Food Stamp Budget experimenters

[The following has been edited to correct some things from the original posting and add a couple of links. Serious Eats lists some more congresspeople participating.]

Last year the most popular food plan experiment was "eating local". This year so far it seems to be "eating on a food stamp budget". The main reason for this is upcoming debate on the 2007 farm bill. Bush administration is proposing to make big cuts in food assistance for the poor, a large part of which would mean cuts to the food stamp program. [Edit: as an anonymous commenter pointed out, that was a link to an article about the 2005 farm bill cuts.] (A NY Times editorial about the subject [Edit: this actually is about the 2007 Farm Bill :)].) So a number of politicians are doing the Food Stamp Budget Experiment at least in part to protest against this.

Here are the ones I've found so far (Note, some of these links were already posted to my, so my apologies for the duplicates if you follow that also.)

All of these politicians seem to be sticking to the $3-a-day-per-person budget. As mentioned here previously, blogger Rebecca Blood is conducting a month-long experiment in this vein, though she's allowing herself a $74 per day week budget (for two people), and adding the additional challenge of eating organic food. [Edit: see my followup post.] She seems to be doing quite well so far, eating lots of fresh vegetables, pulses and grains. On the other hand Councilman Eric Gioia, who went shopping with the assistance of a mother who had raised a family on food stamps, and bought things like ramen noodles, white bread (cheaper than whole wheat), canned tuna, peanut butter, isn't doing very well. I suspect that more people who are actually in situations where they have to rely on food stamps shop more like the councilman than like Rebecca.

It does strike me that the councilman's diet sounds suspiciously like that of a typical 'starving' student's though, which is probably why a lot of the commenters on this Digg post seem to think it's not a big deal.

Filed under:  ethics food news politics

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Thanks for the link, Maki. That should be $74/week, not day - about about $5.30 per day, per person. I'm doing quite well so far - I even have leftovers in the freezer - but the contrast between my experience and the experience of those politicians buying ramen is important.

The budget I'm on is the one the US government has determined will feed two people "thriftily". Since the government assumes that 1/3 of everyone's food costs will be paid by the person themselves, everyone's actual benefits vary. But the Thrifty Budget amount is important, because it's the what the government has determined is adequate to feed a person or family. For 2 people, $74/week is $3 a week more than the maximum food stamp benefit we could ever collect.

One big assumption of the Thrifty Food Plan is that individuals will cook their own food, eat at home, not out, and so forth. And it seems quite reasonable to expect people to use their allotment in the most frugal manner possible.

But what about the homeless person without access to a kitchen? What about the person without any cooking skills (and there are lots of people like that). What about the person whose cooking skills depend on putting together prepared foods (which is the way many people cook)? What about the person working full-time (or more)? Can they realistically cook all of their meals from scratch?

I believe they could - but based on many of the comments I've gotten so far from people who have plenty of money but are anxious to reduce their food bills, there are lots of people out there who don't have the first idea how to start.

My experience raises a lot of questions. Is the Thrifty Food Plan adequate to feed a typical working family that doesn't have a stay-at-home member to do the cooking and shopping? Should governments be doing something to give people the skills they need to survive on such an austere budget? Should the US government raise the food stamp allotment to account for the realities of modern family life?

Smaller communities, those surrounded by organic farms/producers, are likely to have the food pantry/bank stocked regularly with healthy items.
Otherwise relying solely on gov't entitlements vis-à-vis the food stamp program and cash benefits, is not possible.
Despite these so-called 'luxuries', humane necessities, I left the area, to go to a different place; Where starving residents out, on items with less-than-zero nutrition - white-bread, not considered 'bread' - is handing out non-food items. Where not providing housing and general medical, is outside the conciousness. It needs to be explained, because locals don't get this reality of north american life. The propaganda churned out by all the television and other networks in the states works well to hide the realities.

Consider the backdrop of Iraq, where every neo-con greedy idea is in place, ideas too far out for even the drugged U.S. people: People have no food, no housing, no electricity, no running water, no basic medical and no safety - clearly a success! Far from off-topic, this is the same syndicate dropping provisions for those who have the least.
Without the whole picture, there is no picture.

Thank you for your comments Rebecca! And I've corrected the typo. (too many of these cropping up these days...)

Anon commenter, thank you for your comments also but I honestly have no idea what you're talking about. If your point is that people need to move to 'better' (in whatever way that's defined) communities though, that's not really a practical option for many people. Otherwise no one would live in run down, crime-riddled neighborhoods, for example.

That Washington Post article you link to is from 2005. What does that have to do with the current farm bill?

You're right anonymous no. 2. I've corrected the post. (I missed the date since it all sounded familiar.)

I can't believe that is the USDA alloted amount for food stamps. That's MORE than what my family of three spends and that's splurging for two cartons of ice cream every shopping trip. I think it's more of what people buy and where that becomes problematic. The best place to buy inexpensive and good produce is at farmer's markets or local groceries... but most probably don't take food stamps. Also, I think a lot of people buy "junk" food - canned, boxed, etc... which actually is more expenisve than buying and making it at home. Not to mention it's not as healthy. And people also seem to abhor "stocking up" for sales (for staple foods, like pasta) or buying "in season" foods... but if you buy almost everything on sale (as we do) and in season, you can have some very tasty and healthy meals... for closer to $50 a week. (this is in California, where food is NOT cheap, but varieties of seasonal vegetables and fruit are readily available).

I want to know where you live, so that I can come there too, because there is no way my husband and I could live on $73 a week and eat nutritious food; we could eat and manage, but on that budget we wouldn't be able to afford to buy food that is good for us and poor families should have the same abilities to eat good food as many of us do. In addition, I applaud the "analysis" of the author of the post before this, because it really thinks critically about those who do not have a good home/kitchen, who do not have a home at all and many other people that this $73 is designed for. In my experience, families need a lot more assistance on having access to nutritious food.


Precisely, I am talking about -moving-.

Re. "that’s not really a practical option for many people." (Example given of inner-city folks).
With respect to the great intelligence I know you have - Wrong, or at least I disagree.
Poor pilgrims managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean in wooden boats hundreds of years ago, with a lot less resources than what someone living in an inner-city, run-down, rat-infested sewage pit has today. Many of the immigrants to north america since the time of the earlier 'settlers' have had similarly scant resources - coming from countries they were literally starved out of.

I see no difference [no greater barrier] between the examples above, and moving within the U.S. to another community which has ample fresh and healthy foods. As the poster in California points out, the food she needs for her family is available at less cost then 74$ a week.

Was it not the 'Great Depression' which saw huge internal migrations of people? People who were >willing< to make the move? Is it not the biggest obstacle in those who live in a neglected community the willingness to move out? It takes a lot of courage: it can be done. It may mean living in a cardboard box. However, it is my experience, there are those communities in north america, who find this unacceptable, even to a stranger, providing them with clothes, a tent or some lodging, and ample fresh and other foods.

Is it okay to stay within the idea of 'I am a west-sider', and remain on my side of the tracks, forever stuck in my own local community? My own health be damned? Or is it better to allow myself to be a member of the world community. And so long as I am physically and legally able to move somewhere better, do so with haste. I have heard misery loves company. [And Entropy takes all with it.]

Riddle me this, anonymous. How can someone move if they cannot afford to buy their own food and need help from the government? In other words, how does a family of three or four pack up and move when they cannot even afford gas to get out of their city?
Your examples do not work on the basic tenet that land costs money these days. If someone is having to go through the government just to feed themselves, they certainly cannot afford to rent an apartment or house, nor could they even afford a down payment on such a place. When America was settled, land was mostly free and work was constantly available. These days, even college educated people have trouble finding a job that pays more than minimum wage. Using simple logic and mathematics, tell me how someone can support a family on $6.75/hour and still have enough to save for this grand exodus you think they can all make.

Maki, as for food stamp totals, the woman using $74/week is a far cry from the average of $72/MONTH. Foodstamps and healthy eating mix as well as oil and water.

Growing up in a make from scratch household with 2 working parents (including a mom who went college & grad school while raising 3 kids), there was an incredible amount of planning ahead -- weekly menus, grocery shopping every 2 weeks, training the kids & husband to cook along, etc.

One of the first purchases after a home, was getting a freezer for the garage, ahead of any wall to wall carpets for the house, We made do with area rugs on the wood floors, which had to be cleaned, shined & buffed every week!
Weekday menus were simpler & quicker -- eg, casseroles, assembled while doing breakfast, then ready to cook when the kids got home from school.

We all learned the "time-bake" (pre-set delayed cooking) at a young age, but I remember teaching many adult women neighbors how to use that feature on their ovens, cause they waited until midafternoon to start thinking about what to eat for dinner, otherwise.

Since the oven would be going for meatloaf, we also prepared 7-10 baked potatoes, as many as would fit in the remaining space & voila! Enough for diced potato salad the next day!

Having older parents who were adults during the Great Depression, our family was naturally frugal.

This is really interesting to me because it directly affects my life.
I agree with the idea that $74/wk is far beyond "poor." This is about what our family of 3 spends and while we're certainly not eating fabulously, we eat better than most people in our area.

I also agree with the idea that you have to make smart choices (although moving is not one of them - I find the argument posted highly flawed- especially the idea of poor pilgrims... those people may have been poor but it wasn't cheap for them to come here)- but there are plenty of people for whom those choices aren't really choices at all. We make the choice to not have a car and to live in a really bad neighborhood so that we can do 2 things: 1. send our son to a good preschool 2. eat as healthfully as we can on our means. But, some people can't make those choices. Some people have to live near their jobs if they don't have a car which could mean much higher rent. Some people live cheaply but far enough that taking public transportation/walking/biking isn't feasible. In my community, for example, we live in an area known for drug dealers and gangs. But we pay just over $550/mo for rent... head over to the other side of town and you can't even find a place for less than $1200/mo for the same size. And, as stated above, some people just don't have the basic skills necessary to cook... or even to shop in some cases!

I recently read an article about the rise of grocery shopping at dollar stores - where the food can hardly be considered food!

And the idea that eating fresh food is cheaper is INSANE! I shop at local and national stores as well as at the farmers market. At our market produce is often more than double for a same item. The same goes for local vs. national grocery stores. We live across the street from Marsh (a small regional grocery chain) and 2 blocks from a Target (a multi-billion$ corporation). I can buy the same items at Target FAR cheaper than Marsh! I could also take an hour bus ride to the other side of town to shop at WalMart for even cheaper prices (monetary prices... not "global" prices!).

All you have to do to know that eating fresh is not cheaper is look thru the Sunday paper or at the menu of your local McDonald's. My entire family could eat at McD's for $9 (including drinks) but there is no way I could prepare a fresh, and certainly not local or organic, meal that includes meat and veg for that!

I have to disagree with you erisgrrl. While buying pre-prepared 'healthy' food can be more expensive than cheap junk (like fast food), it is possible to eat healthy on a budget.

Now, I don't have a family, but I keep track of my grocery expenses, and it usually adds up to about $2-3 dollars a day, not counting the random once or twice a month I might eat out with friends (based on a monthly/bi-monthly shopping trip divided by the number of days). This is while going to school full time (18-20 credit hours a week) and working part time 20 hrs a week.

The main idea is plan well, first by utilizing sales/coupons and to stock up on staples whenever they are on sale. Assuming you have access to a freezer, different cuts of meat are usually on sale every week, so you can buy what you like when it's on sale and save the extra for later. Choose vegetables based on what is in season. Finally, plan meals out in advance so that they can be cooked more quickly and the same 'sale' foods can be used in different meals for variety.

food stamps should be only should be used for food.I have seen too many people fill their shopping cart with pop and chip's candy.This should be used for food.I am sure their kids are eating well. Fruit should be the only junk food they should.

While it IS possible to eat healthy on that kind of a budget, it's also difficult. Especially for people that often don't have adequate transportation to get to the healthy food. I live in a suburb of major city, and getting anywhere by bus is easily a four hour excursion once you take into account walking to the stop, travelling to the store, doing the actual shopping and getting back home.

Add in the fact my lack of cooking skill usually doubles estimated prep time and one can see how the desire for convenience creeps in. Why pay more to get the ingredients to make homemade lasagna when I can just get a frozen one for less than the price of the stuff that goes into it?

And I'm just one person, toss in screaming kids and twice the chores and I can easily see how a flustered mom trying to get everywhere via public transit would fall back on convenience as well as price.

Hi All,
I like all the back and forth. Maybe this isn't news but we also should realize that people today eat far more than they need. Eating has become a "pleasure, a sport (if you will) almost a way to assuage our sadness and depression. If you are simply looking for good wholesome meals and , as one smart blooger pointed out, planning ahead there is so much you can make for soooo little.
Take , for instance, a whole chicken for supper on Sunday night. Monday morning pick off any meat which might still remain and make a salad with chick peas, chicken, and any other thing you like plus a loaf of bread or crusty roles, Tuesday morning, put the chicken carcass in a pot of boiling water with onions, garlic carrots and potatoes and boil slowly all day. Remove the bones add a little rice or pasta and voila, dinner Tuesday night for pennies.
Start on Wednesday the same way with maybe an inexpensive roast or ham.
Most people though buy the processed foods and the easy convenient foods, sodas, etc...
I see so many people shop the wrong way and look at food the wrong way. Let's be intelligent people!!

This is really ignorant, and appeals to the lack of compassion that-- let's be real here-- causes all these comments dismissing how hard it is to live on food stamps. I don't know what roasts and hams you're buying, but they're not inexpensive. I live only off of food stamps and I guarantee I am a million times more frugal and smart with my food than you are. It works for three weeks. You can eat well for three weeks if you cook every single meal with a plan, which gets really stressful on top of work and school and family management! The last week is hell. All we eat are potatoes, broth and brown rice. Don't preach to me. What would it hurt to give families ample food budgets-- what would it hurt to overestimate food costs? The system already works on a timer; if you don't use up your past months' balances, they disappear after six months. Why not increase the monthly budget and keep that system? Most people are not cheaters, and most people on food stamps do NOT want to be. We'd prefer to have the income to buy our food without assistance. It's cruel to make us suffer for being poor. It wouldn't hurt anyone to raise the monthly food budget. You know, I think it'd be enough to be able to live without the stigma, judgement and dismissal. It's humiliating to shop with a SNAP card. People are cruel.

It's great that you have so much food you're eating "far more than you need". The rest of us don't have that privilege. Enjoy your abundance of food.

I'm currently using food stamps and though I'm grateful for the supplement to my income I receive $50 a month, so I'm a little unsure of the accuracy of $74 a week. A persons allotment is usually determined by their income, expenses and family size; $74 may be a national amount or maybe average but its inaccurate. Regardless if the concern is being able to purchase healthy foods on a food stamp budget it is definitely difficult leaning towards impossible. First off having easy access to markets that offer healthier choices and organics is a challenge especially to those in the city and inner city. Secondly the cost of healthier choices are far greater than the less healthy. Eg; 100% whole wheat/whole grain bread is at the least $3.59 a pack, white bread $1.59 - $2.19 a pack. I have $20 left in food stamps and still have vegetables and proteins to purchase, which one do you think I'll more than likely purchase, especially for a household of more than 1 person. So I'm stuck with first having to get to a fully stocked supermarket then deciding where and what products are going to be sacrificed so that I can get something organic, healthy etc... in my monthly meal planning. I've lived in the inner city all my life even when I was making $45,000.00 a year and still had problems creating a monthly budget and meal plan that incorporated enough healthy foods to get real, evident benefits. Its difficult on food stamps and unless you live within or experienced those restraints, whether food stamp based or cash based, its difficult to fathom