Star Fruit and Shopping Carts

We had a nice Christmas, able to fly Charlotte out from Chicago, give each other a couple of nice gifts, send some cash out to the kids and grand-kids in Texas. But like about everyone I know, come January we’re feeling the pinch.

So I was comparison shopping with greater care and squelching the impulsive buying that generally typifies any expedition to the grocery store.

With the whole week to go grocery shopping, Heaven only knows why I procrastinated until Saturday. Kroger’s was packed, from the line I waited in to buy my Powerball tickets to every single grocery aisle. It was hard to pass through without waiting for clearance and everyone seemed in a bad mood. Maybe they’re all broke, too. But even amidst all the grumpiness, one woman stood out: a young mother with two children and a sour, dissatisfied expression on her face. She just looked angry, and no matter what aisle I was on, they were, too.

The elder of the two kids, a girl, looked about 12 and she pushed the grocery cart while mom snapped at little brother to stay with them and scanned the grocery shelves. “They sure don’t seem to carry a lot of family-sized things here,” she opined, scowling.

Encountering them again on the pasta aisle where they impeded all progress, she was filling one of the half-empty cardboard boxes holding ramen noodle packages, making a full case. They were on sale for $.20 ea. I waited to move past them, thinking judgy thoughts. “Give me five more,” she commanded her daughter, who swiftly complied. Letting my inner Judge run wild I thought, bet they don’t gainsay Momma if they know what’s good for them.

With other shoppers behind me I had nowhere else to go and something about her furrowed brow, the dark eyes counting plastic packages of noodles and darting about her shopping cart, made me look closer at its contents: several 1-pound chubs of the cheapest hamburger; family-sized boxes of cereal; cans of beans and bags of rice; store-brand loaves of bread; boxes of macaroni and cheese and all those ramen noodles. And my inner Judge shut up and slunk back to the darker recesses of my brain as I realized where her seemingly churlish attitude came from.

From the look of the cart, she was doing a monthly stocking-up shopping, the kind one does when one squeezes every penny earned. She wasn’t intentionally scowling, she was worried, the deep-seated, gnawing-at-the-bones worry of a mother wondering if somehow, she could make it all stretch until the end of the month. I will go out on a limb and say she didn’t spend $5 on Powerball tickets.

What is her life like? A delicate web of multiple jobs, or one, not-great-paying job that barely covers the bills? God forbid the car blows a tire, or needs a new battery; any unanticipated expense might throw her whole carefully budgeted world into disarray.

Never in my life have I wanted to buy someone’s groceries as much as I did right then.

I couldn’t do that, but I did the one thing I could,  went back to the pasta aisle and bought four cans of ready-to-eat Spaghetti O’s, which were on sale 4 for $5, for the Snack-Pack ministry at my parish. We provide take-home snacks for local schools to distribute, confidentially, to children facing “food insecurity”, the latest politically correct way of saying, “hunger”.

All weekend I’ve thought about the woman’s grocery cart, piled high with packaged, boxed, highly-processed, cheap food. Virtually no fresh fruits or vegetables, which are perishable and can be expensive. I thought about how when Charlotte was elementary-school aged and we were at the store together, I’d let her find the weirdest looking or most exotic fruit or vegetable in the produce section and we’d try it. Star fruit, Ugly fruit, kumquats, Asian pears, and parsnips were some of the oddities that made it into our shopping cart and onto the table, a few of them becoming regular players in our diet. I never counted the cost because I was more interested in her growing up to be an adventurous eater, open to trying new things and you know, it worked. But now I realize what a luxury such thinking can be, here in the richest country in the world.

And I just think that being able to try star fruit shouldn’t be a luxury.

“Food insecurity, [ … ] is a situation of “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).” – From Wikipedia.org

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