Friday, March 2, 2012

My Letter To Michelle Obama

It was my plan to actually send this letter to her but there is no contact information that wouldn't send my letter into the growing junk pile. I just have to hope that this will help someone somewhere.

Dear Mrs. Obama,
I want to start by saying I appreciate your efforts to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits for Americans with the hopes to reduce the waistlines of our children. However, I find that your approach is no different than other programs in the past.
While I believe education is best for most situations, I don’t believe this is one. We know what good food is, we are bombarded with information about nutrition constantly. Much of this is contradictory but the fact remains the same – the education is out there. The problem is a majority of those with the problem don’t have the resources to change it.
My family is one. We have a weight problem that continues to be a problem. Do we understand the difference between good nutrition and bad? Yes. Do we always eat the best nutrition possible? No. Why? Because it’s not as accessible as the less nutritious foods and let me explain why.
I live in a small farming community in Eastern Washington. Just over a year ago, our community welcomed a Wal-Mart Supercenter, upping our grocery shopping opportunities to 3 stores. A neighboring community offers 4 stores, with one the same as one in our community. We have opportunities for a variety of foods, with one of those being a whole foods co-op. We are, also, a college town so a large percentage of our community has little money to spend on groceries.
We have 2 farmer’s markets during the summer but our growing season is quite short so while we can gorge on fresh fruits and vegetables during that time, we have over 6 months each year where the access to local fresh foods doesn’t exist. The past two years, we have had strange weather patterns which have limited some foods with last summer being the worst.
Now that you have an understanding of our limited shopping, let’s talk finance. I work for one of the universities in our area (we have two). I have a salary of just over $2000. I get paid twice a month. After taxes, medical and other things I bring home just under $750 each pay period. I am the sole provider for a family of three. My husband has been unemployed for over a year and continues to look for work with little success. (A side note – the universities are two of three large employers in the area and budget cuts have left many looking for work, leaving only one major employer who is hiring.) He does take on odd jobs as he can and bring homes another couple hundred a month when possible. We, also, get $226 in child support each month.
Our rent is $700. Our electric bill is $84, our local company averages the amount through the year so we can pay the same each month. Our cable, phone and internet are combined and cost us $150. We subscribed to cable when both my husband and I were working. The cost was barely $100 for all three bundled together. We signed a two year contract. The price continued to increase over time until it had increased by 50% and we were stuck. Recently we hit that two year mark and cancelled the cable but I can’t tell you at this time what we have saved. Just for basic living our expenses are $934, over half my income.
We have two car payments totaling just over $300, again we purchased them when both my husband and I were working. Our insurance is due for four months out of every six and that is $138. That brings our monthly expense to $1372.
Then there’s credit card expense. I would like to say that we didn’t have credit cards but when we had no other way to pay for things this seemed like a good plan. We were on a three year debt free plan when my husband lost his job. Sadly, our debt increases our monthly expenses nearly $400 (after paying off two credit cards when we received our tax refund). We have just now passed my income.
In the end, my husband has to find ways to make more income just so we can put gas in our cars. How does he do that? He cleans apartments for $20 (each time he cleans regardless of mess or time). He takes shifts with a recycling company digging through dumpsters for aluminum. They pay him on commission which can mean as much as $50 for three days work. He has looked into opportunities to make money from home such as selling on eBay or blogging but the money just doesn’t come in. We’re starting our own Etsy company with the hope of getting anything to help our situation.
We do get food stamps – all $92. I’m not complaining; I am grateful for every penny. That $92 is all we have most months for food and this is where the real problem happens.
I have to make $92 worth of food stretch for a month for a family of three – 2 adults and 1 teenage male. I don’t buy processed foods if I can help it. I try to cook from scratch. We eat limited meat. We’ve started to scrape together more extra funds to purchase two bountiful baskets a month. (Bountiful Baskets is a non-profit group that helps families purchase fresh produce for $15 a basket.)
Now comes the breakdown. My family prefers whole grain bread but the cost is up to $5 a loaf. We look for it to go on sale which brings the price to $2.50 to $3. White bread costs $1. So for every whole grain loaf of bread I buy on sale I can buy 2-3 loaves of white bread which actually have more slices per loaf.
I can make the bread from scratch. White flour is normally $2.50 for 5 pounds but often goes on sale for $1.99. The wheat flour is $5.35 for 5 pounds and never goes on sale.
I can buy hot dogs on sale for $.69 a pack and chicken drumsticks for $1.25 a pound. I even buy bacon at $2.25 a pound because I can make a pound last for 2-3 meals.
Lean hamburger costs $2.50 to $3.50 a pound. Boneless skinless chicken breasts sell in three pound bags for up to $10 a bag (we get them on sale at $5-6 per bag).
We like salad. I eat mine with salsa to add more vegetables. Iceberg based salads often go on sale for $.99, sometimes with $.50 off coupons. Romaine and spinach based salads go on sale for $2.50. I can’t tell you what they sell for full price because I can’t afford it at all.
We buy potatoes, carrots, celery and onions on a regular basis because they are vegetables we can afford. Washed out, tasteless tomatoes will cost us $3 a pound through the winter. Colorful peppers can sell for as much as $2 a pepper. We wanted to try Swiss Chard – nearly $3 a bunch (fortunately we found a grocer who had some they were going to throw away and sold it to us for $3 for 2 bunches).
I can make a meal out of pasta and canned sauce for about $2-3. We pick the best sauce with the most vegetables at the best price but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. The sauces are loaded with preservatives and salt. Of course, we can only afford white flour pasta which often sells for $1 a pound. The whole wheat or more healthy choices are often twice that.
I had thought to include the school lunch issue since my son gets free lunches but I believe there is enough discussion out there about that.
We do have the option of getting commodities, a once a month government distribution of food for the poor. This past month the selection was a 5 pound bag of potatoes, 2 packages of chicken drumsticks, a can of beef stew, a can of tomato sauce, a package of dried plums, a package of spaghetti and canned peaches. We don’t get the commodities because we don’t eat enough of the food.
Do I have a great solution for you? No, because it’s not a simple answer. I’d love to see an increase in my food stamps or see more programs like Bountiful Baskets (and perhaps have them accept food stamps). I’d love to see the food that is given out from government programs to be healthy and fresh. To be honest, the processed foods they give out in the commodities are so awful that most people won’t eat them. I know several households that have a pantry full of commodities that they don’t know what to do with because it’s not something they eat.
I know you can’t make the big changes. How are you supposed to fight the rising price of healthy food? How are you going to help those who need more than education? I know I want to eat healthier and it kills me to have to cross off half the healthy things on my list because I can’t afford them. I hate that I have to choose a less healthy option because it’s cheaper. What we really need is a company that is willing to risk their bottom line to provide inexpensive healthy whole foods so that the demand can be met. We have a tough time voting with our dollars when our dollars don’t go very far.
Thank you for your time,
Sara Thompson

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