Celtic Merlin's Journal
Posted by Celtic Merlin in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Fri Jun 19th 2009, 02:58 PM
So Iím minding my own business on Monday when I happen to read a little something posted on Democratic Underground titled, ďCooking in a Coffee PotĒ. The author makes fine use of his text to take us down a road nobody wants to travel Ė homelessness. Itís a very well-written piece and you can read it at http://www.democraticunderground.com/discu...
My response to the author included an offer to help him with some of the things I learned about finding food when I was living on nearly no income 27 years ago. I offered an e-mail address for him to contact me, but I havenít heard from him yet. I did, however, hear from somebody else who wanted the information to pass along to a homeless relative. So, I spent a few hours putting some of my best methods of finding food into text form and sent them off.
Then today, I read that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over one Billion people on this planet will suffer from hunger this year. Not the kind of hunger you and I are used to feeling because we skipped breakfast or lunch Ė oh, no. The level of hunger which brings on malnourishment. The kind of hunger which gives disease an opportunity to kill people who would otherwise be perfectly able to fight it off. Yes, that kind of hunger. The grinding, everyday, no-relief-in-sight kind of hunger. Suffered by over a Billion people this year. Thatís more than 1 in every 6 of the people on Earth. Thatís a lot of hunger.
You can read the report from the FAO at http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/2056... /
It seems that the biggest problem is the price of food combined with global economic crisis. Itís not that we arenít growing enough food, itís that so many people canít afford to BUY it.
Since I canít possibly begin to feed that many people, I thought that I might be able to help some folks here in the USA find at least some of the food that they need. Iím making my suggestions available to the folks here and on DKos in the hope that the information will find its way to the people who need it. You may agree with it, you may disagree with parts of it, you may even have suggestions of your own to add. Thatís all fine with me. I added a short rant at the end.
So if you know of somebody who can use this info, please pass it along to them in whatever way you can Ė voice, hard copy, text file, etc. I ask only that it go out in its entirety Ė with or without the rant, but with all the rest of it intact. Add to it if you want. Just spread the word, please.
While there are likely others who can help with finding shelter, work, and other necessities - I learned alot about finding, storing, preparing, and eating a fairly decent diet when I was in a pretty hard situation for about 8 months. At that time, work was difficult to come by. Some employers even cheated their people out of a day (or even an entire week) of wages for which we'd already worked. Hence, cash was a rare commodity and this made food just as difficult to be had. You have to eat if you're going to survive, look for work, and improve your situation. Remember that while your current situation may suck ass like no other, it is NOT permanent. While we all wait for the economy to improve and employers to begin hiring again, you *can* make it through to the other end of this and you will. Here is some of what I learned about food when I was in a tough spot. I hope that you find some useful stuff in here.
First things first - you have to find it before you can eat it.
Let's begin with the worst-case scenario - no money at all.
Primary rule #1: NEVER eat out of dumpsters and garbage cans! You have a better chance of acquiring a food-borne illness than finding anything of value in these places. This often leads to diarrhea and dehydration, conditions from which you cannot afford to suffer. I won't go into the many levels of filth which exist in the trash. Let's just agree right here and now that unless you're in imminent danger of starvation, this is worse than hunger. If you're in bad shape, even small American towns have shelters, missions, and Salvation Army facilities which will give you a free meal. Some might put you through a religious service for it, but the food is good, clean, hot, and nutritious. Go to these places before you even consider dumpster-diving for dinner.
In addition to the charitable organizations above, you might be able to find a little food at an American Red Cross organization as some of them keep emergency food pantries for disaster relief. Many have moved to restaurant gift certificates in lieu of handing people food, but they might be worth a try. Churches and food banks are also possibilities. Explain that you're homeless and hungry. Nobody who works at these places is cold-hearted. You can find lists of charitable sources of food in the yellow pages. If you live in a city large enough that it has fishing docks, or a trucking terminal where food comes into the city, you can usually scrounge some things at places like this. Again, avoid their trash bins. These places won't throw away anything of value. Always be polite and respectful when you ask for food. If the people who can give you something to eat decide that they like you, they're not only more likely to give you food now but will be apt to give you more food in the future.
And don't ask the same people every day. Once or twice (at most) per week is about as often as you can hit the docks and terminals without wearing out your welcome.
Finally, you might find good eats at local restaurants, pizza shops, bakeries, caterers, bars, delicatessens, grocery stores, hotels, and hospitals. These places can be great or they can be dead-ends. Most franchise operations are required to destroy leftovers - mostly to discourage lines of homeless from forming at their back doors every night. Family-owned places are best. Again, don't wear out your welcome and always be polite. Ask for the food that they were planning to toss out anyway - leftovers, kitchen mistakes, day-old bread, etc. And here's where being smart can really help you out. You want to go to the back door of these places just as the kitchen has about stopped serving for the night, but before they've started cleaning up. This is when any leftovers and mistakes are either going to be eaten or trashed. Bakeries close much earlier in the day than restaurants. Some places don't operate Sundays and/or Mondays. Days and hours are posted on the front doors of most places - read them. Most grocery stores operate 7 days a week. Learn where to go, when to go there, and who to talk to. Remember names! Say, "Thank you." Hospitals serve three meals a day, every day of the year. Save the hospitals for Sundays and holidays. When you thank the generous souls who are willing to hand you food, ask them if you can return next week. If you're there on a Thursday night, ask if you can come back next Thursday. By asking, you're primarily finding out if they consider this a one-time thing or might be willing to help you out again. Also, you're likely to see the same nice person working the same shift and you may be able to develop a long-term deal with them. If this happens, NEVER miss a week. You may give the impression that you don't appreciate their generosity. If they come up dry one week, thank them anyway. If they come up dry 2 or 3 weeks in a row, they likely don't want to see you anymore. Take the hint.
Primary Rule #2: NEVER complain about what you are given - even if it stinks. If a place hands you sub-standard, unclean, or spoiled food - simply don't go back. If the bread is stale or hard, so what? The first time you complain is the last time you'll see any food from them. Yes, this week's danish may have been kinda unappetizing, but next week's bagels or loaf of bread could be terrific!
And while this may sound cold, it's a hard truth: Don't share your information about where you're getting food with ANYBODY unless you are leaving the area, have found work, or won't need that food any more for some other reason. Share your food when you can, but not the source. We are discussing survival here, aren't we? If anybody asks where you got the hot turkey sandwich you're eating, tell them you found it in the parking lot behind Denny's or some other such lie. If four guys start showing up at one of your food sources, it my very well dry up - especially if management or an owner finds out.
Have something in which to carry your food. It should be easy to carry around with you and be waterproof for those rainy days. Wet bread sucks! I had a paper grocery bag that had handles. I kept a double layer of plastic bags on the outside and one to cover the top so that the contents stayed dry. Alot of grocery stores now sell permanent grocery bags made of fabric. For a buck or two, they're well worth it. Forks, knives, spoons, and napkins can be had at most any Wendy's, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. The same goes for sugar, Sweet-n-Low, salt, pepper, and ketchup. The fast-food joints probably won't give you any food - ever - but you can hit them up for the other things you'll need. Take handfulls.
Metal utensils can be a problem if the cops stop you with a "dangerous" metal knife in your pocket. If you have a fairly permanent and secure place to keep your stuff, that's a different story - keep them there. Else, the plastic stuff works damned well.
Primary Rule #3: Avoid shoplifting and thievery. It will make more trouble for you than it's worth.
That covers the "zero dollars" scenario. Now, how about the "I've got a few bucks, but not much" scenario?
Here, we assume that you have at least one room to sleep in, access to some form of refrigeration, a way to heat food and water, and at least minimal security for your belongings.
You can use any of the methods listed above in the "no money at all" scenario to find food, but with a few American dollars in your pocket, you can supplement these methods (or replace them entirely) with a trip to the grocery store. I'll get into the specifics of a balanced diet at the end of this. For now, we're going to go over smart shopping, storage, cooking, and dining.
What to buy and where to buy it:
Answering the "where" is going to be the biggest help, so it's first. Never buy food at a convenience store. Period. Even the 2 hotdogs for a dollar deal isn't as good a deal as buying them at the grocery store and heating them up yourself. Also, everything at these places is priced to make the store lots of profit on people who are desperate for something they can't find elsewhere in a hurry. Don't go into these places. Ever. Fast food places aren't any better a deal. Avoid them, too. Grocery stores are still your best option from a "most for your money" standpoint. Buy your food there.
Now, what to buy. Depending upon how much refrigeration you have access to, you can buy a wide variety of things to eat. If you have some freezer space, meats and frozen vegetables can be purchased and kept for weeks or months. Without access to a freezer, you'll have to buy your meat in small quantities so that you can use it up before it spoils. Don't eat spoiled meat. It's no better than dumpster-diving and has the same results. Cooked meat keeps longer in the refrigerator than raw meat. This means that you can buy a pound of raw hamburger, form it into 4 to 6 patties, cook all of them, and store what you don't eat in the refrigerator for a longer period of time than the unused meat in its raw state.
From a purely nutritional standpoint, there is no difference between a t-bone steak and lean hamburger. Skip the steaks. Chicken is, pound for pound, one of the cheapest sources of meat protein you can buy. Again, it keeps in the refrigerator much longer in its cooked state than raw (unless you freeze it) - but not indefinitely. Except for canned tuna, fish is expensive. So are things like veal, lamb, and other less-common meats. Avoid them. When you buy tuna, decide on regular or albacore (my favorite) packed in water or oil. Then, buy the best price per ounce. Take a calculator to the store with you.
Canned goods keep literally for years. Buy only those canned items which you can stomach. If canned corn is okay with you, buy some for those times when money is tight(er). If you hate canned peas, don't buy them. You won't eat them anyway, so that money is simply wasted. If you have a few extra dollars, try to build a small stock of canned goods that you can and will eat. They will come in handy when you need them, they require no refrigeration, and the packaging is nearly indestructible. Even rats have a hard time with canned goods.
Next on the list are dry goods. These include pastas, ramen noodles, egg noodles, cereals, dried peas & beans & grains, nuts, rice dried fruit, and breads. These items also have a long shelf life, are mostly inexpensive, require no refrigeration, and are relatively good for you. Especially peas, beans, rice, grains, breads, and cereals. A loaf of store-baked, unsliced Italian bread (the kind sold in a white paper bag) - while it might get hard over time - won't get moldy like the soft, squishy WonderBread-in-a-plastic-bag bread. Hard bread can still be sliced and dipped into your bowl of soup. Moldy bread should not be dipped into anything. Rice is a wonderful thing. Pastas come in so many shapes that you can't possibly get bored with it. I've always liked medium shells, elbows, wagon wheels, and springs. They're a nice change from the straight noodles and they hold sauces better. Dried beans take a little longer to prepare because you have to soak them for a couple of hours before you cook them, but they're better for you than canned beans. Don't buy sweet cereals. Buy unsweetened cereals and add your own sugar. It's cheaper and you'll probably add less sugar than the cereal companies like to foist on us.
Finally, we come to things like milk, cheese, eggs, fresh vegetables, etc. These things either require refrigeration or will need refrigeration in order to last any appreciable time past the day you buy them. Yes, these things have the shortest shelf life even with refrigeration. They go bad fast, so you shouldn't buy more than you can consume in 3 to 5 days. The key here is small quantities because any spoiled food is 100% wasted money.
Now, on to cooking and dining.
If all you have is a hotplate, you're not in bad shape. Water can be heated through a coffee maker. Electric skillets can fry food and boil water. Access to a stove is, of course, best. Perfectly good used cookware and appliances can be found at places like Goodwill stores and church-based resale shops. You'll need a couple of pots and at least one skillet. Plates, bowls, cups, glasses, knives, forks, spoons, and cooking utensils like sharp knives, spatulas, serving spoons, etc. can be found in these same places, and the prices are unbeatable. Don't buy a deep fryer. If food storage is a problem because of pests, humidity, or whatever - get some inexpensive food storage containers. They'll pay for themselves in no time by keeping the food that you buy edible. Remember that nothing will draw pests to your pantry faster than spilled food that isn't cleaned up properly.
When it comes to cooking food, the more options you have for heating things the better. A fully-functioning stove with four burners and a working oven will let you cook just about anything. The old-fashioned hot plate (like a single electric stove burner with its own cord) is becoming harder to find. I've always admired the electric skillet. It is very versatile, the level of heat can be adjusted, and it's easy to clean. You can boil water in it, fry chicken in it, make eggs, burgers, and lots of other things with an electric skillet. If you get one, make sure it has a lid! NEVER, EVER use propane or charcoal to cook indoors! The carbon monoxide WILL kill you dead - guaranteed.
What you cook is, of course, based on what you like to eat and can afford to buy. When money is tight, the first thing to drop off of the menu is usually fresh meats. This is mostly due to expense and storage problems. While dropping meat from the menu is okay for short periods, a little meat protein even once or twice a week is better than none at all.
Unless you have extra cash this week, shy away from prepared foods like Stouffers bread pizzas, Gorton's battered fish, and other "convenience" items. They're usually high in fat and very expensive.
Here are a few things you can make which don't cost much, but can be quite tasty, depending upon your preferences:
Make a box of instant macaroni and cheese and add a can of well-drained tuna or fried Spam cubes.
Ramen noodles can be doctored up the same way - with or without the salty stuff in the foil packet.
The macaroni and cheese powder doesn't have to be used on the crappy macaroni that comes in the box. You can follow the package directions and add it to regular elbow macaroni, small or medium shells, springs, egg noodles, etc.
If you don't use the little foil packet of flavoring in the ramen noodles, SAVE IT! You can add it to other soups, sauces, etc. when you need something to spice up an otherwise bland meal. It's mostly salt, but there's other stuff in it.
Spaghetti sauce - even the most basic jarred stuff - can be improved with a little garlic (fresh or powdered), black pepper, chunks of fresh vegetables (cook them in the sauce a little while so that they're still firm, but not crunchy), or even browned ground beef if you have some. You can also turn a can or two of tomato sauce into a "homemade" spaghetti sauce with these same techniques and ingredients. I recommend simmering canned or jarred tomato sauces for a couple of hours. It thickens them and cooks the tomato sauce, making it a nicer thing to eat.
Rice is about the most versatile food that you can cook. It's an easily-digested starch that takes anything you can toss into it - gravy, tomato sauce, Tabasco (in small quantities), meat, veggies, beans, and even eggs and cheeses. A bowl of "spicy rice" (rice with a little bit of Tabasco) with scrambled eggs added and a little Parmesan cheese sprinkled in makes a filling and nutritious lunch. Rice and frozen or fresh veggies is also good. Uncle Ben's Converted takes a little longer to cook than Minute Rice, but it's a better product. I think that it's probably a better buy per pound of rice. Use the one you like, though.
When it's time to eat, sit at a table with a plate before you. There's a certain level of dignity to be had if you make it a habit to dine at a table with a plate, a napkin, and a glass of something to drink. Yes, it's a little more work and somewhat more time-consuming than eating Spaghetti-O's with a spoon cold from the can while standing over the sink, but unless you're late for an appointment, have at least one meal a day at a table or a countertop or what have you - on a plate with a knife and fork and a glass of water.
Balanced nutrition can be difficult when there isn't alot of cash lying around waiting to be spent on luxuries like food, rent, utilities, and fine wines. Remember that unless you have to adjust your diet to a medical condition, the most basic diet should contain vegetables, cereals & grains, and bread. Buy a jar of multi-vitamins! A Centrum a day is a good way to supplement an otherwise marginal diet. They aren't cheap, but they're worth it. If you're feeding kids, make sure they get a chewable vitamin every day. Make every attempt to buy leaner meats when you can afford it. Fats are good in small amounts only. The diet of the average American is way overloaded with fats - animal fats as well as oils. And the partially-hydrogenated stuff is slow death, which is why you see so many labels screaming out "No Trans-Fats!" because trans-fats ARE the partially-hydrogenated fats. They suck. Don't eat them. Proteins and carbohydrates are good for you. I'm not gonna get into the protein debate here, nor am I going to address the different carbs you can eat. Just make sure that you eat a good variety of things, including beans, breads, cereals, vegetables, meat when you can afford it, etc.
Well, that's about it. If I were to take a couple of days to think back to that time of my life, I might have another couple of things to add. I typed this up in about three hours, but I know that I covered all of the important points. I wish that I could make myself available for questions, but that would be a hardship for me. I simply do not have the time. Besides, every situation is different and I couldn't possibly address them all. Remember that what I have written here is certainly not the last word on food and small budgets. I know that there are others who have additional good advice to give. What Iíve attempted here is merely a primer Ė some basic tips that you might be able to use to help improve life a little. Those with criticisms are invited to keep them to themselves as they will likely receive a hearty, ďKiss my ass!Ē in reply.
And finally tonight, a Special Comment:
If you found this information to be helpful, I sincerely wish you good luck as you're in a tough place to be living. If you read this out of curiosity because you're not in the situation to really need this info, I want you to remember a few things. Even 10 or 20 dollars a week per person can make an enormous difference in the nutritional life of a person or family in need. If you know somebody who could use financial help for food, help them. At least help those with kids!
If you work where food is prepared, handled, transported, and/or wasted - try to help the people who ask for help - even if they don't ask you directly, but especially if they do. Most folks who ask for food don't do so because they want to save their money to gas up their Hummers. They ask for food because they are hungry and have no place else to turn. If you have perfectly good food that would otherwise go into a trash can, try to put it into somebody's stomach instead. It's the right thing to do.
Food which is left over from weddings and other banquets should be sent to local shelters, missions, etc. The problem is that most caterers, restaurants, and institutions throw away almost all of the leftovers, kitchen mistakes, and other perfectly good food that they don't serve. In today's America, this is criminal. Yes, it's a criminal act to throw away food which could feed hungry people, and those who have even moderate quantities of food that don't at least try to donate it to people in need should be charged with a crime, convicted, and put into jail cells for a week or two. But, we don't charge you with a crime for not feeding hungry people in America. Instead, we charge you with a crime for not paying your bills to Corporate America. Yes, if you write a bunch of bad checks to General Mills, Kraft Foods, and Tyson Chicken for food you used to feed the homeless, the hungry, and the otherwise destitute - you can be put in jail. If, however, you deny food to fellow Americans who are hungry or even starving by throwing perfectly good food into a landfill - that's just fine. Because the people who make the laws in America are not hungry and have probably never ever been hungry. And I don't mean the kind of hungry these people feel because the filet mignon they're having at today's banquet is late being served and they missed lunch (or drank lunch) - I mean the kind of hungry you feel when you haven't eaten anything decent for two or three days. Lawmakers don't miss many meals. Ever seen an underweight congressman? Remember Dennis Hastert? That fat bastard could barely waddle up to the microphones he was to speak into. Most congress people were rich before they got into politics. Many come from rich families. None have, to my knowledge, ever faced homelessness. While we can't possibly expect these clueless dolts to provide meaningful help to average Americans who are otherwise in need, we can certainly try to help each other when we're in a position to do so.
I don't mean the last slice of pizza in the box or the leftover mashed potatoes from last night's dinner. I'm talking about real quantities of food. The levels of food that restaurants (are you listening Wendy's and KFC?), caterers, schools, hospitals, colleges & universities, the Pentagon cafeteria, Las Vegas casinos, the White House, the cafeterias in the Capital Building, and the dining halls on military bases waste all the time. These places send literally TONS of food to rot away in landfills every single day of the year.
This nation SHOULD decide to throw our extra food into each other instead of into garbage dumps. It would be the right thing to do, so why aren't we doing it?
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