I call them the “Ramen Shoppers.” They never fail to fill me with sympathy and sadness.
You can see them in the grocery stores of all college towns. They are typically between the ages of 19 and 24. Pushing their grocery carts down the aisles, they take time intently pondering the price of this or that item. Sometimes they linger in front of some shelf items with dreamy, hungry looks on their faces. Then, a shadow of disappointment crosses their brows, and they move on down the aisle to check-out, their carts almost empty except for a few items – such basics as milk, cereal, bread, lunch meat and stacks of Ramen noodles.
I can spot Ramen shoppers – that is, college students – at the drop of a hat. I’m not a grocery-store spy, but I can’t help but notice them because I’ve been there, done that once upon a time. And I know all too well what it’s like to squeeze a dollar until the eagle squawks.
Back in my college days, I ate a lot of dime-a-package Ramen noodles. I also ate enough spaghetti to fill the Roman Colosseum and stacks of Mexican-style Banquet TV dinners, which I still enjoy. Those were my college staple foods.
However, I was fortunate in that I was quite a good cook. I had my own repertoire of cheap-but-good meals, including Campbell’s soup casseroles. College friends who’d visit thought I was some kind of food magician. I told them time and again: Learn to cook –you won’t be hungry, or broke.
I want to tell that to the Ramen shoppers, but I don’t dare. I also want to butt in at the check-out counter and buy their skimpy bundle of groceries for them. One of these days I’m going to get bold and do just that.
I feel especially sorry for Ramen shoppers nowadays because groceries keep skyrocketing in price. I’m not financially in a pinch, but even so I’ve become a meticulous budget shopper with a stack full of coupons always in my wallet. Items I never used to price-check before tossing into my grocery cart, such as a loaf of bread, I now pause to ponder whether to buy. When I was a Ramen shopper, every time I went to a grocery store I managed to squeeze my budget belt a bit tighter so I could cave into temptation and buy a few sinful “fun” foods – namely lemon bismarcks, Cadbury chocolate bars and pickled artichoke hearts. But even those “luxuries” did not cost an arm and a leg – not like now.
Another reason my heart goes out to Ramen shoppers is because I can only imagine the fortunes they must have to pay for room-and-board, tuition and school books. In my happy collegiate years, I squeaked by on a pittance – about $7,000 a year – and that covered rent, food, tuition, books and beer. I did it all through loans, grants, scholarships and some part-time work now and then. Tuition, I’m told, is now at least seven times what it was back then. Add to that the cost of groceries, and I keep wondering how these college students are making it. Some probably aren’t. Many, I would think, have to drop out of school and move home with parents.
It’s just a crying shame. Practically from the moment we enter kindergarten we are told again and again that education is the answer. It’s the key to self-improvement, the path to the American Dream, the gateway to the good life. But when I see those Ramen shoppers, weighing every nickel and dime, looking so intent and disappointed as they put their few items in their carts, my heart sinks for them and for a country in which higher education (and even grocery shopping) is becoming a virtually unaffordable luxury for all too many young people.