On Food, Financial Aid, and Family

With economic turmoil on the minds of Main Street, Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, your street and mine, conversations about money are substantively different than before the economy hit the skids. Collectively, we seem to be grappling with all kinds of things, from sheer coping and problem solving to more esoteric questions about what's enough and what matters most. For those who aren't afraid of losing the roof over their heads or feeding their families, along with all else, you'd have to admit these are interesting questions, times and substantial challenges for our country and world to face.

At the risk of sounding completely scattered, I'll talk about today. This morning, I took my sixteen month-old, Saskia, to two stores: Super Stop and Shop, where I bought eggs, butter, baking chocolate and chicken for some cooking projects my eleven year-old gourmet-in-training son, Lucien, in anticipation of a three-family dinner gathering tonight. Lucien's goals: grill chicken with the barbeque sauce he made a couple of days ago and bake a completely decadent and complicated chocolate and nut cake with buttercream frosting made on the stovetop (with five egg yolks). Saskia and I left the florescent lighting and buy-more-for-less mindset of the supermarket to River Valley Market, where we bought local radishes for our salad–to go with the greens from Town Farm where we have a share in our fridge–organic sugar and nuts for the cake. I do the vast majority of my shopping at the co-op. Some things are cheaper there; other things more expensive. I was somewhat disappointed by my first foray to the co-op, put off by the higher prices of some items I bought regularly. A friend (who is wealthy) responded to my gripes about this: "Well, where do you want to put your money? In the hands of big corporations or your own community?" I returned to River Valley Market and started to figure out how to use it. In order to make it work without spending what felt excessive (and wasn't sustainable for us), I did some retooling: in order to go there and not spend with complete abandon, there are things–mostly snack foods and fruit–that I just started to buy in lesser quantities, or more occasionally elsewhere. I made more applesauce, baked muffins more often, and made other shifts–healthier ones, too, dried fruit rather than fruit leathers, a quart of strawberry milk from local Mapleine Farm rather than boxes of strawberry milk (coveted by my six year-old) at three times the price for less milk in more packaging–that required some thought and effort, but not an unreasonable or enormous amount of thought or effort. As I've become (of necessity) more conscientious about our food expenses, I have started to do a little more shopping around, and yet I continue to do the vast majority of my shopping in the store my community owns. I love the feeling of walking into a place that enhances our local economy by supporting small, local vendors. In fact, River Valley Market stocks items from notably more vendors than Stop and Shop or Big Y. It requires more work on the co-op's part to do so, an effort deemed worthwhile. For me, belonging to–and using–a co-op somewhat mirrors buying local produce; I enjoy this bountiful stretch of the year in New England when our valley's farms (to learn more about the local farming scene, read about CISA--Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) offer us so much delicious, reasonably priced food with a lower carbon footprint (win-win-win).

When said eleven year-old foodie and budding political activist got home, he did not approve of the chicken. "I only eat local meat," he informed me. I felt both bad and mad. If I'm buying chicken for a small group, I do buy local, organic, grass-fed, politically correct flesh (is that a contradiction in terms? Many would argue no meat is the only "correct" answer, but that's another story). I felt badly, because I chose the more affordable chicken over the fancier, "better" chicken. At the same time, I felt mad, because I was buying this chicken to appease him; otherwise, I wouldn't have cooked meat for so many people in the first place.

The truth is, we don't have endless resources and so we–me, my son, our community, our country, our planet–will continue to have some choices–big and small–to make. Arriving at a "right" one, well, there isn't always a totally clear way to address all concerns, at least not that I know of.

So, I ate lunch while reading an article in the New York Times about Reed College no longer offering as much aid to incoming students. The link came from Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton professor whose commentary over the past months on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show has been incredibly smart about a range of subjects (and now, she's my Facebook friend). In posting a link to the article, she wrote that Reed's decision made her angry. I felt less angry than sad, and I certainly felt interested. I spent eight years serving on the Hampshire College board of trustees. Hampshire's very young (not quite forty). It's not a wealthy school. As such, many choices other colleges are facing for the first time now really comprise Hampshire's fabric. This is a school that is growing up on a lean budget (and doing so with an amazingly plucky sense of resourcefulness). In reading the article, I was really struck by Reed President Colin Driver's quote about how he thought colleges need to wrestle with opting for "country club" enticements over education. "'The catering to consumer tastes — I keep trying to say, we are in the education business,' Mr. Diver said, describing the pressure to keep up with wealthier colleges and expressing a frustration rarely voiced publicly by college presidents. 'The whole principle behind higher education is, we know something that you don’t. Therefore, we shouldn’t cater to them.'” A year ago, I interviewed a prospective Hampshire student and instantly wanted her to enroll because she said, "It's not what the buildings look like that makes Hampshire so great; it's the learning that goes on inside the buildings." Personally, I think those choices colleges make are often complicated, and especially so when you're not behind the scenes. At the same time, there's no question that while making education less accessible for students that "get" your school and are hungry to attend is bad for the would-be matriculants, it's even more detrimental to the school's resiliance.

And here I am cramming my work into a couple of hours when I have childcare. I became real-life friends with Jessica DeGroot when we both attended Hampshire College. Degroot's life work has been to found and run a very interesting–and timely–organization called Third Path Institute. Jessica examines how people can balance work life and family life in ways that may happily sustain both fronts. Besides examining these issues, she's helped people problem solve and think creatively, so that finding a "right" work/life balance is attainable for families seeking to achieve a comfortable measure of both in their lives. She and I spoke a few weeks ago about how this economic downturn may shift or strengthen many people to achieve new–possibly unexpected–balances. Because of money, sense of self, desire to spend time with and do right by children, compromise and juggling a range of priorities defines how many of us approach the balance of family life and work life.

As much as there is no magically "right" answer to be viewed through any of these prisms, and as much as a wide range of concerns–environmental, economic, and emotional, just for starters–weigh in, kaleidoscopic in nature, I feel–pressed, harried, sometimes guilty, sometimes anxious–grateful to live in such fascinating times and find myself grappling with these issues.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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