said on June 16th, 2008 at 3:56am #

    I bet my bottom $ that Ron Paul will NEVER endorse that snarling ‘shitty pilot’! He is aware that he will not get the nomination, but as he says his Revolution, given the momentum and as long as people support him, is to go on well past the Nov 2008 elections and beyond…
    Have you really had a good look at him, the man and his views, or is it just your socialist knee-jerk reaction to a label, the Republican label?

    “Ron Paul may talk a lot about war, but every time I see anything from his supporters, it’s this bizarre (?) mix of immigrant bashing(?), constitution waving…”

    Well don’t blame Ron Paul for what his supporters think or do…his supporters are a reflection of the general American mindset. If war mongering is part of their way of life and thinking, it’s likely that Paul’s stand on this issue will be less appealing than his stand on controlled immigration, where immigration ‘bashing’ is exactly right up their street.
    Remember he has often stated that his campaign is also to educate and enlighten his supporters which is a very commendable aim of a true, genuine leader. So I wouldn’t be too worried about some of his worped minded supporters. They are geting in the process their ‘socializing’ Education freely.

  15. carol said on June 16th, 2008 at 4:32am #

    party does matter… there is a republican infrastructure behind ron paul and he does owe favors to the party…

    Take a good look at Ron Paul and you will see a lot of things that will actually make a poor person’s life worse under the guise of “freedom”. He has no real plan to put food in front of the people that this article is about.

  16. Giorgio said on June 16th, 2008 at 4:35am #

    Just as an afterthought, I would like to add that in a video interview it had been found that his campaign had received a $500 contribution from an extreme right-winger. He was asked, now that he knows the source of this contribution, whether he would return that money.
    Paul’s answer was an emphatic NO. His reasons why were reasonable and coherent which I don’t go into now. But this is a clear example of attempts to smear this principled man with cheap shots at his character…..

  17. Hue Longer said on June 16th, 2008 at 5:49am #

    Of course I’ve looked at his views…it’s why I’d never support him

  18. Giorgio said on June 16th, 2008 at 6:43am #

    Well, Hue, good luck to you on your support elsewhere…but my gut feeling is that you will rue the day for not having done so.

    As for Carol’s,
    ” there is a republican infrastructure behind ron paul and he does owe favors to the party…”
    that may be so but he’s not likely to dance all the time to their tune if it’s against his principles. He’s the least likely to grovel at AIPAC’s feet or anybody elses as the likes of Clinton, Obama and McCain have done…if you’re looking for a saint to earn your support then you better sit around and wait for the ‘Second Coming of Jesus Christ’….

    As for making “a poor person’s life worse under the guise of “freedom””
    that’s a long debatable point. The ‘poor’ have been the horse the social engineers of this world have loved to ride claiming that they alone would reduce their plight. But history has shown otherwise. Perhaps by just giving them back some of their ‘freedom’ would by itself improve their lot.

  19. brs said on June 16th, 2008 at 12:51pm #

    I would favor that freedom from regulation and honest competition if it were truly so. But the libertarians want regulations. The debate is only about the degree and kind. Will we eliminate all laws or just the ones that do not favor the corporations and rich? Laws against armed robbery will be maintained but not against corporate fraud and theft by deception? How about honest competition. Are some people allowed a huge leg up from Mummy and daddy while others have to work for what they get? I hear so called libertarians supporting a national sales or flat tax but not an inheritance tax. A person who believed in earning your own way would eliminate all income and sales taxes because they discourage productive activity. Inheritance taxes should be one hundred percent; the heirs have done nothing to earn their fortunes. Let the rich boyos and girlies make it on their own; I did it, they can too. But the libertarians are just another variety of the fascists in the republican party who want to favor an inherited wealthy class much like the one from Europe.

  20. Edwin Pell said on June 16th, 2008 at 2:19pm #

    A mass starvation is coming. I feel no obligation to go down with the ship. Close the U.S. borders. For the purpose of saving ourselves. If you feel you must give every penny you have to save people outside the U.S. go ahead. I will not be joining you (expect for my contributions to “Save the Children” directed to Egypt).

  21. Harry A said on February 4th, 2009 at 7:13pm #

    Libertarian are not “facists”. They just want people to accept responsibility for their behavior and often laziness and inaction. The “facists “are the people who want to take from the hard working, frugal and educated (people who want to learn-whether its through experience or some other education) and give it to the lazy whiners.
    You should`nt have kids if you can`t afford to feed them. If you look at Japan-there is no welfare net and people generally only have children when they know they will be able to support them through to adulthood. The Japanese don`t pander to the whining neither should we.

  22. Jack said on February 4th, 2009 at 8:23pm #

    “Libertarian are not “facists”. They just want people to accept responsibility for their behavior and often laziness and inaction. The “facists “are the people who want to take from the hard working, frugal and educated (people who want to learn-whether its through experience or some other education) and give it to the lazy whiners.
    You should`nt have kids if you can`t afford to feed them. If you look at Japan-there is no welfare net and people generally only have children when they know they will be able to support them through to adulthood. The Japanese don`t pander to the whining neither should we.” ~ HarryA


    “Libertarians are anarchists who want police protection from their slaves.” – KS Robinson.

    The American LP party is a beast created by the fascist Koch brothers. Their agenda is forthright: kill the government beast, so that the more “efficient” corporate one can replace it, and with higher profits.