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Credit: Brooke Fitts
The Way We Eat

A 21-Year-Old Unemployment Office Worker Shares Her Budget Strategy (and the Best Way to Make Rice)

updated Sep 25, 2020
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Name: Nadine Napashqua
Location: Tacoma, WA
How many people eat together in your home? 2; Nadine and her partner, Jake.
Avoidances: We’re both Muslim and we eat halal.

When the national unemployment rate hit a series high of 18.1 million people this April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nadine Napashqua, a 21-year old from Tacoma, Washington, responded to what she felt was a calling. A month later in May, she took a job as a Tax Specialist for the Employment Security Department in Washington state in which she mainly fields phone calls to mitigate extremely long wait times.

The experience has opened Nadine’s eyes to our country’s economic reality — all while she attempts to navigate her own financial/budgeting journey in her very first apartment of her own (with her partner, Jake). The couple, both poets, met in college in (where else?) poetry class. “I stalked him and invited him to a poetry slam in downtown Tacoma where we were supposed to perform. No one showed up. We went to get dinner and he asked me to perform in an empty parking lot and we’ve been dating ever since,” says Nadine.

We spoke with Nadine the week of her birthday, in between phone calls with claimants, on her lunch break. We talked about how her job helps her keep perspective, the breakfast that fuels many long hours at her desk, and her secret to perfect Arabic-spiced basmati rice every time.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

How’d you celebrate your birthday this week?
Jake and I were supposed to go on a birthday hike, but the air quality where we’re at is really unhealthy right now. So we just stayed home and ordered takeout and had ourselves a day. We’ve pretty much been inside since Labor Day with our humidifiers and air purifiers trying not to die. On top of the pandemic, the world is literally burning, so there’s that.

Sounds about right. How would you describe a normal-ish day for you, right now?
I took on a job with the Unemployment Office back in May. This has been my first experience working completely from home. I live in a 600-square-foot box. So I roll out of bed, get on the computer, and sit for eight hours. It’s so different and weird. I try to take house chore breaks and start dinner when I get off work. Jake gets home at 6-ish usually so by then we finish up dinner together. It’s nice that Jake still goes into work. He works at Best Buy and is studying cyber security. That’s most days. They just blur together.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Is the Unemployment Office your first job?
I’m kind of a weird case. I left high school early, finished online, and then started college when I was 15. I started working at a Jamba Juice and moved up really quickly from team member to manager by the time I graduated. The GM left and they gave the store to a 19-year-old (me). I ran the store for 2 years, business operations, payroll, hiring, etc. And then I moved to the state agency in May.

A change of pace!
I was looking for ways out of the food industry for a while — it, especially management, is unsustainable and can be really exploitative. I wanted to start a job in public service/non-profits and knew the unemployment sector needed help. My state agency was hiring like crazy; they hired 600 people in a couple weeks to work the phones since wait times are up to six hours on hold. I got a seven-day crash course training — eight hours a day on Skype learning how to take claims. Then they threw us in. It was really stressful for sure. From June to July we had to work a mandatory month of overtime to get all the claims filed since mid-March taken care of. It was like having a part-time job on top of my full-time job sitting at my computer chair. Since then, we’ve gotten it under control a bit more and I feel more confident.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

What kind of perspective has working in the unemployment office given you right now?
Unfortunately we get a lot of messages from people who are getting evicted, can’t pay their bills, can’t buy food for their families. There are thousands of messages and there’s not much I can do but take the call, tell them their place in line, and send resources like 211 and local food bank information until we can get their claim taken care of. It’s hard to be empathetic while remaining professional.

Not only are we working with claimants, but we’re also working with small businesses applying for relief. As a young person who wasn’t fully aware of the economic situation, it’s given me a lot of insight into what small businesses are dealing with. Everyone is struggling. I absolutely understand the people who send us really nasty messages saying things like “The government doesn’t work.” Can you really blame them?

Credit: Brooke Fitts

That sounds emotionally and physically draining. How are you taking care of yourself?
During that mandatory overtime period, I didn’t know what to do. I posted how overwhelmed I was on SnapChat and the next day my best friend and his girlfriend came over to our house with 10 whole dinners prepared for me and Jake. It was so thoughtful. It also taught me about meal prep, which has really never been on my radar. Jake and I have been trying to do that ever since.

I’d love to hear more about your meal prepping journey.
I’m not confident enough in the kitchen to make things on the fly every night. Jake and I go grocery shopping twice a month, and before we go, we pick our recipes and get all the stuff for four dinners every week. We package them up and have them for lunch or dinner for like a week and a half. We’re not picky, so we’re OK with leftovers.

We tend to eat Middle Eastern, Arabic, and comfort foods like rice and pasta because that’s what I ate growing up and know how to make. Jake grew up in SoCal so we eat a lot of Mexican food too! If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s make rice. I’ve never made bad rice ever. My mom’s recipe has never failed me. You take 1 cup of jasmine rice to 1.5 cups of water. Wash the rice 3 to 4 times. Put butter in a pan, then toast the rice until you smell the jasmine. Add your water, season it, simmer it until it starts to boil, cover it on low for 15 minutes. Boom.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Rice whisperer! What about breakfast then? What do you eat before you saddle up at your desk for 8 hours?
I didn’t realize how much I relied on my Jamba breakfast! I used to have a Greens & Ginger and oatmeal with honey every day. It didn’t occur to me that I could make smoothies at home until after I left that job. I know these recipes by heart and could make them with my eyes closed. I got a Nutribullet and we’ve been making smoothies for snacks in the morning/early afternoon. It’s fun.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

Love that strategy!
I try to get the groceries in the middle of the week because weekends are so crowded. If Jake has a free weekend, we make all the recipes together. It usually doesn’t take more than three hours. Theres an app I love called Budget Bytes that breaks out the cents per meal which is super helpful. We’re young. This is our first apartment and we’re definitely on a budget. We’re learning. Thank god for the internet. I’m watching a lot of YouTube videos. When I moved out from my family’s home, I was like How hard can it be? Then I tried boiling an egg and was like, How long do you do this for? Questions like how to cut an onion, dice a tomato — I was lost.

What’s been your favorite quarantine food memory so far?
We tried to make a Dutch baby because we got a set of cast iron from his family for the holidays and have been trying to put them to good use. I followed the recipe to a T and it came out of the oven looking like something from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Credit: Brooke Fitts

What’s been the hardest part of learning to feed yourselves?
It’s been really interesting and difficult learning how to feed ourselves sustainably — on a budget. We really try to be ethical consumers, but being young without much money, it’s hard. We have to make choices about what we want to support while also trying to feed ourselves, which has been a challenge navigating within our budget. We try to be aware of things when we’re shopping and ask ourselves questions like: Are they fair trade? Are they paying agricultural workers fairly? Are they on the right side of social movements? How do you make all of those things accessible to all people? There’s no way to leave politics out.

Thanks so much for sharing, Nadine! Follow Nadine and Jake on Instagram.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.