Monday, June 04, 2007

Final Thoughts on the Food Stamp Challenge

With the weekend to gather my thoughts about our experience last week doing the Food Stamp Challenge, I'm left with more questions than answers, and no solutions that seem realistic to improve the situation where millions are struggling to feed themselves on what seems like a paltry sum - an average $3.00 a day per person.

As I learned, it is possible to feed a family within the budget a varied, nutrient-dense diet and even have food left at the end of the week. When I started to put together a menu and shopping list from the area stores' sale circulars, I thought it was going to be next to impossible to get everything we'd need for the week - I was surprised with the ease with which I did put together a menu, list of things on sale and the rest needed as 'fill-in-the-gap' items not advertised, and was able to buy everything for the week without much fuss. We even had food left at the end of the week - enough to more than start the next week and ease the stress of staying within the budget.

As some have noted in comments and email - I'm at a distinct advantage, I know which foods are nutrient dense and how to plan a menu, so it's not realistic, let alone reasonable, to expect someone without my specific background to be able to replicate my success in meeting the challenge. Some even emailed me links to show how pitiful some did when they tried to do the challenge.

I hate to say it, but posturing politicians aren't a great example of failure to succeed in the challenge. Their success is likely tied to their position on the issue - those who are in favor of increasing the assistance more likely to fail miserably than one interested in maintaining the status quo or reducing the budget. What I found when I poked around the blogosphere is that those without a vested interest either way, like me, were able to stay within the budget constraints during the week and seemed to do well with a little planning. Those who are strongly in favor of increasing the money provided did poorly. Coincidence? Who knows; but had congressman Ryan been trying to live on the DC budget - $31.30 average - and really planned better, he could have fared better than he did. But, that wouldn't have made headlines and would have been counter-productive to increasing the budget to provide more money to families needing assistance.

That's not to say that the assistance currently provided is great; it's not. It definitely does not allow a family (or individual) to buy whatever, whenever they'd like. Heck, without some planning you won't get through the month - plain and simple.

Even with planning you still won't have lots of goodies or all the convenience more money does provide one with.

While I was able to stay within budget, there were no ready-to-eat snacks, beverages (other than calcium enriched V-8), or packaged, quick to grab-and-go foods.

The budget forced planning, creativity and cooking each day - something no amount of money will inspire someone to do unless they see the value of their time as fundamental in managing on their budget.

While it's infinitely easier to grab a bag of pre-cut and washed lettuce than to wash and chop it yourself, the convenience comes at a steep premium - an average bag of lettuce (romaine) weighs 8-ounces and is often on sale for 2-for-$5.00....reality check - that's $5.00 per pound; head lettuce (romaine) goes for anywhere from $0.99 a head to $2.49 a head. Last week I weighed the two heads I purchased - one was about 1.75-pounds, the other 1.25 (green and red leaf respectively), so I had 3-pounds of lettuce that cost me $1.39 a head (total $2.78, or 0.92/pound).

If I purchased the amount of lettuce we ate throughout the week, already washed and chopped for me, I would have needed 6-bags to have 3-pounds of lettuce - at 2/$5 that's $15 - or, put another way, 47.6% of the budget for the week for a family of three.

Doing the washing and chopping myself left $12.22 in the budget for other foods.

So, I'm left wondering, if $21 per person each week isn't enough, how much is? Is it $25? $30? 40? More...? How much is enough?

When I poked around various state websites, detailing program funding in different locations, it's clear where you live matters in how much is provided. For example, here in Missouri and in neighboring Kansas, the average assistance is about $21 per person per week; but in areas that have higher cost-of-living, the amount can be as high as $38.75 per person each week.

What I did find shocking was that, according to Harvesters website, "Harvesters clients who receive Food Stamp benefits indicate that their monthly allotment lasts just 2 ½ weeks."

So, if my math is correct, a family of four - who receives an average of $21 per person per week - receives an average of $364 a month for a family of four.

[The math here = 21 * 4 = 84 * 52 = 4368/12 months = 364]

Based on the Harvesters finding that this amount provided for only 2.5 weeks in a month - are we to believe a family of four needs an average assistance with $582.40 a month instead of the current $364 each month?

[The math here = $336/2.5 = $134.40 per week when it's all spent in just 2.5 weeks; 134.40 * 52-weeks = $6988.80 per year/12 months = $582.40/month]

Do those needing assistance need 60% more each month to feed their families?

I don't know about you, but even we don't spend that much on average over the year, and I'm not exactly what you'd call thrifty when it comes to grocery shopping. In fact, I've heard many, many times from my much-more-cost-aware husband that I'm spending way too much on groceries!

So, I sat and calculated out our food costs, based on actual buying through the year, and between May 2006 and May 2007 we spent $4300 on food, including almost exclusive purchase of grass-fed pastured beef, chickens, turkey, pork, lamb and eggs; dairy from milk of pastured animals (including goat milk products); milk, fresh produce, oils, butter, and miscellaneous purchases at various grocery stores and produce when the CSA and Farmer's Market isn't providing fresh local vegetables and fruits.

That's an average of $82.69 a week for the three of us - $27.56 each per week - $3.93 per day per person. And we eat almost everything organic and grass-fed/pastured - and for less per person per week than the person needing additional help through Harvesters each month! [update 6/5: math error: annual, weekly and individual food budget updated to reflect correction]

Why are we not asking how we can help folks learn to budget better? When the same folks are coming through for additional help each month, maybe it's worth our time and effort to sit and listen, help them learn where they can make changes to their current buying practices to stay within their budget next month? It's easy to call the problem "not enough money" and just give them more money - but seriously, after doing it for a week, I'm not surprised we managed well - what I spent isn't that much less than I normally do on a weekly average!

So, I'm not convinced more money given to those who do need help is going to change much for them, or be the panacea that fixes the very real problems inherent in the existing system.

More money won't solve transportation problems.

More money won't relieve predatory pricing - it may even provide incentive to not only continue predatory pricing, but increase prices to eat up the additional dollars provided just as quickly.

More money won't buy access that isn't already there for fresh fruits and vegetables.

More money won't solve poor dietary habits.

More money won't solve time management issues.

More money won't incline people to cook more from scratch.

And, I hate to say it like this, but more money won't make people better planners - if someone today isn't thinking far enough ahead to budget for meals for a month, more money isn't going to change short-sightedness and failure to plan ahead when it's not in practice now.

After years as an IT professional, I can say with certainty, the saying "throwing more money at system problems makes them worse" is true.

I hate the idea that people are hungry and malnourished in the United States.

We can do better. We need to do better.

But I'm left without any good solutions....

All I have after a week of staying within the budget is questions - lots of questions...


  1. Hey Regina,

    Did you try and see if the Soulard farmers market had any deals better than the grocery store? I can walk away from that place with a ton of fruits and veggies for $10-12.


  2. Hi Neal - I'm in mid-MO...if my google search was right, Soulard FM is near St. Louis? A bit far for my shopping!

  3. That's an average of $80.77 a week for the three of us

    Wow! We spend that much a week in meat alone for just two people.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Regina! I was just through your area today. Soulard is in St. Louis (I live there) and it would be doozy of a drive. I haven't had a chance to shop there, but I've heard about some great deals you can get. I'm lookng forward to shopping there and seeing how it might fit into our budget. Thanks for the reminder Neal!

  6. Wow! We spend that much a week in meat alone for just two people.

    We buy split quarters or halves now that we're out here (MO) and have teh freezer space. I go for months without having to buy meat, poultry or game.

  7. I was just through your area today. Soulard is in St. Louis (I live there) and it would be doozy of a drive.

    The one store I wish we had here is Trader Joe's...anytime I'm out in the STL area, I stop to pick up non-perishables in one of them out there!

  8. We buy split quarters or halves now that we're out here

    That must be a huge savings. Organic/free range/ pastured etc.. chickens go for $20-25 a bird, and bulk beef still averages $12 a pound. And wild caught fish is a bargin at about $8 a pound.

  9. That's an average of $80.77 a week for the three of us

    Note update/correction - we spent an average $82.69 each week last year - addition error yesterday. I've updated the correction in the post and noted it.

  10. That must be a huge savings. Organic/free range/ pastured etc.. chickens go for $20-25 a bird, and bulk beef still averages $12 a pound. And wild caught fish is a bargin at about $8 a pound.

    I remember how crazy the prices are in the DC-Metro area...out here, we order from a local farm that pastures their animals - beef runs (split half - we take half, another family takes the other) for $3.40 a pound; chickens (have to order quantity in advance; 10+ chickens at a time) are $2.00 a pound; pork ranges by cut $1.50 to $5.50 a pound - I order enough to be extended a 20% discount since I don't order the split half or quarter; wild caught fish out here varies - I stock up when it's on sale.

  11. You did quite well. I bet if I had a car and could have made the 15-minute drive to the US, I could have stretched my money a lot further. Every time I'm down there visiting relatives, I do as much shopping as my mom and her minivan will allow.

  12. Anna in San Diego, CA9:30 AM

    Freezers make a lot of sense, especially for buying high value items such as meats. Newer models are more energy efficient and can be purchased for $200-$500 for small to medium-large sizes. Energy cost is estimated at about $40/year for the 13-14 cu ft upright (about 2/3 the size of a regular fridge) frost-free model I bought new two years ago for about $400. Models that need defrosting cost even less and use less energy and can hold more. And of course, used freezers cost even less, but perhaps higher energy costs should be considered.

    I like an upright style. Even though less can be stored in there compared to a chest style, I can find everything easily and quickly with plastic storage bins on the shelves and that is worth it to me (less stuff "lost" or forgotten. And I know I would never defrost when I should, so I went for frost-free.

  13. The main things I've found that has helped both eating low carb and keeping within budget? The freezer (manual defrost tends to cause less freezer-burn, so less waste) and a seal a meal.

    I buy in bulk when I can and cook in bulk or at least more servings than I need for a meal and freeze the leftovers. It's great when you don't feel like cooking, but can grab something homemade from the freezer and just reheat.

  14. I think something really important you said was about people realizing that *their time* was as much an integral part of their "budget" as their money.

    I spend too much on food. I don't spend time planning menus, don't shop with sales circular, I only have a walmart and the Last Tiny Grocer Left Standing (you know how that goes) that costs nearly 2x as much on many things but I pity them and they're 4 doors down so I try to shop there when I can.

    I'm sorry to have to admit that I'm still having a helluva learning to deal with just the planning, cooking and preparing part of a decent lowcarb eating plan -- never mind the detail of money!

    Hard topic, for sure.

  15. A lot of questions indeed. I'm in Canada, so our situations are different - I'm inspired to find out what the average family receiving welfare here in Toronto has to spend on food.

    I agree with PJ, that time is integral. Funny how all the messages we see in various media tell us that we have no time to prepare our own food. I don't think it's unreasonable to spend a day in food prep for the rest of the week, and to make things in bulk. Crock pots, freezers and seal-a-meals are custom made for this. But I'm not a single mum with small kids home all day -- would it be as easy for her?

    In my neighbourhood, a company has opened up that does all your grocery shopping and food prep for you. You can pop in after work and pick up your prepped meals for the week (all you have to do is cook them, or do some additional quick assembly) or you can cook on site. Wouldn't a service like this be a lifesaver for people on assistance, esp. if they're working low-wage jobs and looking after kids?

  16. Anonymous1:14 PM

    try doing that in nyc city. i have 155$ per month for myself, went to the supermarket (im pregnant and went oall the way to trader joe's because it is the cheapest esp. compared to gristedes here on roosevelt island where a bottle of olive oil is 20.99$ compared to 7.99$ at trader joe's) and eneded up spending 78$ on some regular stuff like eggs, cereal, salad, oil, tomatoes and cheese. no meats or anything luxurious. that lasted me 3-4 days for breakfast and lunch but barely with dinner so i have no idea what you are talking about when you doubt that this amount is enough when it is not enough for 1 person.

  17. What an interesting experiment. Thanks for detailing it for your readers. I'm fascinated and motivated to look at our food planning. We are in an interesting situation as we raise a lot of our food. That simply means it's difficult to calculate the costs. But what you say about teaching people to plan really resonates. Not only in nutrition, but financial budgeting and other areas as well.

  18. Anonymous8:57 PM

    We could all save money if we had money...It takes money to make money. Its true!

    I'd like to point out some other factors that seem to be overlooked.

    Some of us don't have big freezers to store meats puchased in bulk.

    Some of us are struggling so bad we don't have electricity! Did you think about that? If you have no money or assistance to pay your bills, your electric or water can get shut off and then you have to go through a bunch of stuff to get it turned back on and you have to pay reconnect charges.

    Some people receiving assistance don't have a roof over their heads sometimes.

    And they don't have cars and gas so they have to schlep everything by buses.

    And waiting in lines at DSS to get food stamps or bring in evidence takes a lot of time.

    So does looking for a job!

    Don't assume someone in this situation wants to stay in this situation. Some convenience type foods are necessary. Sure, some people will abuse it but others won't.

    Some people are sick and can't be spending time on their feet cooking. They need to open a bag of lettuce.

    Just don't assume that what works for you works for everyone. Everyone has their own challenges they are facing.

    Being on food stamps is no pleasure cruise.

    If one really wants to do the challenge, why not really do the challenge? Its not just spending a little money to get nutritious meals within budget.

    Some of these folks are at a bigger disadvantage than the things I've pointed out. Maybe they can't read! Maybe they can't do basic math.

    So many things come into play here.

  19. Hello, it was interesting to read your blog and to see all the numbers you crunched. In many cases, the problem isn't with how much money a family gets for foodstamps. It's not even about whether or not the family is educated about nutrition. The truth is that morale tends to be low in poor neighborhoods. When you have a low paying job or no job at all, you have crime in your neighborhood, your neighborhood is dirty and you have a roof to keep over your head and kids to take care of, nutrition can easily become a low priority. Many working people in urban areas have to work ridiculously long hours just to keep from being hungry and homeless so if they can whip up a box of mac n cheese for the kids before they leave for work, they will. I live in one such neighborhood, and there are ones far worse. I do my best to keep my fam healthy, but I can understand if a struggling family can't spare the time money and effort required to eat healthy when basic survival takes priority. It would help immensley if the standard of living in urban areas was raised.

  20. I think an aspect that is readily ignored by most people is that food is OFTEN used recreationly by poor families. (My husband and myself included.) Too broke to go to the $9 Friday night movie? No worries, we can afford nachos and brownies and watch a movie on cable! Have a hard day at work at a job you hate? Reward yourself with ice cream and cookies after work.

    I am successfully low carbing right now. (Down to 219 from top of 247, yeah!) I miss recreational eating with my husband a LOT. He has never had a weight problem, I will always struggle with my weight.

    A lot of parents out there are giving their kids ice cream bars, brownies, and macaroni and cheese not only because it is cheap and easy, but because everyone has fun eating it. This is the hardest part of changing how the family eats, I think. What do you replace the fun you had eating with? And where does the money for the replacement come from?