Well, we're effectively at 100 dollars a barrel (give or take) - I win my bet with my economist friend Steve with an easy 2 years, 1 month to spare (I was betting by 2010). This would be great news, except like everyone else I have to buy gas, so the $50 bet won't exactly offset a large investment.
And, like everyone else, I buy food too, something that is increasingly tough on the pocketbook. Food prices are up 30% overall, but some staples, like flour and milk have doubled or more in price. Now we store food in fairly large quantities, so we're still eating on older prices, but I'm in no way convinced that the crisis has occurred, so it isn't like we don't end up buying more.
Still, this does, at least to me, point out the importance of finding space for some food storage. I know those of you who live in apartments may not have a lot of additional room, I suspect the long term security and savings might be worth it - even if you have to take out your couch, put down 5 gallon buckets, cover them with couch pillows and a sheet, and make a food storage couch - I've sat on one, and it wasn't half bad. Because the truth is, there's only so much cutting back anyone can do on the budget - and emergencies happen to urban dwellers just like rural ones.
But the big issue is how do you cut back your food budget when things get tight? This may be obvious to a lot of people, but the truth is, there are millions of Americans who can't make the money meet the end of the month, and who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Of those millions, a majority are children and the elderly, two of the groups most vulnerable to even short periods of malnutrition. So making sure we can provide a healthy, balanced diet even when we're poor is an essential project. Not only that, but the diet need not be monotonous or flavorless, if you can afford even a few basic herbs and spices.
So what do you eat when you are poor? Well, your friends are going to be beans, lentils and grains. They are nutritious, tasty, simple, accessible and store well. If there's any way you can come up with the money, buy them in big bags in bulk - a minimum of 10lbs, 50 is better. Whole grains and dried beans store nearly forever (brown rice is an exception here - white stores better, but is less nutritious). You say you can't use 50lbs of beans? I bet you can - over 5 years. They will still be good, just need a bit longer to cook. You have to think ahead a bit here - remember, you'll need to soak the beans or throw them in the slow cooker or on the back of the stove the night before.
The obvious thing is beans and rice. Sweat an onion on the stove in a little oil, throw in a carrot if you've got one, some garlic. Add spices - cumin, coriander, bay and dried chilies are good, but is almost any combination. Add the beans and a little liquid - water, broth, flat beer if you've got it lying around. Cook any kind of beans for a short while, until you like the way they taste, add a little salt and eat them over rice.
But what about beans and pasta? Noodles are cheap, and while beans, red beans, kidney beans - all are terrific in vinagrette with noodles, and perhaps some vegetables or sprouts, garlic and thyme. Or what about a loaf of whole wheat bread with a bean salad - cabbage, various beans (multiple kinds are prettier), sprouts, sliced carrots in a dressing of oil and vinegar.
How about curried lentils? Cook the lentils till tender, and in another pan, sautee onions, ginger and garlic. Add curry powder and a splash of soy sauce. Serve with rice, or over chapatis, which are simple enough - mix 2 cups whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup of yogurt (if you have it - if not, just omit), some water, salt and a tablespoon of yeast together until they form a slightly wet dough. Knead briefly, set aside for 45 minutes, and then break off pieces, flatten them between your hands and cook them in a lightly oiled skillet until brown on each side. Or you can add a tablespoon of sugar to these, and serve them with jam or dip them in maple syrup.
Your other friends in fresh food department are root vegetables and cabbage. If you are shopping at the grocery store, these will be among the cheapest items available. If you can get to a farmer's market or farmstand, they will be even cheaper. Again, bulk is better - my local farmstand is selling cabbage 10 heads for 10 dollars - and these are large, heavy heads that will keep you fed for a while. Even a single apartment dweller might eat cabbage twice a day, raw in a salad, then sauteed with garlic and pepper. 3 heads will last two weeks sitting on the counter in a place with reasonably low heat. If you can afford your fridge, two more heads can be crammed in. The other five can be turned into sauerkraut or kimchi and will last even longer. 10 heads of cabbage could easily provide a large portion of your vegetable needs for 8 weeks or more for one person.
Potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, onions and carrots are generally fairly cheap at this time of year. Roasted vegetables make a superb cheap staple meal. Throw a collection of whatever roots chopped into bite sized pieces in a large roasting pan, add a bit of oil, herbs, any seasonings you like, and roast until the vegetables are carmelized and sweet. They make a great main course, a terrific side dish, a good salad mixed with sprouts, a nice sandwich between slices of bread or wrapped in a tortilla with a slice of cheese melted on them.
Squash are also often available reasonably priced, and have the advantage of requiring minimal preparation. Most can be baked in the oven until soft, with oil or butter, a few spices, and then spread upon bread. Or puree them and turn them into soup. Sautee a little onion and garlic in a touch of oil, add some curry powder or lemon pepper, as you like, add water or broth, to your taste, and the insides of a baked squash you've mashed up with a fork. Whisk until smooth.
Bean soup may be the platonic food for poor people - delicious, rich, hearty. Chop up onions, potatoes, garlic, carrots and parsnips, and sautee until just tender. Add beans - lima, white, fava, black, adzuki - you name it, and liquid. Cook until the beans are tender and the starch in the potatoes has partly dissolved. Season with tons of herbs, a little wine, maybe soy sauce. If you'd like a one dish meal, throw in some pearl barley, or rice towards the end. Or bake bread, make chapatis, make cornbread or tortillas.
What about meat? Frankly, I don't recommend buying any kind of meat that is cheap - it is almost certainly industrial meat and not good for you or your body. But if you are accustomed to meat, one option is to learn to hunt. Venison, rabbit and wild turkey are great, healthy meats.
You might buy very small quantities of healthy meats and stretch them - for those whose growing season is still going, my favorite ground meat stretcher is grated zucchini - you can use it 50-50 with ground beef or turkey. Or simply use the meat as a flavoring, they many cultures do. A small bit of chicken in a stir-fry can transform it to a heartier seeming meal. A delicious chili can be made with a half pound of beef for a large pot, a wonderful sausage soup made with cabbage, carrots, onions and a half pound of intensely flavored sausage.
Or consider talking to your local pastured poultry producer about buying the parts they often can't sell. Chicken feet make terrific soup stock, and are a delicacy in some cultures. Livers are rich in vitamin C and Iron, and absolutely wonderful tasting. Bones are often discarded by butchers of livestock, and can make wonderful, meaty tasting broth. But remember, meat is not necessary to good health, and if you are poor, you probably won't be eating a lot of it. That's ok - it isn't necessary to make food taste good, either.
Vegans can do fine as long as they can afford supplemental multivitamins, but these are expensive. Small quantities of animal products - an occasional bit of cheese or meat broth - are probably cheaper in the end if you are in a truly dire situation.
Use up every scrap of your food. Leftover garlic bread? Tomorrow's salad croutons. Stale bread? Bread pudding - mix milk or soy milk with an egg and a tablespoon of soy flour (a cheap way to replace eggs) or two eggs, add honey, sugar or maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and pour it over stale bread, and bake. Or better yet, add some bananas gone black - either the ones you shoved in the freezer or some on the day-old table at the grocers for 10 cents lb.
Did you peel the broccoli stems and cook them? There's another meal there. Don't forget sprouts - sprouting seeds bought in bulk are cheap and can cover much of your nutritional needs. What about vitamin C? Rose hips bought in bulk are cheap, but your cabbage will take care of that too.
Eggshells can be baked in the oven, ground up and added to flour for additional calcium. Forage for greens from your lawn or the area around you. Eat them fresh, but hang some up to dry and then add them to your flour as well. Try using half as much tea and coffee as usual, if you are still drinking them. Cut back on sugar, salt and fat as well - after a short while, you'll get used to it.
What's for breakfast? Oatmeal. Or if you don't like oatmeal, apples are cheap now in many places, and you can make applesauce easily enough. Then warm it up on the stove, and mix in raw oats - add a little more cinnamon - yum! Or how about rice pudding, if you have milk or soy milk. Or what about cornmeal mush/polenta - add cornmeal gradually to a couple of cups of boiling water, until it makes a thick porridge, and eat it with sweetner.
Consider accepting dinner invitations or attending events with free food. You might dumpster dive (google "freegans") or consider just asking politely of your co-workers as they toss half their meal "can I have the other half of that sandwich?" It takes courage - our society looks down on the poor so much that advertising your need seems shameful, but it isn't - the truth is that much of the growing poverty has little to do with the choices of ordinary people.
If things get really desperate, there are further options. First of all, consider applying for any poverty support programs you are eligible for - I know a lot of people resist accepting charity, and that's wise - but don't be foolish, and risk your health or your kids. If you are eligible for food stamps, WIC or or some other program, apply. Or consider visiting your food pantry when you need to. Healthy adults may be able to go to bed hungry once in a while - children should not as long as there are better options. And there still are. Talk to people at your synagogue, mosque, church or temple, or at your community center if you are hungry - they may know about resources or be able to offer help. The simple truth is that the times we are coming into may bring many people to desperation through no fault of their own - don't let shame prevent you from eating.