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VeggiesPhoto Credit: Sandra Jean-Pierre @Whole Foods

It takes me nine hours to cook my food – give or take two hours or so.

Usually I do my food shopping the day I decide to cook – saves my foods being cross-contaminated and ensures its freshness.  This is what I tell myself as I prep, which generally begins at least three days before the nine hour marathon cook-fest.  Prep includes: coupon hunting, list and menu making and deep contemplation on what and how much I may be able to pack into my diet this particular month, what recipes I would like to try vs. what I can afford and what didn’t work or what I wouldn’t mind repeating again.

It gets intense.

I’ve often written elaborate menus, with corresponding recipes only to tear the whole thing up and start again.  But once I settle on a menu for the month, I stick to it and begin the coupon hunting part of the prep.  Sometimes I am able to find mainstream items that are gluten free and their corresponding coupons.  Most often then not, I wind up writing to a particular company who doesn’t normally provide coupons and ask them if they do/can send me some.  They’re generally nice and respond back or don’t say anything, only for me to find some coupons in the mail weeks later.

My grocery trips though, cannot wait on coupons as the day I generally cook is the day my stamps come in: the 15th.  Which could be a Tuesday or a Sunday or maybe even a Saturday and like some invisible life-granting deity, my food budget, $200.00, appears on my EBT card, granting me sustenance for one more month.  I have to make those $200.00 count for every cent they are worth because my life, depends on it.  This is why I coupon, mostly eat chicken and generally pack my meals full of veggies and beans, because they are cheap and go a long way.

I remember when I first got stamps, some two years ago, and intrepidly called Whole foods to ask them if they accepted EBT Cards.  I wholeheartedly figured they wouldn’t, making the EBT card worthless to me as Whole Foods was my primary grocery store, being a Celiac and all.  But imagine my surprise when the friendly voice on the other end informed me that yes, Whole Foods did indeed accept EBT cards and yes, they were certain.  I checked their website just to ease my anxiety all the same.

But now, some two years later, I approach Whole Foods (and my grocery shopping in general) like a Tetris game – putting together small pieces to make the whole.  I am shrewd with couponing, matching up my menus with sales, stocking up on Buy One Get One items for a modest stock pile (just a meal or two ahead, as I can) but most importantly making sure what I am eating will be as healthful as possible.  Because in the Land of Celiac, health is King.

So by the time the day arrives for me to do my shopping and cook my food, I have to make sure I eat a hearty breakfast (usually a nice portion of dinner from the night before or a few nights ago), get my game face on and be ready to be fully spent by the days end, smelling like garlic, onions and accomplishment.

I’ve learned a few tricks along the way though, that make the process go a lot smoother.  If my shopping is substantial, I will take advantage of the option to have a store clerk come along as I do my groceries and put the items in the cart that they have procured for me.  I have my favorite people for this in just about every store.  They know that I like to roll through the store quickly and how to handle me with check-out, meaning double bag everything and to help me swipe my cards.  These folks generally are patient and efficient and know the store.

After I have my shopping done, I head home, spread out some newspaper on the dining table (to make clean up easier) and lay out my items in a way that will be most beneficial to my handling them: spices and seasonings on the right, everything else, in cooking order, on the left.  I buy disposable baking pans with every cooking and bring out my disposable utensils for mixing and stirring.  All my food is some kind of permutation of baked or made in the crock pot.  All of them.

If I haven’t abused my hands over the course of the last couple of days, I can usually get through my cooking prep in two hours. That is, breaking open the packages, seasoning the meats, prepping the veggies, etc…  If I had no choice and had to use my hands for say, folding laundry in the past few days, cooking prep will take me up to four hours easy.

I used to get angry at the gene mutations that made the muscles in my body about as strong as al dente pasta.  But then I learned to stop abusing myself further and to just enjoy the fact that even with this muscle condition, I have the privilege, the honor of fixing my own gluten free meals as I would like them.  So instead of those nine hours being spent lamenting my fate, I use them as meditations on how, by the end of all this cooking, I will have made enough safe, yummy food for two and a half to three weeks.

The middle portion of those nine hours are spent actually cooking (baking) my food.  I have to watch them, add more liquids, have someone throw in frozen vegetables, uncover then flip them, all to make this food the best and yummiest that it can be.

The tail end of those nine hours are spent packaging the family-style cooked food into individual tupperwares.  Baked chicken with stewed black beans and carrots, Stewed Beef with onions au jus with mixed veggies, GF baked pasta with spinach.  I can tell when I take my time and really meditate and consider my food vs. when my mind is so preoccupied with other things that I just put something together and get something cooked.  I really can.

I’ve been told that I over-react when I accidentally let some food over-brown or if the food just comes out a little less than what I had hoped it would.  I would probably agree but the way I see it, if it takes me three days to prep, nine hours to cook and my next two-three weeks of eating depends on what I do in that moment?  Yeah,  you’d get a little picky about how your food comes out too.

A few months ago I had to do my yearly re-certification for my stamps and got the biggest surprise when I did so.  My $200 a month allotment shrank to $25.  You read that right – $25.00 a month total.  I asked for my case to be reviewed and reconsidered and it was and I was told it would remain at just $25, regardless of my special food needs.  It wasn’t lost on me that I would have to choose between some place to live and food to eat.  And in the following weeks I pared down my already tight food menu and went with the basics – rice and beans and a protein – just enough to keep me from starving.

It didn’t take long for my body to react negatively to the new changes.  When I went for my 6 mos. labs at my doctors, after spending weeks feeling like I was moving slow motion in molasses, I found out that I was anemic again (low blood iron) and that my platelet counts were low.  Platelets get low for a variety of reasons, one of which is poor diet.  My doctor immediately had me start my iron pills and some B vitamins.  Every week since, I’ve been feeling better but other things like my water or my internet or even my cell phone (which is my only life line as I have no land line) gets cut off or gets in danger of being cut off because I need to use that money to buy food.

It makes me wonder what other folks on restricted budgets do if they have special dietary needs?

I’ve had to get clever to make sure my dietary needs are met.  I recently relayed my plight to my best friend and when she got her aunt to bring her some fresh veggies, she generously shared some with me (though she is in the same restricted budget boat with me).   I shared my low platelet counts with my family and they have made some vegetable purchases for me too.  I am thankful for every little bit because being sick because you can’t afford to buy food to get you better REALLY sucks.  I am though, trying to find some permanent fixes to my cash-flow-for-food problem.

It makes me a bit sad and daunted.  Why is this happening to me in the richest country of the world?  And why don’t I have any recourse besides essentially begging?  I know things are tough all around but why does eating well for a dietary condition have to be a question mark?  I am being made to choose between being healthy (which used to cost social services $200 in food a month) and deliberately getting myself sick because I cannot afford to do better, which will cost everyone thousands of dollars in the long run.

What are we doing United States?  What are we doing?  This is where the politics meet the people.  I’ve voted and kept abreast of the changes and I am made to live the consequences of politicians who wouldn’t be able to survive the changes they have implemented.  There is something very wrong with this.  How as a country have we gotten here?

-S

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