Every so often one hears about people doing the "food stamp diet" in order to see what it's like to be poor in America. The idea is to subsist for some period of time (often a week) on the amount typically given to members of the "food stamp" program. Here's one example, prepared by the Food Research and Action Center back in 2007. That one challenges you to live on $21/week. Here's an annual challenge run by the San Francisco Food Bank. There the amount is $33.04 per person per week.
These amounts vary not only due to region and inflation over time (food inflation has actually been pretty high over the last five years, grocery store prices are up 6% from last year) but also because these are different attempts to model how the food stamp program works. Food stamp benefits are based on the idea of supplementing a family's income so that the family can (according to the program's rationale) afford to consume the amount of food budgeted according to the "thrifty plan" from the USDA "cost of food at home" guidelines. Of course, since food stamps can't be used for anything other than approved food items, and they're given to people who are already very short of money, the effective result is that people are often trying to get all their food off just the food stamp amount, even if the program is assuming it's only a supplement.
What got me thinking about the topic is that I saw one of these "hunger challenges" linked to some time ago, via some Catholic organization which was encouraging people to take part "in solidarity with the poor". I saw the amount mentioned in the San Francisco challenge of $33 per person per week and thought, "Wait a minute, for our family of seven that would be $231. That's more than we spend per week on food, and we're around the top 20% line in family income." In normal times, we were spending around $200/wk on food. Since we've been on a tight budget paying off the boiler, we've managed to get that down to $100-$150 depending on the week (including household cleaners, diapers, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)
So, is being on food stamps really cushy? Are these challenges just designed wrong? Being a chronic number cruncher, I had to get into it a bit.
First off, it seemed like the challenge was designed for one adult to take, so I wanted to make sure that I was translating it to family terms right. Here's my formula: The 2011 San Francisco Food Bank challenge (based on average food stamp benefits in CA for that year) was based on $33 per person per week. The USDA thrifty plan budgets $41.50 per week for an adult male between 19 and 50. Based on that, I'm assuming a payout of 80% of the estimated thrifty plan cost. Now I need to figure out how much our family would be budgeted according to the thrifty plan:
1 male 19-50 at $41.50
1 female 19-50 at $36.80
1 child age 1 at $21.10
1 child age 2-3 at $23.10
1 child age 4-5 at $24.00
1 child age 6-8 at $30.70
1 child age 9-11 at $35.00
Now you discount by 10% because we're a family with 7 or more members: $190.98
Now you assume we only get 80% of that budget as a food stamp allotment: $152.78
That now puts the amount pretty much in line with what is a doable but tight food budget for our family. Having established that, my further thoughts fall into three categories:
How Do We Keep Our Food Budget at Food Stamp Levels?
Even when we were feeling fairly flush, and not trying to keep our food budget super low, we never spent all that much more than $200 per week on groceries, and while averaging $120/wk for the last while has taken concentration, it doesn't really take that much deprivation. I think part of that probably comes from that fast that MrsDarwin and I both come from fairly frugal backgrounds, so our cooking instincts are low cost. Here are some of the keys to keep things cheap:
- It's winter, so we're having a lot of soups: a carton of broth and a pound of dry beans with various things thrown in for body or flavor can easily feed all seven of us for about $5 and leave enough to put away several servings of left overs.
- Using meat as a flavoring, not a dish. We're never into big hunks of meat eaten strait at the best of times, as a matter of cost and of culture. (Plus we're helped along at the moment by a large quantity of pig which resides in our freezer since MrsDarwin's mother gave it to us for Christmas. We're making it last and loving it.)
- Starch is your friend. When it comes to filling up lots of hungry young Darwins, pasta and rice are essential. For those of us decidedly not trying to grow, the recourse is portion control rather than subsisting on proteins and vegetables.
- No sodas or juices. Milk and water are the orders of the day for the young Darwins. (And I've cut back the beer budget to virtually nil so as to do my part.)
- Make it from scratch. We never bought much prepared food, but now we've taken that down to virtually nothing.
- Shop where it's cheap. You'd think that dealing with pricing, I'd always do this, but neither of us particularly likes looking for coupons or going to havens of extreme low price. (We tend to stick to our mainstream supermarkets and Trader Joe's.) However, since having to cut back we've started going to Aldi and it has allowed us to cut back a lot in certain areas. (Butter at $1.90/lb, milk at $1.99/gal, etc. Got to love German efficiency.)
Ways People Taking This Challenge Should Make It More "Real"
One of the things that makes the "Food Stamp Diet" promotional materials look deeply silly at times (especially to anyone who's actually lived on a lower middle class budget) is the ways in which people doing it seem to be out of touch with what most people on low budgets eat and where they shop. For instance, the 2007 set of promotional materials designed for congressmen warns participants, "A gallon of milk costs close to $5, a box of cereal is more than $4 and one apple can cost .60 to $1 each. These numbers add up quickly." I can't imagine where they're shopping, but I pay $1.99/gal for mild, $1.99 or less for a box of (non sugary, house brand) cereal, and $1/lb or less for apples.
So if you're going to take the food stamp diet challenge, at a minimum stop going on about organic and the fat content of your ground beef. Buying organic is, rightly or wrongly, a luxury and one way of consuming less fat is to eat less meat rather than spending a lot of money on extra lean meat.
Also, for those who really haven't experienced how "the other half" lives, try committing to doing all your shopping at places like Wal-Mart, Aldi, Family Dollar, etc. You'll get more food for your money, and you'll also find yourself standing in line with people who really do use food stamps. Whole Foods and the local farmers markets are not where the poor shop.
Why We Still Have It Way Better Than Most People On Foodstamps
All of this could easily make it sound like it's pretty easy to get by on food stamps, indeed that the poor have it pretty easy. That is not necessarily my point here, so let me run through a couple ways in which it's far easier for us to live on this food budget than it might be for many real families among the working poor:
- Economies of scale matter. Even the 10% discount that the USDA applies to the budget for families of 7 doesn't make up for the fact it's much cheaper on a per person basis to feed a large family than just 1, 2 or 3 people. Feeding two people on $44/week would be a lot harder than feeding seven people on $152/wk.
- An intact family with a stay at home parent helps a lot. One of our keys to living cheaply is that MrsDarwin is at home and able to get dinner started before I get home, make the kids lunches from scratch, etc. It would be much harder for a family with only one adult and a couple kids, or even with two working adults to stick to the same budget. Time is money, and as a single income family we have more time for certain things. (Of course, in some families, a parent, grandparent or other relative might fill this second adult slot.)
- We have the time and transportation to shop at three different stores during the course of the week and to bring in a week's worth of supplies from each store. If we had to shop day by day, or only at stores near public transportation, it would cost us more.
- We know that we do in fact have plenty of cash flow, even if we are trying to devote most of it to paying off a big expense rather than groceries. So we don't have any of the chronic anxiety of not being sure we'll be able to make ends meet.