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‘Stone soup’: B.C. woman reflects on stretching food dollars amid high inflation

Salmon Arm woman learned many ways to ensure access to enough food
Salmon Arm’s Nan Gray sits with some of her preserves, ‘yellow’ cans, and bags of frozen foods, which have been staples of her frugal diet for years. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)

For Salmon Arm’s Nan Gray, stretching food dollars has been central to her life.

Both a single parent and now a senior, she also spent decades in work focused on immigrant and family development services, running a variety of parent and family support groups throughout the Lower Mainland.

Gray gathered skills galore in frugal meal-making when she was a single parent with a young son. He happened to be a very selective eater and had adverse reactions to some ingredients.

“I had to be constantly creative with a budget that didn’t allow for much creativity,” she says.

Her work with newcomers to the country and their cooking knowledge expanded her repertoire considerably. As did leading groups with people living in poverty who had developed systems or networks of information, separate from any social services, on accessing inexpensive food and other bargains.

She found how important having a support network was, if not a formal social system, then friends, acquaintances, community support groups for single parents, women and men, or even church groups.

She said library programs, like moms and tots, or dads and tots, can be an opportunity to learn about other systems.

READ MORE: ‘Poverty not a character flaw’: Removing stigma, highlighting services in Salmon Arm crucial

When she ran parent groups, ‘Stone Soup’ was always a feature. Originating from a folk tale, Stone Soup is when everyone brings a small amount of food to share, which turns into a substantial meal for everyone.

“It starts with a rock, and somebody brings an onion, a carrot, a potato… I would tell people, bring one vegetable. We’d chop it up all together as a group,” Gray explained.

Throughout the three-hour morning that she was running groups, the soup would cook and then people would eat before they’d head home.

“It was beautiful, I had baby-food grinders there. Moms could grind it. I used it with every program…”

Gray said she understood the social services system but didn’t know all the ins and outs of accessing needed services.

“It was those people who taught me.”

Information circulated, like who to talk to and at what time. Also where coupons and sales could be found, which orchards had fruit to be gleaned, or which farm had extra corn.

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Gray said volunteering is also a great way to get to know people and gain ‘systems information’ on how to access food and other resources. Plus you get whatever perks the agency offers.

One tactic that worked well for her and her son was getting him outside, despite the rain. She would cut holes in a black plastic bag and away they’d go, for 15 to 30 minutes. He would come back a bit worn out and then might have an appetite to eat something healthy and warm.

“I found 15 or 20 minutes of my time would give me an hour,” she said, of time to do tasks on her own.

She said she and her son ate a lot of potato soup and corn chowder.

“My whole thing was casseroles, soups, stews and sauces. And pickling. Really easy pickling. Vinegar, sugar, cucumbers and onions.”

Gray was always working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. Sunday was the family day, when she’d cook for the week.

She said almost any sauce can go over potatoes and rice. Her son loved baked potatoes, so she might combine a cheese sauce and broccoli. Or tomato and hamburger sauce.

Her son called her, “the queen of yellow,” she smiled, referring to all the cheaper yellow-labelled cans she purchased.

Gray noticed a lot of force-feeding and over-feeding of kids. She suggested offering kids a small portion and, if they like it, they can have more. She also encouraged parents not to sweat the small stuff. She said every kid goes through a fussy stage.

With her son, she was having trouble getting him to eat breakfast so she eventually started making healthy smoothies for him instead. That was a win-win.

Although kids tended to love grilled cheese sandwiches, she found grilled peanut butter and banana was also a good option.

READ MORE: 2021 - UBCO students among most food insecure in Canada

A farmer’s daughter, Gray said all her vegetable ends were bagged and put in the freezer to be used later for stock for soups, sauces and stews.

“I never missed a meal and my son never missed a meal.”

She still swears by a freezer as it’s a big money saver, she said, although she just has the fridge-top variety. If she finds a larger portion of meat on sale, she’ll put it in small bags and use it for months. She said fruits and vegetables freeze, even avocados.

If there’s a case lot sale on soup, she might split it with a neighbour.

She now does a menu plan, a week at a time, based on what she’d like to eat, and she uses flyers to help determine when and where she will shop. Anything on sale she’ll pick up two or three.

She uses ‘portion control’ to ensure she’s not eating too much. If she’s still hungry later, she will have more.

Gray pointed out that depending on where people live, they might not have access to a full oven. She said she does almost all her cooking in a crock pot, a stock pot and a small roasting pan that fits in a toaster oven.

Still full of energy and dedicated to food security for everyone, Gray is a volunteer with the Shuswap Food Action Society. She’s involved with the Coldest Night event, the society’s community teaching garden, along with its school super lunch programs.

At the school lunches, all those years of making ‘Stone Soup’ and other inexpensive meals are put to good use as she helps prepare the meal along with serving it.

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Martha Wickett

About the Author: Martha Wickett

came to Salmon Arm in May of 2004 to work at the Observer. I was looking for a change from the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland, where I had spent more than a decade working in community newspapers.
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