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There are a lot of people in the U.S. who are hungry right now. In fact, of course, there are a lot of people around the world who are hungry, and it’s not just right now.

But I’m as focused on my own location and culture as anyone. I’ve been short on food and I know a lot of formerly middle-class families in this country are now short on food. Probably a lot of the nearly-one-million people who live just in this county are short on food. You need to do what you can, for yourselves as well as for your community.

First let me recommend Sharon Astyk’s work on food security. She writes a blog that you can read for free and books that you can hopefully get from a library or a friend, or maybe you can buy yourself a copy. I recommend Independence Days as a good book to start with, as it walks you through the process of storing a lot of cheap food for yourself and your family, as you can and depending on your own resources. I have met Sharon – we used to be in the same grad school program – but I’m not recommending her just because I like her. She is primarily concerned with the life we will all live as the economy necessarily changes because of the end of the era of cheap fuels and the beginning of a much warmer planet. But even if you personally think global warming is a crock and that the solution to our energy problems is more drilling in Alaska, if you need to put food on your table, I suggest you learn from Sharon’s writing. Independence Days in particular has helped me reduce my grocery bill – I am storing more, and more wisely. She also has great thoughtful lessons on how to store food without spending money you don’t have. If you want to learn how to dehydrate food in your car – and which foods you can and should dehydrate – Sharon’s your source.

You can find other blogs out there that will give you not just ideas on how to cook cheaply, but perhaps a community of support and help. I like reading Two Frog Home’s blog, especially on eating from food stored in the pantry and other cheap things to do. You really have to wade through a lot of dieting and other types of food blogs to find these kinds of blogs – look for blogs on sustainability and frugality. Also stay the hell away from cooking blogs per se. They’re almost always about how to keep your hollandaise from breaking or something like that. I like hollandaise too but in twenty years of home cooking I’ve never made it for myself and I’m not about to start. We’re not about learning how to cook like a chef – we’re about how to put food on the table.

Figure out what resources exist locally to you to help give people food and either use them or help them. Find your local food bank. In my county there’s a food bank, which distributes food via an open-to-the-public food pantry. There’s also food shares, which do things like picking up unused food from restaurants, grocery stores, and farms, and taking them to people who need them, usually that same day. The web is a great resource for plugging in to these things, but don’t be afraid to call or visit either. Be brave. Eating is something everyone needs to do and no one is going to look down on you for wanting to eat. And if they do, then ignore them, because those people are even sadder than you feel like you are right now.

Here is a great government publication on food stamps, who qualifies for them, and how to get them. It’s important to note that you may qualify for food stamps even if you are homeless or a college student. It includes information on related programs for women and children (WIC) and people age 60 and over (NSIP).

Maybe you aren’t as low on resources as all that yet, but you’ve got to change what you have been doing to keep food on the table. I recommend two things:

First, check out other grocery stores in your area. If you’ve been shopping at the nice mega-mart, drive a mile to the dustier-looking grocery mart you’ve been avoiding all these years and check it out. We will have special blog posts on shopping at ethnic food markets, which are great places to load up on things you may really want (like spices) but have been used to paying really high prices for elsewhere. But even at a grocery store just a short way from the one where you usually shop, canned black beans might be $.89 instead of $1.09 – why wouldn’t you go there to buy some of these basic, useful foods? And lose the pride. I’m a card-carrying liberal who’s supposed to hate everything Wal-Mart stands for. But at one point living in a very rural area and unemployed, I was eating generic versions of Cheerios from Wal-Mart for half the price of what I used to buy – and was happy to get them. It’s true that long term, such shopping will become unsustainable, for your community and probably the country. (Wal-Mart, for instance, forces its suppliers to give it products at artificially cheap prices – not including what it costs to ship them to its stores, for instance – just to keep its prices low. That can’t last forever.) But if your concern is getting food on the table now, read Sharon Astyk’s books and learn how to store local food for later – and buy generic versions of Cheerios at Wal-mart while you and your kids get used to living a little differently.

Second, if you have a friend or family member who is a little more flush than you are, get them to give you a Costco or Sam’s Club membership as your birthday or holiday present (or both). It’s hard to store food in bulk if you don’t HAVE it in bulk, and while these places can be money traps, they can also be great for eating well cheaply as long as you have some self-control. If you’re the sort of person who just can’t leave the store without that extra dozen tube socks or the vat of face cream you’ll never use, then you can’t make this work for you. But if you can make a list and stick to it, you can get things you’re used to using but in much larger quantities more cheaply if you buy them in a warehouse store. DO COST COMPARISONS. These stores are tricksy. Per roll, the paper towels may not be any cheaper than the ones at your grocery store. Make a list and do price comparisons before you ever spend a dollar in the store. But there are some things you can buy very cheaply at a warehouse store and as long as you have a place to store it and will go through it within a year or so, this can be a lifesaving strategy for your family (or even for just you – though if you are feeding only one or two people you must REALLY be careful about what you buy and how long you store it). Mashed potatoes from a box, corn chips, eggs, and big packages of ground meat – there are a lot of very frugal foods that last a long time that you can get and work your way through, provided you can pay for them up front. (And hey, buy the Costco pizza for your occasional Friday-night splurge instead of buying it from a restaurant. It’s really cheap! And I’m not the one to tell you can cook for yourself EVERY night.)

And that brings me to your most important resource: you. Do not assume someone is going to be able to bail you out of your problems with money, now or ever. Do not assume that your parents will ultimately pay your credit cards off for you, that the government will allow you to declare bankruptcy, or that you will eventually get a job that will let you pay for the bills you are racking up now. You simply must not believe that. You really only have you to count on. Maybe, if you’re very lucky, you have a great partner – but that person may have just as much trouble getting more money in the future as you do. If you have a job offer in hand and you know you’ll be starting work in three weeks – then put some food on a credit card, okay, and know you have to pay it off within a couple of months. Otherwise, you have got to develop food strategies that keep everyone fed without wishing. Wishes are not money. If you have money, you know it, and if you don’t have money, you know that too. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll have money next week or next month or next year. Change your spending habits now and feed yourself (and your family, if you have one) on what you can afford now. It’s the only way.

Younger people especially seem to rack up credit card bills they cannot pay off every month, and an awful lot of that is eating out. (Suze Orman has these kids on her show all the time!) This is children failing to believe that their life is their own to live or screw up as they can. Grow up and realize: you own your own bills.

If you can cook food, you can eat food for a lot less than it would take to buy it pre-made, frozen or in a restaurant or even in a can. That’s why you’re here. Don’t let yourself down. You can do this. One step at a time. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. You’re doing the right thing and you’re brave for doing it. Since your kids (and maybe your partner) will probably only complain as you give them home-cooked meals, maybe some of them experiments that didn’t turn out exactly right the first time, let me say what you deserve to hear: Good for you. Keep it up. You’re doing the right thing. And you can do it.