Several years ago, I stumbled onto the USDA’s monthly cost of food reports and I’ve been hooked ever since. Every month (when the federal government is not partially shut down) the USDA publishes a report on grocery spending at four cost levels for various demographic groups.
I’ve spent what amounts to many hours analyzing these reports. I like knowing how my grocery bill stacks up against these levels, and how the averages change from month to month, and the complicated research methods that undergird the averages. It also feeds my voyeuristic bent: I like knowing what other people spend on a budget category that is both very boring and very personal.
Also, this report accommodates change. When my husband and I got married, I looked at one row. When our daughter started solid food, I added another row. If everything in life accommodated the transition to motherhood so graciously, the world would be a better place.
I belong to a Facebook moms group. Last week, a mom in the group, let’s call her Karen, posted that she spends $150 per month on groceries for her family of four. Karen asked if anyone would like her tips and tricks. Dozens of women commented; the ensuing discussion lasted days.
I wanted to comment and tell Karen that I did not believe her. I certainly believe that she is spending far less than me on groceries, and her counsel on the relative merits of ALDI dairy products was insightful. But there’s just no way she’s spending that little on groceries, no matter how good she is at shopping sales and stocking her deep freeze. The USDA’s thrifty plan budgets just a little less than $150 per week for a family of four with young children ($129); and nearly four times as much for the month ($558.90). As someone who has been obsessively reading these reports for years, I call bullshit.
I didn’t say this to Karen, of course. What good would it have done, except maybe provide a small comfort to those fellow moms who aspire, like me, to someday hit below the moderate cost level? (Seriously, when the USDA says thrifty, it means thrifty. Even moderate is tough to hit if you’re buying any kind of pre-packaged convenience food. And by “convenience food” I’m talking about, like, cans of beans rather than dry beans, not T.V. dinners).
And also—and I imagine the USDA staff who patiently compile this report each month might laugh at this suggestion—but what if Karen isn’t lying? Isn’t it possible that despite the “computerized quadratic mathematical optimization programming model” they use to develop this report, she’s telling truth? Maybe Karen really has developed some revolutionary grocery shopping system that is entirely unknown to the people who’ve spent their careers analyzing this sort of thing.
I can’t help but retain a small bit of faith in her. I’ve never felt as confident in anything as Karen appeared to about her grocery bill, though this may have less to do with groceries than it does to my own relationship to doubt. It is very easy for me to doubt myself and, conversely, very hard for me to doubt people– like Karen– who say things with a lot of conviction.
Even when I know the facts to back a claim, I am swayed by people who speak with authority. I had a boss once, a long time ago, who told me that he needed to say something at a meeting rather than me because he would say it with gravitas. Gravitas is, of course, a loaded term that is very rarely applied to young women. While I’m now able to recognize many things that this boss did and said that were implicitly sexist, I still think he may be right about my lack of gravitas. I am not the person to solemnly deliver a strong message. I am exactly the person to deliver a convoluted message that contradicts itself many times over as I think through the various meanings and implications of that message.
My inability to say and do things without doubt has been one of the most unexpectedly difficult parts of parenting. While I’d like to think that my husband and I are doing right by our daughter, and while we’ve certainly given our job as her parents a lot of thought and effort, I never feel totally confident in our abilities. And yet I often find myself interacting with other parents who tell me how to prepare my child’s meals, or put her to bed, or correct her misbehaviors, or a thousand other things, as if they are the experts on the subject. Sometimes this advice is useful, and sometimes it’s laughable, but regardless I am struck by these people’s lack of doubt. Aren’t we all just making this up as we go along? Didn’t all of our mothers-in-law joke with us, in those bleary postpartum days, about how babies don’t come with instruction manuals? How are any of you sure of anything?
Which brings me back to the official USDA food report. The regularity of this report is something I could be sure of, up until the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. With all non-essential USDA services stopped, there was no report generated for December 2018. Trump is signaling the possibility of another shutdown in mid-February, so we may miss January’s report, too.
There are far, far more compelling reasons to keep the government open than this grocery report. But it’s a reason, too.
It is 2019 and all the news is Trump-related. Writing this, I wonder whether there is something dangerous about self-doubt beyond low self esteem, and if the 2016 election results speaks to that. It seems to me that many Trump supporters were, and are, enthralled by a politician speaking with great authority. We all know by now that what Trump lacks in shades of gray or nuance, he makes up for in superlatives. I don’t understand Trump’s base, but I do understand the allure of unwavering proclamations in contrast to my own uncertainty.
I’ve often thought that I should try to get over my self-doubt to be a happier person. But, until Trump, I never considered getting over it as a way to save democracy. That’s modern-day America for you, full of surprises.
For now, I’ll be optimistic about the possibility of a new food cost report next month. I’ll stop airing my grievances about Karen, but only because I need to save my grievance-airing energy in anticipation of the next time the topic of vaccines or essential oils comes up in the Facebook moms group. I’ll report back.