Part III in a four part series on eating healthy

Welcome back!

This is Part III in a four part series on eating healthy.  If you will remember, last week A. B. wrote a blog on eating healthy on a fixed income, such as Social Security Disability.

This week, we visit with Maggie Cook, as she tells us how she came to be a single mom, living below the poverty line.   Maggie is no longer living in poverty, but still struggles to lose the guilt (and the weight) from those lean years, when feeding her two children as a single mother became a defining moment in her journey.  Dr. Ross provides feedback at the end to her question,  “what would you say to a patient of yours that has circumstances such as mine were?”.

Feel free to leave her a message in the comments section below.

Be sure and join us again next week, when we will wrap up this months topic with “A Cup of Coffee”, by Linda Tate.  

Poverty – A deciding factor in healthy eating?

By Maggie Cook

As a single mother, it was always my intention to feed my kids healthy food.  There was never a day that went by that I wasn’t diligently planning their menu for the week, worrying about where the money was going to come from to feed them, and concerned that the quality of food they were eating wasn’t good enough.

I didn’t intend to raise my children on my own.  Their father had a nervous breakdown when my youngest turned 3, and decided having a family wasn’t his cup of tea.  He walked out, and that’s when my plunge into poverty began.

Working full time was never an option.  I had to do it.  Going on food stamps never crossed my mind, so while my parents watched the kids, I worked, and I worked hard, snatching up any overtime I could get my boss to give me.  Had my parents not been able to help me, I would have had to resort to welfare, because the cost of daycare was more than my take home pay.  One day, someone asked me, “how do you do it?”.  I broke into tears and said, “not very well”.  They informed me that I still qualified for food stamps, even though I was working full time.  I declined.  My attitude would one day change.

My budget after taxes was $1,200 a month.  We owned our manufactured home, but had to pay rent for the space it sat in, which was $400 a month.  Nothing compared to today’s rents, but at the time it took up a good chunk of my budget.  After rent, I had utilities ($180-water, garbage, sewer, heat), a car payment ($250 – we didn’t live on a bus line, nor was my work on a bus line), car insurance (50, liability only), and a cell phone which my parents paid for just for the sake of knowing I was able to call for help should I need to.  After all was said and done, I was left with just $320 a month for a family of three  This boiled down to $3.55 cents per day, per person ($1.18 per meal).  Just thinking about it today as I write this makes me feel ill.

One summer, as we walked through the produce department, the kids smelled all the ripe, delicious fruit.  They started to beg for fruit to take home and eat.  As I surveyed the cost, I started to get a pit in the bottom of my stomach.  I knew I couldn’t afford fruits and vegetables that were fresh, but my kids…my poor kids…they deserved to have good, healthy, fresh food!  Watermelon didn’t come frozen.  Neither did fresh apricots, plums, and cherries.  My daughter loved broccoli, and as we passed the fresh broccoli, she grabbed a stalk of it and tossed it in the cart. 

I suddenly became so angry.  Why was my husband not there to help me?  Why couldn’t the State of Oregon catch up to him and make him pay child support?  Why didn’t my job pay more?  Why couldn’t I be a stay at home mom, like so many of my friends were?  Here I was, standing in the produce aisle after working a 12 hour shift, I had two crying babies in my cart, and exactly $1.18 cents in my wallet for enough ingredients to make dinner.  I also had an emergency credit card that my parents had given me, in case something bad happened.  Well, in my opinion, something bad was happening.  I let the kids pick out some fresh fruit, some fresh vegetables, and justified the splurge by buying chicken Top Ramen for the main meal. 

We got up to the cash register and the final bill was $50.00.  I fought back the tears as I handed over my parents credit card, guilt washing over me.  I was a terrible mother.  Why hadn’t I gone to college?  Why didn’t I plan ahead in case my husband left me?  Why couldn’t I get a better paying job?  I soon gave in and applied for food stamps.  My friend reminded me that I had been working since I was 18 years old, and had payed my share of taxes…time to get some of that money back.  It turned out that I qualified for them…but due to my full time job and hourly wage, they only gave me $16 a month.   

This blog was very difficult for me to write, but I think it’s important for doctors and student doctors to realize that the struggle is real.  Not everyone has enough money to eat healthy.  When one has to decide between healthy food and medication, or healthy food and electricity, healthy food often loses.  A single mom can feed her children Taco Bell for less than it costs to buy the ingredients for a healthy dinner.  Believe me.  I’ve been there, and all the great suggestions in the world for how to do it better didn’t fit our situation.  As we all gained weight, my doctor and their pediatrician offered words of wisdom…”eat fresh fruits and vegetables”, “stop eating fast food or starchy foods like Top Ramen”, “you need to exercise more”.

After working 12 to 16 hour days, then coming home to clean, cook, shop, and be both mom and dad to my two babies, exercise was the last thing on my mind. 

My question to the guest DO is this: “what would you say to a patient of yours that has circumstances such as mine were?”.


The following is feedback from Dr. Charles Ross. Dr. Ross is our Guest DO Blogger for the month of September:

Maggie,  Your blog is very powerful and engaging.  I have spent time focusing on the stresses in your life exploring how to respond in a helpful manner.  What you eat, how you move during the day, the chemicals you are exposed to, and how you deal with stress are all root causes of disease or health.   

Let’s explore the cost of meals that would provide you with the best opportunity for improved health for you and your children.

At each meal a serving of starch (oatmeal, bulgar, potato, beans, lentils, rice, quinoa, or soy) making up about 1/3 -1/2 of the plate will provide healthy options to replace the standard American diet favorites (meat, dairy, eggs).   The cost of the starch items is so low in comparison to the animal products that you would have dollars more per day to spend on fruit and veggies.   Frozen fruits and veggies are healthful and often a less expensive option than fresh with nutrient value often just as high.   

I suspect that you are thinking that starch is not healthy…As our culture has promoted avoiding starches.  But if you look at the history of the world you will find that the healthiest most successful cultures in world history have been largely starch based.  The problem lies not in the eating of the whole foods but in eating the refined products.

If you find that you are still short on funds…than getting food from local food banks can be helpful.  And if that does not work.  Well, we have all needed someone else’s help at some point in our lives.  Accept that you are doing your best..and take the help that is available until you are no longer in need of this help.

Best of health to you all,
Charlie Ross DO
Lifestyle Medicine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *