Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The "Food Stamp Diet" and How It's Different From Being Poor

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
Total: $212.20

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.


Emily J. said...

When I saw the title of this post, I had a different idea about what it was going to be about. There was a period of time when we lived in an area where people regularly shopped with food stamps. What they bought was white bread, cheap peanut butter, ramen noodles, canned soup, cheap chips, Sunny Delite - mostly cheap foods with high fat, high sugar, high salt, high bad for you stuff. I never saw anyone buy fresh fruit with food stamps - or dried beans - although this is totally anecdotal. I wonder if they could come up with a food stamp program that would be based on nutritional allowances, like getting coupons for 5 fruit servings a day.

Serendipity said...

Don't know where the Darwins reside, but Wal-Mart, Aldis, Sam's Club etc all have about $4 a gallon for milk, and $5 and over for OJ (the real stuff, not frozen), here in MD

mary said...

In MA we have the MD prices like Serendipity. But...Darwin makes a lot of sense. So many middle class folks I know blow tons of money on stupid things, like lunches out, lattes and expensive food.

That said, fresh veggies and fruits are a must, and those are expensive.

Kelly said...

You might be interested in the Food Stamp Challenge series at the Mama Says blog. She generally feeds a large family on half the food stamp budget and includes some organics and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Amber said...

We spend about 600/mo (about $140/wk) for a family of 6 - well, not exactly 6, the 4 mo old doesn't eat anything that I have to buy! And this includes organic milk and eggs, good quality cheese, and pasture raised pork, beef and chicken. A good portion of the fruits, veggies, beans and grains are organic too. Granted, this also includes a summer garden, canning tomato sauce and salsa and keeping our own small flock of chickens. (the monthly amount includes the costs of chicken feed, soil amendments, and vegetable starts and seeds). But it is also a fair amount of work and planning. If I had to work full time or lived somewhere where I couldn't garden and keep chickens it would be a lot harder, if not impossible to try to eat how we do for this amount. But as it is, I look at the USDA and have a hard time understanding it. I remember feeding our family on $250/mo (four eaters then) and that was hard and did not include organics. But also way, way less than the USDA thrifty plan.

Darwin said...

Serendipity & Mary,

We're just north of Columbus, OH. Milk runs $2.50 to $3/gal in regular grocery stores (I'm not sure about Wal-Mart) but Aldi's consistently has it at $1.99. The had had butter at $1.90/lb for the last month, but today it was up to $2.29.

I hadn't realized this was particularly unusual, since prices were pretty similar in Texas when we were there, but I guess it varies a lot more than I realized.


I'll have to look that up.


Mmmm, wow. Back in TX I had a coworker you used to bring us eggs from his chickens at home and they were just amazing. We maybe just have room to have chickens someday in our new house, but I'm not sure about the mess/smell (though I am planning a bigger and better garden this year.

Foxfier said...

I'd defend the $5 milk thing as being regional, but they've been saying that since I was getting milk for under $2/gal, and it's gone up to $2.50 minimum in our area.

Lifestyle seems to matter a lot for the "challenges"-- and most are done to prove a point. (Heck, even mine several years back was to prove a point-- though it was "you are nucking out of it, things aren't THAT expensive!")

From the conversations I call to mind, the biggest difference is if people cook and are willing to try to cook. (Frozen veggies are a big plus, too.)

One way to get around the bulk issue is those "cook and freeze" cookbooks, or just cooking stuff that can set in the fridge for half a week. Or trade off dinner nights with friends in similar circumstances-- it shocks me how many people are willing to trade off "watch the kids" days, but won't do the same for cooking.

Mariana said...

I have to disagree that buying organic should be considered a "luxury". Non-organic is only cheap because it doesn't include the massive costs of ecological and social degradation that industrial food production causes.

I live in a community of 7 adults, and we have a budget of about $22/week per person (which we don't always use up, even). This includes buying local and organic whenever available - including humanely raised meat and dairy products. Granted, we do have our own chickens for eggs, and we grow all of our own vegetables, which not everybody can do. But perhaps more people can do it than think they can.

I helped our neighbors man their produce stand at the farmers market this summer, and we did have senior citizens using their equivalent of food stamps. The organic produce we sold was also cheaper than the regular produce you'd get at the local Kroger.

Re: the mess/smell of chickens. To quote Joel Salatin - "if you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement!"

Amber said...

I agree with Mariana about the chickens - so long as you keep on top of the coop and there area, there really isn't a smell. But if you aren't diligent about it... Eww!

Out here in semi-rural northern CA (where we don't have Walmart et al) regular milk runs 3.29 - 4.29, depending on where you shop. Organic isn't all that much more at 5.59-6.29, well worth it, I think. We don't let the kids drink it like water though and with mild rationing we go through about a gallon and a half a week. I do use it to make yogurt too.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

The advantage to being frugal rather than poor is that when staples go on sale you can stockpile. Then you "shop" from your pantry until those items go on sale again. In effect, you need never pay the regular retail price for the things you use most frequently.

If you're poor, you can't afford to do that and are stuck paying whatever price an item is when you need to buy it.

That was one of our shopping philosophies when I still had a family to shop for.

The Sojourner said...

I live in southwestern Ohio and my budget is $200 a month for myself and my husband. (That translates to less than $50 a week on average, but I've spent everywhere from $125 to $17 in a given week, depending on what we need and what's on sale.) I've only been sticking to it for two months (because I've only been married two months), but it really isn't hard at all. We've had a few days at the end of the month where we have to get creative with what's left in the apartment, but that's mainly due to me not planning ahead. We eat a TON of meat and buy ice cream and everything. The only thing we don't do is buy convenience food. (Ice cream is probably the closest we get, actually.) And we shop at Aldi. I love Aldi because I can get all my staples for cheap in one place and then make quick stops at other stores to fill in the gaps. (I get lost in Wal-Mart. It's just too big.)

Calah said...

When we were actually on foodstamps in Vegas I was able to make it work fairly easily, including organic meat, milk, cage-free eggs and plenty of fruit and vegetables. I felt, actually, that it was quite a generous allowance. Now we are trying to be very strict about our budget and I give myself nearly $80 less per week than we had on foodstamps, with one extra person in the household. It is extremely difficult here in Naples. Organic milk here is close to $6 for a half-gallon, where 6 months ago I paid $3.49 for a full gallon. Eggs are $4 a dozen and that's only cage-free and not organic; in Vegas it was $2.49 for cage-free organic. Produce is so outrageous we can rarely afford more than I feel we must eat for nutrition...and even then, we might get two servings of vegetables and fruit per day. Meat is a luxury of the past. The most we get is a chicken a week, from which I use the bones to make stock for soup later in the week, occasional ground beef, and sometimes on payday we'll buy a steak to celebrate. This is a shocking change for my extremely carnivorous family. If we had foodstamps here in Naples, and the same allowance which we had in Vegas, I would still find it hard to manage. Not like I am now, but it would be tight, not luxurious like it was in Vegas. I didn't realize that food prices varied so greatly geographically, but they really do. I wonder if places like NYC and DC and San Francisco, where these stupid challenges are given to politicians, are more similar in food pricing to where we are now in Florida. That would explain a lot. If I saw a gallon of milk for $1.99 I would cry. Even the non-organic is at least $5 a gallon. At least.

Calah said...

Also, you know, I have to say one more thing about food stamps. When we were on them I didn't feel the same crushing worry and near financial terror that I do now. Our salary was so small as to be essentially non-existent. Ends did not meet. They were never going to meet. They did not even know where the other could be found. And yet, I didn't worry about food for my family. The kids were on Medicaid, so I didn't worry about money for medicine or the hospital if they got really sick. Now, I really understand what it's like to be poor. To really have to stretch to make ends meet, because the government isn't going to catch us when we fall. Honestly, I never want to go back on government assistance again because as stressful as it is and as much as I worry that my children's health is actually going to suffer because of our strict budget, I feel like I never actually understood true financial responsibility before, nor what it was like to be poor. When we were first married, we had enough money. Then grad school came and we had no money, so little that it was impossible to consider living on it. Now we have very, very little money. I mean, the paychecks seem like a fortune to us, but when we budget it out it's barely enough to live on and still pay tuition, since the Ogre is writing his dissertation and all. And now I know what it is like to be poor. And there's some small satisfaction that comes from being thrifty, from making up a meal with things that I normally would consider a bare pantry, from getting to the end of the month and sighing in relief, saying, well we did it. I think part of the reason that government assistance is quite insidious in it's current incarnation is that it provides enough for people not just to scrape by, but to be, in fact, comfortable. That was my experience, at least. And when you try to get off of it you start to realize how hard it actually is to make your own way. That's why I think so many people just stay on government assistance, forever, and never try to take themselves off. When a program that's meant to be temporary assistance makes people more comfortable than they were before, and more comfortable than they'll be again until they spend years pinching and scraping and saving, it becomes a permanent solution.

Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

One other thing to take into account: many of the poor live in an "urban food desert." My older son attends a university in such a location. When he's home, we load him up on groceries because stuff costs so much more in his part of the 'hood. But the residents of the area are a captive audience, mostly without cars--and therefore without access to cheaper supermarkets with a wider selection. So in areas like that, your food dollar cannot stretch nearly as far.

Anonymous said...

Wow I am wondering where you are shopping in naples? Naples is a rich community in the first place but all around southwest florida you can find super walmarts where things are much cheaper. Also you shop publix and winn dixie for sale items and your dollar ahould go far. I am speaking from experience. First I grew up in naples and second I live in punta gorda. Believe me the food prices down here are much cheaper than other states. I have lived in ohio and indiana and I travel a lot. Anyway food budget definately changes depending on where you live.