We FINALLY finished our challenge! It was tough-way tougher than I expected, but I learned so many valuable things from the project.
1. Cooking Skills-My cooking skills have improved immensely over the course of this project. I had some basic skills, but I didn't realize how much I didn't know! I've gotten so much faster at chopping veggies :) We did struggle with timing the cooking of different components of the meal. It often turned out that one part was done while we were still working on cooking another part. It got better as the project went along, but it's still not 100%. So much of cooking is about timing-and that's a skill that I don't have a lot of experience with. So many of the critics of healthy eating say that a barrier to eating healthy is a lack of skills. I can say that the more you cook the easier it gets-just give it a shot. We didn't ruin anything and most of our meals were edible. One of the biggest barriers to cooking is fear-I'm usually reluctant to try new things in case I mess them up. This project forced me to try new things and most of them worked out well. I feel more confident in my cooking skills and I've learned lots of new things. It also helped to bounce things off my mom (who is an excellent cook)-she was one of the most ardent readers of this blog and she would tell me what I could have done differently and how I could have made the meal quicker and easier. It was great to have a mentor to help me out with some of the facets of the project. Honestly, I don't think the excuse that you don't have cooking skills is valid. Anyone can learn and practice makes perfect! Don't be afraid to try new things and give things a shot. If you can find a mentor to help you it is so beneficial and valuable.
2. Cooking Equipment-This was a definite barrier to eating healthy. Many of the meals on this menu required several pots and pans, multiple sets of measuring spoons etc. None of the equipment required was specialty equipment, but it required a lot of it at once. There was no way you could only own one pot and make these meals. DH and I went to Wal-Mart and priced the kitchen equipment we used for this project. We selected the cheapest things we could find (our own pans are expensive Calphalon as you see in the pictures-we didn't price anything that expensive). The total cost for all of the equipment we used would be 226.78 (not including sales tax)! Kitchen equipment can often be found cheaper at garage sales and Goodwill-but it was still a lot of money. Obviously food stamps don't cover kitchen supplies and if you don't own kitchen supplies it would be easier to make meals that can be made in one pan or in the microwave. These meals can still be healthy though-all of that comes down to choices-however following this plan would have been difficult if not impossible.
3. Costs-It's obvious that healthy eating is EXPENSIVE! We spent way more than our allotment and more than we usually spend on groceries. The average food stamp budget is $3.00 per day (Source: A Place At The Table)-We were spending between $5.00 and $10.00 per day on these meals! There were ways to make them cheaper and I have many healthy recipes that don't require as many ingredients. If we were limited to $3.00 per day it would be difficult to find healthy meals. It's sad when processed, packaged foods are less expensive than produce-especially when those packaged foods take more to make and produce. This is something that needs to be dealt with-however I'm not sure that I have a solution. Part of the issue is cultural-demand drives down prices and the trend has been towards packaged foods. America doesn't value meals and family meals the way other countries do-it won't be until we create a demand for fresh food and create a culture of healthy eating that things will change. It is still possible to eat healthy at an inexpensive cost however, especially by buying in season foods and foods that are locally grown.
4. Time-This was the big issue! A lot of nights I was tired after work or had other things that needed to get done. It was hard to find the time to spend 2-3 cooking a meal and cleaning up when we had other things that needed to be done. It was hard to find time to come home and cook a lunch on the weekends-it was much easier to pick something up in town for lunch when we were out running errands. My mom revolves her day around meal times-and she arranges her chores so that she can be home at meal times (a very European thing). This is not something that is ingrained in American culture and therefore is difficult to do. It is cheap and easy to swing through a drive through, but it isn't the healthiest option. We must start prioritizing food over other things-which will be a cultural change-in order to make healthier choices.
5. Lack of education/mixed priorities-Healthy food must be the number one priority for a family. Many families don't have the education needed to make healthy choices-it should be a mandatory requirement that in order to receive government aid you must take and pass a class on budgeting, wants vs. needs, basic cooking skills and healthy eating. If you don't own basic cooking equipment it would be supplied during the course. A lot of the families I know don't know how to budget and they waste their money on things that aren't necessary. If you don't have the money to feed your family you don't have the money for ANY extras-that's just life. We worry so much about keeping up with the neighbors and fitting in that food falls to the lowest rung-that is something that needs to change! I know it is difficult to live on a minimum wage job-and I don't advocate cutting government aide-but it needs to be used wisely. I do advocate for austerity measures for those who are receiving government aide-not because they don't deserve nice things but because they can't afford them. When I can't afford something I don't get it-simple as that. I know several families who qualify for aide but don't take it-and they have to live without many "nice" things just to meet the basics of life-why should they be any different than those who are receiving aide. We need to increase education and teach financial responsibility-I teach a course to my 8th graders and it's surprising how many of them think it's okay to get credit cards and not pay them back or to buy things you can't afford. We have become a culture of greed, debt and instant gratification. It is more important to have designer clothes and an iPhone than it is to feed your family healthy meals. This is something that needs to change in our culture-and I'm not sure how you go about changing cultural norms. Our priorities need to change in order to make our country a success.
6. Unwilling to try new things: People tend to be stuck in their ways and not want to try new things-I know I am! This project forced me to try foods I've always rejected. I discovered a love for salads and bananas which was awesome! You just have to be willing to try anything. One of my biggest frustrations is to watch my students toss 90% of their school lunch (that is free to them) because they don't eat apples (or any healthy foods) yet still find the money to buy a bag of chips from the a la carte lane. Why do we subsidize families that have the money to give their child extras at lunch? Why do we allow kids to get away with not eating healthy foods? It should be a requirement that you try at least a few bites of each food-you don't know if you will like it until you try it. Unless kids are exposed to healthy foods they aren't going to like them. We have to bring education into the schools (and the homes) and encourage healthy eating and healthy choices. We also need to change our parenting styles to stop the culture of entitlement and kid led mealtimes etc. Parents need to be parents and require healthy choices from their children.
Overall, I felt like this particular project was a failure in terms of cost. Most of the recipes were good, but they cost WAY too much. I do feel that healthy eating is possible on a limited budget, but this plan was not well thought out. We need to consider all the barriers and objections and find ways around them. We need to make meals that are quick and easy so that those who work or who are disabled can still prepare them. We need to find things that you can make ahead and freeze, things that don't require kitchen equipment or even electricity to make and things that are portable. We need to expand the availability of healthy foods and full service grocery stores in rural and inner city areas. We need to expand the food stamp budget in order to allow familys the money to eat healthy. I also think that limited amounts of food should be available on food stamps-structure it similar to the WIC program where certain foods are approved for purchase. We need to work to decrease the costs of healthy food and increase the demand for healthy foods! Healthy eating is not just about money (or lack thereof)-there are so many other things that go into it. We need to address ALL facets of it-and we need to educate people. American culture is tied so closely with unhealthy choices and a lack of emphasis on food that we will have to change our whole entire culture in order to fix the problem completely. However, expanding the food stamp program, limiting what can be purchased, increasing education, making mandatory classes a requirement to receive aide, educating children in the schools about healthy eating and budgeting, increasing the minimum wage, increasing the availability of healthy foods and giving incentives for healthy choices we can make strides. I'm so glad that I did this project-DH and I struggled a lot at times but we enjoyed ourselves immensely! It was a great learning experience and it made me realize so many of the other issues that go into food insecurity! We must make changes in order to help our country-we could save so much in health care costs, environmental costs etc. if we were able to make these changes!
DH and I are still feeling very passionate about this issue-and we think we can do better that the Choose My Plate site! In the next few weeks we'll create our own 2 week healthy meal challenge and see if we can beat the government with cheap and easy healthy meals! Keep your eyes peeled for that!