From statistic to survival: How one family deals with food insecurity
Dara Squires says everything, including food, feels urgent in a single-parent household
I'm a statistic: one of the one-in-eight families in our country that experiences food insecurity.
According to the 2016 Census Profile, I am one of the 24,250 single parents in our province — and also one of only 1,925 single parents with three or more children. I have three.… It feels like more sometimes.
That same census will tell you that single-parent families make about one-third of what coupled parent families do. It doesn't make sense, right? One person should make half of what two people do, when we're looking at averages.
What the census and statistics don't tell you is why that difference exists.
Why are single parents so financially strapped? Why are single parents more often underemployed?
The answer is resources.
To solve the issues around food insecurity, we need to listen to what the families do — not just their struggles, but how they meet them.
Resources and time are in remarkably low supply for a single-parent family, especially when that single parent is working. Underemployment isn't my issue. The problem is that I just can't make enough money to support my family, pay our medical bills, pay down my debt and keep my car on the road.
I work a full-time job and freelance from home on evenings and weekends. This column earns me $200. That's almost a week's worth of good groceries. It's two week's worth of bad groceries.
The biggest difference between good vs bad groceries? Good groceries are healthier, more expensive, and require more prep. Bad groceries are more processed, cheaper and my kids can pretty much make the meals themselves.
But when you're running from the office — where you've worked late to make up for the fact that you had to take a two-hour lunch to bring your child to an appointment — straight home to hop on your computer so you can meet a deadline before you collapse for the night, sometimes bad groceries are the good groceries for you.
To be honest, sometimes bad groceries are all you can afford.
Sometimes it's a stretch just to afford those. I don't always live paycheque to paycheque, but there certainly isn't any savings and investments going on.
A single car repair can mean a trip to the food bank that month.
Single-parent families are also way more likely to be suffering from debt than coupled parent families. When we lose our jobs we need to use our credit cards to buy groceries because there is no other income to keep our heads above water.
When our vehicle breaks down there's no sharing a car with your spouse for a week. Everything is urgent.
I would love to say I grow my own vegetables, but anything like that requires a committed schedule of free time. And single parents rarely can make that kind of commitment. We do what we can.
When we lived near a community garden, we'd head over and help out when we could, and take some veggies home in exchange. In the summer if we walk to the park we can forage berries. My kids love dandelion.
Of course, winter is tough. There's no foraging, there's no community garden, there are extra hours taken up with snow shovelling, and extra money taken up with Christmas and winter tires and new snow gear.
So, you learn about feast or famine.
Food waste a huge stress
I've been able to stockpile and freeze groceries when I have the money to buy them or resources to get them. When I find a bit of spare money and time I make "freezer dump" meals with healthy ingredients. They live in the freezer until I toss them into my Crockpot in the morning before work.
This assuages my guilt over not having meal prep time or good food on the weeks when I don't have spare money or time. You also learn about sacrifices and assessing wants vs needs. Sure, my kids want to be able to drink juice every day, but they're empty calories and expensive, and water is free.
By not buying juice, I can sometimes save a bit more for fruit, something exotic like cantaloupe. By eating a decent lunch at work (my employer stocks a kitchen) and drinking water for supper sometimes, I can save a bit more food for my kids.
Saving is a thing you get used to. Food waste is a huge stress in our family, especially as my kids are getting older and want to prepare their own snacks. Coming downstairs to discover your 15-year-old has made an entire sheet of french fries for just himself and plans to throw out the "leftovers" can be heartbreaking. But you learn how to turn leftovers into ingredients: cut up the fries and put them in a skillet meal as hash browns the next day.
Similarly, when that splurged cantaloupe has just a little life left and the kids don't want to eat it because it's drying out, you chop and freeze it and use in smoothies later.
And when you need to, you learn to ask for help.
You take that turkey stew the neighbour offered. You go to the food bank. You find a free supper at a church or community centre and you go, because it means just a little less stress for you.
It's not just people on assistance or the people who stick out as "poor" who avail of community supports and services. It's people like me and my family. I have a college degree and a good job and too many demands on just a little too little money.
It's people with the same sensibility about saving and scrimping, but who can't afford the deep freeze that saves us many a time. And it's people in your neighbourhood who have just had a rough month. Our family might be just another statistic, but statistics don't tell the whole story. The story comes from survival and what we as individuals do.
To solve the issues around food insecurity, we need to listen to what the families do — not just their struggles, but how they meet them — and extrapolate to a provincial and national level. I can guarantee, there is not a single parent out there who just sits on their laurels and doesn't try to solve this issue for their family.
I'd love to hear what other families are doing.
Fed Up is a yearlong series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province are struggling to access food.