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...