The Foodstamp Challenge

There have been a number of articles in the press recently about the Foodstamp Challenge, people who are not on foodstamps trying to feed themselves and / or their families on a foodstamp budget.  Almost exactly five years ago I wrote a post, The Foodstamp Challenge, on that subject.  It has been a popular post, in large part due to the fact that bloggers with larger readerships linked to it.  While a little dated at this point I think it still makes some interesting observations, especially about why I and my friends might be able to live on the foodstamp budget but people who actually need them would not.
The Foodstamp Challenge

There was a brief note in last Sunday’s Inquirer that the governor of Oregon was going to try to spend on $3.00 a day on food for a week to see what it was like to live on foodstamps. Oregon provides $21.00 per person per week. It doesn’t seem like much but I took some time to think about it. I spend between half again and twice as much per person at the grocery store every week and once a month someone in the house takes a trip to a big box discount warehouse for things we use frequently that can be purchased in bulk. So you could say a little more than 42.00 per person per week but there is a lot of waste and extravagance built into that.

As I went shopping this week I looked more carefully at prices and did some preliminary menu planning. Then I talked with two other women who have the same number of people in their households and who are, like me, frugal at heart. We all decided that we could, if we had to, make do on $21.00 per week per person. But we all agreed that those who need foodstamps probably couldn’t. Read on for why.

On the plan my peeps and I came up with, breakfast would be pancakes from generic pancake/biscuit mix, bulk purchased sausage, and generic orange juice. That would give everyone a reasonably well balanced start to the day. Note there is no store bought pancake syrup. That is an extravagance. You can make your own by boiling equal amounts of sugar and water.

Lunch for school kids is tricky. There is the old standby peanut butter sandwich, add jelly for extravagance. A can of plain spaghettios would take up most of your lunch money. Again, cooking your own at home, pasta and tomato sauce, maybe with some ground beef thrown in, would make an entrĂ©e. But you’d need a food thermos to make that work. You can get a big bag of carrots (or a bunch and cut them yourself) to parcel out a few each day for lunch. That is one of the more affordable veggies. My favorite, green peppers (cut into strips), are out of budget. Fruit is the killer. At the grocery store I priced apples at about .50 each. That’s half of a meal allowance. You’d have to slice it into halves or quarters. Lemon juice would be an extravagance so the apple would brown during the day until meal time.

Dinner can be done on the cheap. I bought 5 bags of frozen veggies for $5.00, which should last for more than a week. Buy a chicken and cook it, put with your frozen veggies, add bread and butter or biscuits and you have a meal. The chicken might last for two meals or provide leftovers for lunch.

However, my friends and I could manage because we have things people who really need foodstamps don’t. Here’s the list we came up with:

1) We have options on grocery stores. I can easily get to five chain grocery stores, a mom and pop, and the discount warehouse. One of my friends said she could easily spend $20 on gas to drive to get her $12 of groceries. Those with fewer options are likely to pay more. Those whose only option is a convenience store probably can’t live on what can be bought there for $21.00 per week.

2) We have equipment. My kitchen holds a standard oven, a microwave, and a toaster oven. My cupboards are a shrine to Tupperware and the counter stocks a variety of sizes of Ziploc bags. Someone whose stove has only one working burner is in trouble. At the beginning of each year I buy 2 food thermoses per kid to allow for loss and breakage. That gives me a lot of options as far as lunch goes.

3) We have gardens or friends with gardens. Last weekend Mr. J planted peas and green beans in a corner of the backyard. Tomatoes may follow. This really helps with vegetables in the summer. A woman at work has chickens and sometimes brings in fresh eggs for people to take for free.

4) We have cash to start with. It takes money to buy things in bulk and if you only have $21.00 per week per person you can’t afford to stock up. The plant bench in my kitchen looks like a bunker. There are currently three 2 pound boxes of Cheerios on it. That will last us awhile but it took start up cash to get. Ditto with the bulk purchase of ground beef that is separated into roughly half pound segments, wrapped and frozen.

5) We have time. All those I surveyed were in two parent homes and only worked one job each. Someone is home to cook. You can buy a nice plump chicken for a good price but it takes a few hours to cook. We also have central air so we can cook in the summer without overheating the whole house.

6) We all have our own living space. The only people who get into our refrigerators are people in our immediate family. If you share living space, the friends or relatives of those you live with can wipe you out quickly.

My grocery list for this exercise included no beverages – better hope your water tastes good and doesn’t come in through rusty pipes. There were no chips, no cookies, no sweets, no snacks of any kind. It can be done but it is grim and the menu has little variety. Keeping the meals nutritionally balanced requires exact planning.

What I thought was most lacking was the room to experiment. If you can only buy as much as can be eaten in a week there is no room for error. You can’t try anything new because if it turns our poorly you can’t afford replacements. I enjoy puttering in the kitchen and this budget would remove that small pleasure.

It is good for all of us to think about these things, the amount we spend on food versus what we as a people have decided the poor should be able to get by on. When we ask families to buy food for $21 per person per week we are giving them a hard task in the best of circumstances and an impossible one in many.