Poverty Potluck

by admin on February 6, 2013

This is more a question concerning etiquette, and what I should do.

First, some background, I am a university student who lives on campus. I have no access to a stove/oven, microwave, etc. People who know me, know I have no possible way of cooking for myself, and that I get most of my meals from the dining hall services.

I have a poor job and earn only minimum wage. Almost all of the money from that job goes to paying my university fees or I save so I can visit my family during breaks (It’s roughly $120 both ways- which is also how much I make in two weeks.) I don’t exactly have spending money.

Now, I have been invited to three or four potlucks this year. The first one, I stated I could not attend, as I had no way to cook anything or the money to purchase food. My university society (almost all of which live off campus in their own homes), replied with a positive, “Show up anyway”. Still, I felt it was unfair to those who had brought food – so I ended up staying in my dorm room and eating at the meal hall. This short story doesn’t end there. My rather large, strong friend discovered me on my way out of the meal hall, yelled at me for not going to the potluck, and proceeded to pick me up and carry me across campus to the room it was being held in.

There was a second potluck around christmas time – this time I was with my parents and had access to a stove. I happily made my sweet-and-sour meatballs, and managed to get a ride in to the party with a friend. Once getting there however, I discovered I was the only one who actually read that part of the invitation (through a facebook group) other than the hosts. I felt a little miffed, as I didn’t eat before coming and had known a potluck was supposed to happen.

We ended up going out for pizza after my friends devoured the three avaliable dishes.

Now I’ve been invited to another potluck, this one is for the Super Bowl, and I would love to attend, but I’m back on campus with no way of cooking and with no money to spend. I don’t want to impose and ask my parents for money, and I certainly don’t want to make a boor of myself by showing up without food. Unless they (the hosts) express a want of me there even if I’m unable to bring food, I doubt I’ll go at all.

Am I making the right call about not going at all?

Perhaps you are over thinking what you believe is appropriate potluck food.   My adult son attended a Super Bowl party where the guests were forbidden from bringing chips but encouraged to “get creative” about their potluck food choices.  Of the 40 or so guests there, not one person brought drinks which forced the hosts into an emergency trip to the grocery store.
When I host a large potluck, I always reserve the less expensive items for those not particularly financially well endowed.    Two and three-liter sodas go on sale for 99 cents in my neck of the woods and are a welcome addition to all informal potlucks.   Tea bags and a 1 pound of sugar to make sweetened iced tea is also an option.   Other inexpensive potluck items are deviled eggs, potato chips, most potato dishes, celery sticks with peanut butter, carrot sticks.   Readers?  Other suggestions?

{ 110 comments… read them below or add one }

--Lia February 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I do hope that the idea of liberating a lemon, lime, or orange from the dining hall was a joke. Those are items that are medium expensive from a supermarket. They’re extremely expensive when stolen from the university. Different dining halls have different rules, so if yours says it’s okay to take the fruit for later, call me a prig and ignore this. If this particular school has the rules I’m most familiar with, you’re welcome to eat all you want while you’re in the cafeteria. You’re not allowed to take food with you for later. If caught, you can be fined or disciplined or kicked out or lose your scholarship– quite expensive consequences for a potluck.

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Anonymous February 10, 2013 at 12:28 am

Lia–Nobody told the OP to steal. She could have easily gone to the dining hall, and simply asked for a piece of citrus fruit to make fruit-infused water/lemonade/whatever, for the potluck. Also, some schools have different rules–some dining halls are a la carte with take-out permitted, some are all you can eat, and some are somewhere in the middle. The main dining hall at the university I attended for my first degree was all three, at one point or another, during my time there. For the first three years, it was a la carte, with a declining balance system, so you’d sign up for a certain amount of money on your meal plan per year. There were four options–large, medium, small, and really small, for on-campus-apartment-dwellers, and off-campus people and commuters, if they wanted. If you lived on campus, you had to have a meal plan, but for people who didn’t, it was optional. Anyway, I liked a la carte, because it made it easy to grab a cereal bar or a piece of fruit on the way to class or rehearsal, and only pay for what I’d taken. I was also trying to be mindful about how much I ate for health reasons, and this system helped me to be accountable in that way–it’d make me think about how much I wanted a brownie for dessert at dinner, for example, if I knew that that money might not be available to me later when I was really hungry.

Anyway, the summer before fourth year, they suddenly and unilaterally switched to “all you care to eat,” which I complained about, formally, in writing, because I’d signed up for a la carte, only to be told it no longer existed. So, instead of being able to “grab and go,” we were charged a flat fee according to the time of day, regardless of what we actually ate, and of course, there was no take-out option available anymore. So, I admit that, during that year, I, along with several other students, would often sneak small food items (muffins, fruit, etc.), out in our coat pockets and whatnot, to be consumed later. The year before, we’d done the same thing, only under the previous rules, that was perfectly legal. Anyway, I think the dining hall staff caught on to this, because around the middle of the year, they said that certain things could be taken out–a coffee, a muffin or scone, a piece of fruit, an ice cream cone, etc. During third and fourth year, I lived in an on-campus apartment, but often didn’t have time to cook because of late rehearsals, etc., hence the meal plan, but the only difference was, third year, this made my life more convenient, but fourth year, it was almost as if the new rules were set up to make students’ lives more difficult. There were other places to get food on campus, and yeah, I took advantage of that, but a lot of those places were overpriced, and ridiculously crowded, because hardly anybody wanted to eat in the dining hall anymore. Nobody tried to use the dining hall to stock their rooms for a week or anything like that; it was more of a “civil disobedience” kind of thing. Also, security at that school was laughably feeble–I saw students taking plates, cups, bowls, and even furniture from there, with no consequence. I didn’t condone it, but not being an R.A. at the time, I didn’t think it was my role to try to stop them. My parents’ house has a few stray spoons from my old university, but I didn’t steal them intentionally–sometimes, I’d get take-out (first three years), and they’d be out of plastic silverware, so I’d take real silverware, and then forget to return it later.

So anyway, back to my main point–taking a piece of fruit from the dining hall isn’t a federal offense at every university. It certainly wasn’t at mine.

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Michelle C Young February 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

If you can’t cook, and you can’t afford to buy anything, why not offer to “pay your admission” by volunteering *in advance* to help with the set-up and clean-up? That way, you are obviously contributing, and no one can blame you for eating, even if you bring nothing at all. I say in advance, because it’s rude to show up early, without warning the hosts, and also it is obviously planned, as opposed to looking like you are just helping at the end, out of guilt.

I’ve been there – searching for pennies in the parking lot, so I could get them changed to a quarter so I could actually use a washing machine for my laundry. If they are true friends, they will understand and appreciate that you are trying to carry your weight, while being sociable. If they complain, then you know they’re not worth your time.

Good luck with your pot lucks!

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Michelle C Young February 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Avery – my freshman year at college, I had a kitchen. My weekly grocery budget was TEN DOLLARS. I saved up to buy staples such as a bucket of flour and a big container of olive oil, to last me for the semester, but my milk/eggs/cheese/potatoes/some sort of vegetable budget for the ENTIRE WEEK was $10.

Yeah, some of us really do mean it when we say we have no money for a potluck dish. And some of us really can’t afford “a pretty dish” or even “a nice pitcher” to transfer the cheap store-bought stuff to. I’ve been there, absolutely stoney broke. There were days when I could only afford one meal per day, and I have to say that if someone scoffed, and said, “You mean you can’t afford $7?” I would have been quite hurt. The OP already said he/she makes only $60 per week!

Now, if you have some money, and the only real problem is no cooking facilities, I can tell you a story my mother told me. Her freshman year of college, there was no cooking allowed in the dorms. No hotplates or any sort of kitchen appliance were allowed. Her college dean called an assembly of the students to tell them about that rule. “There is no cooking in the dorms!” Then he followed that statement with this: “Now, when you’re going to cook in the dorm, here is how you do it. You take your iron, and turn it upside down, propped between two stacks of textbooks, and use that as a hotplate.” Candles can also work for low-heat cooking. I read about a woman using a candle under a pan to bake a cake, and it worked. It just took longer.

Of course, that still requires a pot or pan. Now, this is where creative scrounging comes in handy. For the next pot-luck party, volunteer to clean-up, as your contribution. Then, you can claim all the “disposable” dishes, such as aluminum pie pans or plastic trays from store-bought veggie-platters. As long as no one cut through the pie pan, you can use it again, and I’ve seen some really sturdy ones. We routinely re-use these, at my house, and they’re not just for pies. They make good cookie-sheets for small batches, and you can make cakes and brownies in them, or even bread! Plastic deli trays can be used as serving trays again, or as cutting boards and prep-surfaces. And don’t forget to wash and re-use the zip-lock baggies. They can last a long time with proper care. Also remember to wash-out and save cans, as well. A coffee-can makes a good deep-dish pot, and a vegetable can makes a good single-serving pot for making ramen-noodles, and the like. Be careful of the sharp edges. You can take care of that with a pair of pliers and some upper-body strength (get your strong “kidnapper” friend to help you with that), and always use hot-pads or folded towels to handle the “pots,” since they won’t have handles.

Do some online research into low-heat cooking and you may be very surprised at the options that open up to you. You may have to be careful about safety, and keep a very close eye on that up-turned iron, but if it does the job, you’ll find a lot of options you didn’t have before. Who knows? Maybe you could invite your friends over for an omelette party at your place. Everyone bring an egg, an ingredient, a plate, a fork, and a cup. You can mix the eggs in one of your cans, cut up the veggies on your plastic tray, fry them in your pie pan, and serve everyone on their own plates. And water from the tap. Cheap, delicious, and loads of fun.

Being poor generally isn’t fun, but if you’re willing to embrace it and approach your friends with good humor, you can turn it into a plus.

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Anonymous February 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Oh yeah, I read somewhere that you can make a grilled cheese sandwich with an iron. You make a cheese sandwich, wrap it in foil, and then iron over it with the iron, on both sides.

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NicoleK February 14, 2013 at 7:59 am

Potlucks usually have waaaaaay too much food. I doubt anyone will notice if you don’t bring anything.

But one thing that is always appreciated is chocolate. Buy a bag of M&Ms and put them in a pretty bowl. Or some other chocolate. You should be able to get a decent bag for a couple bucks.

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NicoleK February 14, 2013 at 8:01 am

And you can get a pretty bowl in the dollar store. Make a one-time investment in a bowl, and then buy a pack of M&Ms every time you’re invited to a potluck. I swear everyone will love it.

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NicoleK February 14, 2013 at 8:02 am

Most dorms don’t allow candles or other heat sources, so I think low-heat cooking is out.

I’d do more of an “Assembly” dish like salad or crackers with toppings if she can afford it.

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RedWitch September 29, 2013 at 5:32 am

I agree with RP. You were PICKED UP and CARRIED to the party. This counts as physical aggression. He was bigger and stronger than you, you could not get away from him. If he does this again, or anyone else is in this situation, yell, scream, shout “Help, Fire”, do anything you can to make it clear this is not a joke. If you need to, call emergency services and do NOT feel embarrassed about doing so. Picking someone up and carrying them somewhere against their will is ONLY acceptable in a GENUINE emergency. On a lighter note, OP next time you’re invited to a potluck, talk to the host/ess and explain that you would like to come (if you do, I mean) but you can’t bring anything. You could ask if there was some way for you to be a part of the party, like co-host or something like that. Hope this helps

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NostalgicGal November 13, 2013 at 1:46 am

There is too broke to afford anything to take to a potluck. Been there. Lucky to have enough to buy a big bag of the cheapest oatmeal there was and that was what you got to eat for the week (didn’t know about ramen noodles… but a big bag not box, of oatmeal was about $5 with tax) along with creative scrounging and growing some veggies in the landlady’s nice plantings (keep it all weeded and she didn’t notice) around the apartment building. That was after escaping the dorms.

Along with dorm and usually a zero cooking tolerance (dorm I lived in held 870 and was usually on overflow so a good thousand; and we had one small room off the main desk area the size of a large closet that had a microwave and coffeemaker for us all) and depending on your RA (resident assistant) is what you could sneak.

Rolling up your sleeves and offering to help, with setup, with cleanup, etc; often is welcome. Now if you have fifteen people and nine or ten don’t bring anything or not near enough it’s going to be a bust but… be lucky you’ve never been there where getting foodstamps stamps (the great great grandmother of SNAP) or commodity dole; was a step up in eating.

One congregation I belonged to for a few years, I rented a hole in the wall in a good neighborhood and a few blocks away in money-row was where I worshipped. I might not have designer clothes, handbags, a string of pearls, or a fur; but. I could volunteer, roll up those sleeves, and do dishes and plain help out. Sometimes that is exactly what they *did* need.

Op, there’s nothing wrong with, if that is what you can do and contribute, offer it. Even if it’s just helping.

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