Food Stamp Budget post followup

Following up to my previous post about food stamp budget experiments:

Rebecca has left a comment, where she points out she is following the USDA Thrifty Meal Plan, on which food stamp benefits are based. This is where her budget figure of $74 per week for 2 people (not $74 per day as I erroneously typed...that's sort of generous!) comes from, which comes out to $5.30 per day per person.

Actually another blogger did a month-long Thrifty Meal Plan experiment 2 years ago, though she did not stipulate organic/local as Rebecca is doing. Half Changed World ate on the Thrifty Food plan for a month (followup posts are here, here, here, here and the final wrapup.) She had the additional challenge of feeding her two small children, including one who was (is) a picky eater, as well as her husband.

(It seems quite illogical to me that the food budget or food stamp allocation is the same for all people, whether it's a tiny baby or a growing hungry teenager. But I guess that's government for you.)

A few more links:

Some conservative political blogs have called the various politicians' food stamp experiments to be lies since people actually get more food assistance. I disagree with calling the politicos liars - they are politicians, and out to make a (valid) point. Just as a matter of interest however, there are several other food assistance programs available from the federal government. There may be more from individual states, but that varies so much that I haven't researched this in depth.

The USDA has issued a recipe and meal planning booklet (publication year 2006) called Recipes and Tips for Thrifty, Healthy Meals (PDF). At the moment that link produces a 404 though, so until it returns (hopefully it will) you can search for the document on Google and view the cached version. It has some budgeting tips that can be useful for anyone, such as making a list before going grocery shopping, planning meals ahead, batch cooking and "planned leftovers".

What they do in Switzerland

I was rather curious as to how other countries dealt with the problem of feeding the poor, especially where I live now. In Switzerland welfare programs are managed at the canton level (cantons are sort of like states in the US but with more autonomy). People below the poverty line get financial and other assistance, but nothing like food stamps per se. Instead, eligible people are issued ID cards so that they can buy food at designated charity groceries at a discount, or for a very nominal fee. Here is a story about such a supermarket in Zürich. From another Swissinfo article, it seems the charity supermarkets fill the role that is filled by food banks and food pantries in the U.S. - the big difference being that the people still have to pay for the groceries.

(It's important to note that Switzerland has a very low percentage of people living under the official poverty line: as of 2005, that number is 6.9% nationwide, compared to 15.4% for the UK, and 21.9% for the United States. (source) In other words, the 'poverty problem' in proportion to the general population is much smaller.)

Canned ravioli days

Reading the USDA Thrifty Meals document mentioned above reminded me of a brief period when I was sometimes really hungry. Back in my early 20s, I was living on my own and very broke. After paying rent, transportation, utilities and such, my disposable income was around $250. It was my first time living alone, so I didn't really know how to cook for one - my previous cooking had been for the family and I was used to making amounts that were much larger than I needed for just myself. And, having grown up in a rather food-centric home it wasn't easy to be budget conscious. So, I sent away for a 'budget meal planning' booklet from the government, very similar to the one here. (Remember when the address to write to for stuff from the government was in Pueblo, Colorado? I wonder if it still is.) Once I got the booklet, the shopping and planning tips were useful but I couldn't even bring myself to try to recipes. They all sounded grey-brown and tasteless. The choice of meat was turkey, especially ground turkey, which I have always hated.

Luckily, I lived at the time in a place (Flushing, Queens) where shopping cheaply for varied and exciting food was, and still is, quite easy, due to the ethnically varied population. So I was able to adjust my buying patterns and live pretty well on something like a $50 per week food budget (which included things like shampoo, soap and toilet paper), while ignoring ground turkey. This is when I first developed my love for Indian food incidentally, which has lots of inexpensive, tasty and cheering (spicy flavors, bright colors) food. Looking back, I think I can even say that this tight-budget period made me a better cook.

The thing with cooking for one though is that when you are tired, depressed or otherwise feeling out of it, you just don't cook. (With others to cook for you force yourself to do it for their sake, or get another person to do it.) Now generally speaking I had a pretty good life, with friends and a job and family nearby to keep me cheerful, and I knew that my very tight finances would improve eventually. Besides, I was 20. And I had no dependents, except for my cat. But in those occasional down periods, what kept me going were, of course, pre-prepared foods. Especially canned ravioli and pasta. (Not Spaghetti-Os, the generic brand equivalents.) I don't know what I would have done without the 3-for-a-dollar cans of ravioli. (You might think that I'd have gone for instant ramen, given my background, but I'd had it deeply ingrained in me by my mother that instant ramen = empty calories.)

My point here is though is that to cook regularly, every day, and to plan and budget and connive to get the best food possible on the table, it takes motivation and a positive attitude. When you are poor and feel stuck there, those things may be in shorter supply than cheap, unhealthy food. There's also the matter of education about nutrition, cooking and budgeting, as Rebecca brings up.

Also see: You are what you grow, an op-ed piece by Michael Pollan that originally appeared in the NY Times. One thing it mentions is that the cheap, processed calories are so much cheaper than the fresh, healthy ones.

Filed under:  ethics food news politics

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I found the correct link for that USDA .pdf:

It's got some very smart advice, but some terrible sounding recipes.

the link to healthy thrifty recipes wouldn't work for me!