Have you heard the one about the millionaire who walks into a grocery store and tells low-wage families that $75 a week is all you need to feed an adult and two teen boys?
You would if you’ve been following the ridiculous debate sparked by a Journal de Montréal story of a middle-class family of four who tried to get by for a month on a food budget of the (relatively) princely sum of $210 ($2.50 average per meal), the theoretical amount available to a family led by two full-time minimum-wage earners.
Pish-posh, chimed in François Lambert, a minor millionaire well-known to Quebecers after three seasons on Dans l’oeil du dragon, the local version of Dragon’s Den.
Lampert’s Facebook boast/post included a copy of a receipt for $50.61 that included two bags of Doritos, some maple cookies, chickpeas, onions, broccoli, ground beef, turkey burgers and a pound of butter. Add a whole chicken and four sweet potatoes he had bought earlier in the week, plus three dozen eggs he gets “free” from his farm but valued at $7.50, Lambert wrote, and the $75 total was ample sustenance for 63 healthy meals.
Well, not just with the stuff he bought that week. Apparently, food that he’d bought previously didn’t count in this week’s bill, so the menu was supplemented with leftover tomatoes and cucumbers as well as bread and fish he’d bought on special at Costco and frozen. Plus he’d get more fresh veggies later in the week, but only if the price was right.
Generously, Lambert conceded that if he was living on a minimum wage salary of $11.25 an hour, he wouldn’t have bought the cookies and chips, “saving almost $11,” that he’d have spent instead on more red meat.
You can tell that whatever it is that Lambert brings to his business enterprises, it’s not his accounting acumen. As restaurant owner Laurent Proulx later commented, Lambert’s budget breaks down to $1.19 a meal. Proulx asked his own chefs how much it would cost, with the hefty volume discounts his business can demand, to provide the strict minimum level of nourishment. They came up with $1.70 a meal, or $142.80 a week, for a heavily discounted bare-bones diet without a cent spent on anything that wasn’t absolutely essential.
I’d rather get sex advice from a Catholic archbishop than food-shopping advice from someone who doesn’t actually need to budget for their food.
Lambert boasts about bulk-buying at Costco and only buying non-essentials when they’re on special, like he has discovered a secret that poor people are too stupid to figure out on their own. It reminded me of the old quote by Anatole France that “the poor have to labour in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
In this case, the poor who live cheque-to-cheque have the same rights as wealthier Quebecers to stockpile cases of chickpeas, toilet paper and tomato sauce.
What’s that? You can barely afford the regular volume of food? Well, that’s because you’re not taking advantage of the savings! Just last week, the wife and I drove to the Verdun Maxi and got two cases of Oasis juice for 88 cents each, then we went to the Atwater Super C and saved $6 on 144 slices of processed cheese, then drove down to Pain Économique and bought 20 loaves of discounted bread that we store in our utility freezer, then it was off to Fruiterie Sami in LaSalle where avocados were on sale for $1 each and bananas were 59 cents a pound. We finished the afternoon at Costco, where we bought 240 rolls of toilet paper and 120 frozen egg rolls that should last us through the summer.
What’s that? Oh, I’m sure you can do the same circuit on the bus. It shouldn’t take more than eight hours. Just bring plenty of bags.
The Journal article that started the whole debate was actually pretty eye-opening, I suppose, for people whose eyes are usually closed. The idea was to find a family that was willing to try to live on a minimum-wage food budget for a month. The prospect was so daunting that they only found one couple willing to even try it.
The experiment seemed fairly well crafted and calculated, however. (You can read the story in two installments, here and here.) Unlike Lambert’s scenario, the Lalonde-Paquins weren’t allowed to dip into pantries of previous purchases to supplement their meals. Meal-planning and shopping suddenly started taking a much larger role in their lives, as did cooking, since sit-down or take-out lunches were no longer on anyone’s menu.
Despite that, the Lalonde-Paquins were forced to supplement their needs with a trip to the local food bank in week three. (The Journal paid the replacement cost of the food, so don’t get upset, they weren’t taking food away from an actual needy family.)
None of this is a surprise, of course, to anyone whose food budget follows the same cycle as their disposable income, i.e. who live cheque-to-cheque. I suppose that’s why the Journal chose a middle-class family for the experiment rather than a family that already survives on that budget. The Lalonde-Paquins had to make major changes to adjust to a budget that was half what they usually spent; that way, sceptical readers might concede that maybe it’s not as easy as they might have imagined to feed four people for $210 a week. Even with a car and coupons and flyers and careful cost-comparisons, two well-educated Quebecers couldn’t pull it off for even a month without help from a food bank and a collective kitchen.
If thousands of working-poor families do manage to do that every month, it’s because they’re actually much smarter at managing their purses than the likes of Lambert, who hasn’t yet figured out that you can’t save money you haven’t got. But the struggle to feed the family comes at a cost, both in physical and mental health as stress and dietary deficiencies take their toll.
That’s a price society pays as well, through increased health care costs, lost work time and generations of malnourished children.
Wouldn’t it be smarter to pay up front instead, with a minimum wage that might actually afford the working poor the opportunity to buy more than four cans of chickpeas at a time? ■