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Unhappy Meals

Ron Wayne

I RETIRED TWO YEARS ago this week. I’d been in a job that was a bad fit for my skills, experience and university degrees. The pay was paltry, but it was the only job I could find four years earlier.

I calculated that my Social Security and state pension would match my take-home pay because they were based on my highest earnings, which were many years earlier. COVID-19 was a threat to old guys like me and my employer was offering a modest retirement incentive, so I happily left.

I did okay on my fixed income during my first year of retirement. But in 2022, inflation has made it much more difficult to maintain my already lean standard of living. Food is the most flexible part of my budget, but it’s obviously necessary and can be cut only so much.

I managed to cope with 2021’s 6.5% increase in food prices. I cut back on treats and sweets. I started patronizing Aldi more frequently, instead of my favorite store, Trader Joe’s. Aldi lacks TJ’s funky, fun atmosphere and friendly employees, but the savings add up. At Aldi, I pay at least $1 less for organic blueberries. I can buy a pound of grass-fed organic ground beef for around $6.

But things have got rougher of late. We’ve had a 13.5% increase in the price of food at home over the past 12 months, including a 9.8% rise in 2022. That’s made it hard to create healthy, tasty meals at a reasonable cost. I don’t buy all organic. But if there’s a small difference in price, I feel it’s worth avoiding pesticides.

As a retiree, I have the time to shop for the best price, so that means weekly trips to Walmart for nonperishable foods, and Trader Joe’s and Aldi for the rest. Publix grocery stores are dominant in my area, but they’re easily the most expensive. Still, I use them for emergencies—the closest Publix is just five blocks away.

I’ve economized by making larger dishes, such as chili, casseroles and stir fry, so I can get multiple meals from each batch. Chili also freezes well. Still, there’s only so much you can do if you want to eat a varied diet that’s also healthy.

I eat one egg a day. They’re a good source of protein without eating meat, but they also cost 39.8% more than a year ago. Poultry, a healthy and less expensive alternative to red meat, is up 15.9%.

While I’m managing to continue to eat nutritious and tasty meals at home, 5.2 million older Americans face food insecurity, which the National Council on Aging defines as “consistent lack of access to sufficient amounts of healthy food.” Poverty is a key reason, according to the Council’s report.

I shop weekly at a dollar store, but I would never buy food there. There’s no fresh produce. The store’s refrigerated section is filled with highly processed frozen foods. Elsewhere in the store, I’ve seen few canned foods that don’t contain salt. Candy and salty snacks are abundant.

I would cut back on eating out or getting takeout—if there was any room to cut. But the fact is, I’ve gone out to dinner perhaps four times this year. It’s so rare, it’s hard to remember. I go out for lunch maybe once a month. While traveling, I am forced to eat out, and I’m amazed at the prices.

My current hope: The cost of living adjustment for Social Security in 2023 is truly significant.

Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring in 2020, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. Check out Ron’s earlier articles.

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