Week on Food Stamps: You were supposed to suffer, not innovate!

Last week, legislators across the country decided to take part in the Food Stamp Challenge, a project to have elected officials live on the same budget as a person on food stamps for a week. About a dozen Utah civic leaders and elected officials decided to take the challenge and see how they'd do. Rep. John Dougall decided to up the stakes and avoid packaged and canned food while still eating a balanced diet of fresh produce and meats.

What he did was amazing. He managed to eat what sounded like real food that anyone not on food stamps would scarf down willingly (albeit in lesser quantities). Meals were a good balance of protein, carbs and fats with lots of fruits and vegetables. He accomplished this through feats of proper meal planning and deal-shopping. And how did some of the other participants react to this?

With disgust and disdain. Apparently Rep. Dougall wasn't suffering enough for their tastes (which is to say, not at all) so they let him have it in at least two columns in the Tribune. Commenters on the stories joined in the melee to badmouth his efforts. (Dougall did a great job, however, of offering up a detailed rebuttal.) What makes me sad is that he took a serious challenge, decided to make it harder and still ended up coming out more-or-less on top.

What Rep. Dougall proved is that with proper meal planning, you can make your budget stretch out pretty darned far and still manage to eat real food. I can't for the life of me figure out why these detractors have refused to take the value of that lesson and say "hey, good idea. Now how do we get it to the people that need it?" The FDA has also managed to put together a meal plan for a family of four to eat on the cheap. (The real paper is down, but you can still get it out of Google's cache.)

I say that Rep. Dougall is owed a hearty congratulations for doing what everyone said couldn't be done. I give a big fat raspberry to the people who are more concerned with suffering for the sake of suffering rather than trying to find innovative ways to live on a meager budget. I guess we know who really cares about the poor now, don't we?

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80 Responses

  1. Dean Calbreath says:

    Actually, having reread what I wrote previously, I realize that I was right the first time about the 35 cents, which was per day, not per meal. That's rounded up from 11 cents per meal. The 3.5 cents is where I really strayed into left field.

  2. Jesse says:

    Huh. Now you're the second person reporting that the line/paragraph breaks aren't working. Do you see the toolbar at the top of the comments window with buttons, font size, etc.? If not, it sounds like the text editor isn't loading properly on your end which will likely impact formatting. You may want to make sure you aren't blocking any JavaScript (.js) files since TinyMCE makes copious use of it to make a WYSIWYG editor.

    It took a ton of looking, but I finally found some documentation that the $10 minimum has been in place since 1977. What I don't see, however, is how the minimum is relevant given how benefits are calculated. Based on everything I've read, benefits are calculated based on an assumption that 30% of the family budget should be spent on food to a maximum net income of $1,667 for a family of four. That translates to about $500/mo in food spending to receive the minimum benefit. I just don't see how those receiving the minimum are really in that much trouble with that much money to burn. The numbers simply do not support raising the minimum payment amount. $510/mo for a family of four buys a heck of a lot of food.

    Eligibility depends on more than household income. The value of cars and bank accounts are taken into account when determining eligibility and illegal immigrants and legal immigrants with less than 5 years of residency cannot participate. In short, the number of poor people and number of people eligible to participate in the food stamps program are NOT the same number, so the question of if participation rates take into account the ineligible or not is very important.

    While on participation rates, you make the mistake of presuming that everyone eligible for food stamps needs to apply for them. This simply isn't true. I was likely eligible for food stamps when I first moved out on my own, yet the thought never crossed my mind because I didn't have food security issues. (Keep in mind I was making about $8/hr in 2000 making me barely eligible to participate.) I imagine that a lot of other eligible participants are in the same boat: they don't apply because they simply do not need to. This correlates with the data from the UCLA study that show participation rates dropping with unemployment figures. Just because someone is poor doesn't mean they don't have food. I have friends (including some with children) that don't participate because they don't have food security issues.

    I have to offer some corrections to your nutritional data. The entire pound of roast has 66.7g of fat, making it impossible to have a single serving with 39g of fat left after trimming and cooking. I'll presume you mean there's 39g of fat left for the pound or 13g per 5 1/3 oz. serving. Considering that this same service packs in about 30g of protein, you're getting a very good balance of protein and fat per serving (20% of your RDA of fat and 30% of your RDA for protein). It's not fish or chicken, but it's also not the "heart attack on a plate" you believe it to be. Also, fish and chicken with bones may be losing some weight to the bone, but not enough to command a 30%+ premium for the boneless varieties, provided you can find them on sale. The only reason to buy boneless over bone-in is convenience, not value. (I mean, you can buy a whole chicken for $0.69/lb more often than not and make several meals out of it.)

    It doesn't matter if it's small by comparison. Nickel and dime government growth is just plain bad finances. Having the attitude that it's "only" $4B is not responsible. Making a case such as "such and such study shows that a $4B investment in food stamps leads to a blah blah blah increase in productivity and tax revenues" is valid; saying that it's small in comparison to another unrelated expenditure is not. Therefore I maintain that "it does not follow."

    The reason I don't buy the argument that more money is needed is because I see what can be done with meager amounts. It's hard to believe that Hillbilly Housewife can feed a family of four on about $45 a week, but it shows that proper meal planning and education will go a long ways towards reducing food costs while still maintaining the basics of good nutrition. Because of that, I can't support throwing more money at a system that I know can benefit from increased efficiency. That's what my point has been the entire time: distributing information from the USDA about food budgeting, meal planning and nutrition is dirt cheap and will achieve better results than throwing more money at the problem. Period.

  3. Shauna says:

    I fell in love with that website when she listed store-bought bread as a convenience food.

  4. Dean Calbreath says:

    I've figured out that one way of ensuring that my writing gets into paragraphs is to use the format key, which is what I'm doing. The numbers don't really mean anything, but at least now the text is in paragraphs. You say that "Based on everything I've read, benefits are calculated based on an assumption that 30% of the family budget should be spent on food to a maximum net income of $1,667 for a family of four. That translates to about $500/mo in food spending to receive the minimum benefit. I just don't see how those receiving the minimum are really in that much trouble with that much money to burn." For a family of four, $500 for food per month translates to an average of $1.38 per person per meal. I know we disagree on the $1 per meal concept, but I wouldn't call $1.39 per meal "money to burn." Would adding 33 cents to that change the meals siginficantly? You're the one who says you can have a whole meal for $1. So 33 cents would add a third of what you would describe as a meal, which could be a significant addition to a family's diet and would perhaps – combined with proper nutrition education – give them enough to buy leaner, less sugary foods.

  5. Dean Calbreath says:

    Okay. I take it back. The text still isn't in paragraphs. But I'm trying.

  6. Jesse says:

    Say… are you using Safari? Because in the back left corner of my mind I recall someone complaining that TinyMCE doesn't play nice with Safari. 

    It's not difficult at all to come up with a meal that meets those criteria. You're talking an average of $5.52 per family meal. Cooking up 2 eggs per person with a slice of toast for each and a piece of sausage? You have breakfast for under $1.50. That leaves $15.06 for the rest of the day. Have a turkey sandwich with apple slices and carrots for lunch, you've spent maybe another $2.50 or so. Now you have $12.56 left for dinner. Grab two pounds of chicken, a couple of onions, some bell peppers, a seasoning packet and a pack of tortillas? You just made fajitas for $10.00 presuming you didn't make the tortillas yourself.

    You still have $2.56 left over from the day's budget and you weren't even being thrifty by making the bread products yourself. It doesn't sound like a deprived diet to me and still had fruits and veggies in the mix. You could even add in some drinks like milk and OJ to eat up the slack money you have left and add some calcium and vitamin C. Really, it's not that hard to make a budget stretch. Goodness, making a pot of chili (good for probably 8+ servings) is low-fat, high protein and high-fiber for under $6, tops.

    Again, when I crunch real numbers from my own food budget, it doesn't seem all that impossible. You won't be able to eat an endless variety and might have to make more stuff from scratch (boy does THAT save money), but it can be done without a lot of inconvenience. It just takes that key component of education.

  7. Dean Calbreath says:

    Where are you shopping? You say that "cooking up 2 eggs per person (eight eggs for four people) with a slice of toast for each and a piece of sausage" costs under $1.50. Am I reading you right? I don't know where you live, but a dozen eggs at our major supermarkets here (Ralph's, Von's, Albertson's) costs around $2.39, meaning eight eggs cost $1.80. (That's if you've got time to hunt for bargains, by the way. Some stores sell a dozen for $3 or more.) A cheap six-count package of sausage runs $1.50, meaning four sausages cost around $1.00. The cheapest bread is more than $2 per loaf for day-old, unless you go for Wonder Bread or its ilk. With 16 pieces of bread per loaf, four pieces would be more than 50 cents, bringing the grand total to more than $3.30. Granted, that's still cheap, but it's more than twice as high as the prices you're citing. And if you include orange juice or milk for four, you're getting close to the food-stamp max. And that's just for breakfast. The other expenses add up throughout the day. Besides which, are you really serious in pushing a high-fat (sausage) and high cholestorol (eggs) diet? This is one reason poor people are obese and prone to heart disease, because this is the type of food they can afford. You can strain the yolks out of the eggs, of course, but then you use twice as many eggs, doubling the amount of money you're paying. And you can seek lower-fat meats, but again you pay extra. I freely admit that no one will starve on food stamps as currently granted. I've never disagreed with that. For me, the question is and always has been, can they eat healthily? Pushing a high-cholesterol, high-fat diet doesn't seem to fit the bill.

  8. Bill says:

    My dad was worth over a million when not many people were. I went my whole childhood not knowing there was anything but Day old bread.(BTW I buy Wonderbread by choice) My mother who raised 7 boys took the time to can most anything that was canable. She also made hot cracked wheat cereal for breakfast  Do you have any idea how cheap whole wheat is. No one is saying that life is easy or even fair. Rule #1  Life is not fair. Rule #2 You can be healthy and happy in spite of rule #1. Your constant whine that the poor need the best of everything is whats wrong in this country. The poor hear your whines and instead of feeling greatful they feel picked on. Also you are just plain wrong about the poor being obese because they are not able to eat right. They might not eat right but in this country they do it by choice. A sedinentary lifestyle including too much TV however is a more exacting culpret

  9. Jesse says:

    Holy hell… and some folks wonder why I don't live in California. A dozen large eggs in the Salt Lake area are in the $1.39 range. They often go on sale for $0.99. I see juice concentrates regularly go on sale for anywhere from $0.80 to $1.25 each. We just bought a 2lb. loaf of multigrain bread for $2.00 (which works out to about $0.06 per slice). A package of sausage in this neck of the woods usually has 8-10 pieces worth for about a dollar.

    First off, dietary cholesterol has been shown to not be a major factor in heart disease. Studies later showed that saturated fats were to blame. Cholesterol levels are almost exclusively determined by genetics. (I should know, I'm on the short end of that stick.)

    Looking at the nutritional information I described, you're getting about 50% of your RDA of fat from breakfast and miniscule amounts from lunch or dinner. (Sliced turkey and chicken breasts are not known for their fat content.) This leads to a perfect balance throughout the day. Eggs are also a rich source of Omega-3's, fats that are actually good for you and promote weight loss. Since the fats at breakfast are being consumed with protein, they'll be metabolized a lot more effectively than if they were consumed as part of, say, a plate of nachos.

    While consuming excess fat is indeed a Bad Thing(TM), you still need to consume fat to survive. Fat deficiencies are linked to brain diseases such as Alzheimer's. WikiPedia has more on the benefits of fat in your diet. The RDA is a good general guideline for how much of everything you should be consuming and the day I just described was well within those bounds.

    If you can't afford meat, there's plenty of other cheap and healthy protein sources. Combining legumes with dairy and the protein from wheat or rice is very complete while being low-fat and high-fiber. It also happens to be dirt-cheap and can offer a lot of variety with the dozens of kinds of beans in your local supermarket.

    It still seems to me that eating an unhealthy diet on a budget is more the result of not knowing what cheap healthy foods and recipes are out there rather than a lack of resources.

  10. Vanessa says:

    an aside – the paragraphs dont seem to work for me either.  I do use Safari from home and just assumed is was a Mac incompatability issue but I use IE from work and the paragraphs didnt break for me then either. From there I figured that I must have to input the paragraph breaks manually but couldnt recall whether that was done by inserting <b > or <br >

  11. Vanessa says:

    Oh – and I can see the toolbar above the text window in both IE and Safari.  If what you're about to say is to download Firefox, I cant my hard drive at home is darn near full and I've already moved as much over to an external hard drive I can. Or, at least as much as I think I can – I'm not too savvy with tech stuff.

  12. Jesse says:

    Hmmm… sounds like I have a project ahead to me to figure out why the paragraphs aren't working properly. I'll grab a copy of Safari for Windows and load up IE *shudder* to see if I can figure out what's causing it. In the meantime, random persons from the Internet that have had this problem with EditorMonkey or TinyMCE should let me know.

    What seems to be happening is that where a paragraph should be, it inserts a tab instead. Weird. 

  13. Shauna says:

    This is a test because I use IE at work. Right after this sentence, I am going to begin a new paragraph.

    This is the beginning of my new paragraph.

  14. Shauna says:

    I guess I'm just special.

  15. Vanessa says:

    I'm on version 6.0 of IE here at work. I don't know if that makes a difference or not.

  16. Shauna says:

    Me too!


  17. Shauna says:

    Ok. This is another test. I've logged out of the system to see if there's a possibility that only registered users of the site get to have paragraphs? This is the start of my new paragraph. Behold: the paragraph.

  18. Shauna says:

    I figured it out! I'm a GENIUS!

  19. Dean Calbreath says:

    Unfortunately, I'm limited in what I can do on my computer regarding paragraphs since a lot of what we can do on this system is the province of the system administrator, who happens to be in Iraq right now, and no telling when he's getting back. (He's in the Navy Reserve.) I'm not quite as adept with readjusting my computer programs as you all seem to be, so unfortunately, you'll have to bear with my run-on paragraphs. (I use IE at work, but can't download other software because of our firewalls.) Totally off the subject of food stamps, I think you're wrong about cholesterol. I too inherited a bad case of high cholesterol from my parents, as did all but one of my siblings. But by not eating eggs and other high cholesterol foods and eating plenty of oatmeal – a proven cholesterol reducer – I've cut my cholesterol numbers by more than 30 percent, even though my doctor told me (which is what the medical industry generally says) that you can only reduce cholesterol by about 10 percent through diet and exercise. I'm still high on the cholesterol count, but not nearly as high as I was. In terms of heart disease, I know that there's been a bit of white noise making the rounds saying that it's not linked to heart disease. But I think the preponderance of medical studies show a strong linkage. The American Diabetes Association, for instance, states this: "Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. Some people call LDL "bad" cholesterol. You can remember LDL by thinking, L is for "Lousy." The higher the LDL level in your blood, the greater chance you have of getting heart disease. That's pretty lousy, indeed!" The Web site of the Giant Eagle supermarket chain contains the following info on eggs: "Eating eggs may increase heart attack risk. People who consume eggs have been reported to be more likely to die from all types of heart disease, including heart attack, in some, although not all research. Cooking or exposure to air oxidizes the cholesterol in eggs. Eating eggs increases oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which may in turn contribute to heart attack risk." The American Heart Association says that ingestion of 4 eggs a day (admittedly more than you're calling for) results in an increase of LDL-2 between 7.8 and 13 percent. In Japan, meanwhile, a 14-year study released in 2003 found that women who consumed one or more eggs a day were more likely to die than women who ate one or two eggs a week. I know there's some white noise floating around. Some studies – particularly those funded by the dairy industry – suggest that eggs may have beneficial impacts on diet. But frankly, I'll stick with the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association for the time being.

  20. Jesse says:

    Okay, I killed the fancy WYSIWYG editor to fix paragraph breaks. Insert your own from here on out.

    While the AHA does recommend limiting cholesterol intake, they also state that this is precautionary and is not a direct cause of high blood cholesterol levels. Additionally, exercise increases your HDL levels which helps your body more efficiently remove dietary cholesterol. In short, diet still ain’t everything and can be compensated for. Besides, I used a single day as an example. Having oatmeal a couple of times a week would balance it out anyway.

  21. Shauna says:

    Dean, your concern for health is commendable. However, I feel a little like you want us all to pay for people on food stamps to eat healthier than the rest of the country. Even so, I’ll play your game, too. You don’t like eggs? Too much cholesterol? Fine. Powdered egg whites reconstitute when water is added, cholesterol free and with all the benefits of protein, etc. The very first place I looked online for pricing shows that you can get a can of 309 egg whites (with a shelf life of 5 years) for $15.99. That means each egg white is only about 5 cents.

    You like oatmeal? Great! It’s super cheap. A serving size of QUAKER Oatmeal (you could probably find cheaper if you look for store/generic brands) is about 15 cents.

    Pair that with a serving of canned grapefruit slices (in juice, not syrup) is 50 cents. (a bit of a splurge, but I like grapefruit)

    Let’s throw in a slice of that 6 cent bread Jesse mentioned earlier and you’ve got yourself the following:

    4 egg whites
    dry whole wheat toast (butter is so unhealthy, after all)
    grapefruit wedges

    For $1.03 per person.

    In case you’re interested, the nutritionals on this would go something like this:

    Calories: 406
    Protein: 21 g
    Carbs: 69 g
    Fat: 5 g

    For those of you Carb haters, if you drop the slice of dry toast, the carbs obviously drop significantly.

  22. Dean Calbreath says:

    First, I don’t want poor people to eat healthier than the rest of us. It would be great if they were just as healthy as we are. Obesity rates are terrible for the entire country, and we could all afford to eat better. But obesity rates are worse for the poor than the non-poor, partly because of education and partly because fat and sugar are cheaper than protein.
    That having been said, your recommendations of egg powder and oatmeal are good. And I like your recommendation of a healthy breakfast, although you’re already a few pennies above the $1 per meal average and with milk or juice you’d climb even higher. (And the average is, of course, an average, meaning that some people get less fhan $1.)
    Anyway, after a week of back and forth, I’ve gotta get back to reality. I’ve had a lot of fun. Sorry if I’ve ruffled feathers. I’ll end on the high note of saying that you did, finally, compose a healthy meal for $1.03. I still think it would be a challenge to come up with similar but varied fare day after day and year after year. I also think that if you want to educate the poor people in how to eat like that, you’ll have to spend more money on education, which is part of what the increase in the food stamp bill would fund. But thanks for your thoughtful responses to my challenges. It’s been an experience.

  23. Dean Calbreath says:

    Hey! Look! It’s finally in paragraphs!

  24. Shauna says:

    Even though I am 3 cents above the “average”, since we agreed that those receiving less aid were receiving less since they have other funds that should be dedicated to food purchase, I don’t think it really matters that some people receive less aid. They receive less aid because they are less needy, so I don’t think we need to figure out if those deemed “less needy” are doing okay. It seems like we should be basing calculations on those receiving the maximum aid since they are obviously those most desperately in need of assistance.

    Also, I admitted that the grapefruit was a bit of a splurge because I happen to like it. There are obviously lower cost fruit choices. I don’t think juice is necessary since the grapefruit is so high in vitamin C and others. And powdered milk is dirt cheap.

    Though I don’t know of anyone (poor or not) that eats that well for breakfast. Most people don’t even EAT breakfast, or they consider coffee or toast a full breakfast. I, myself, eat cereal every morning. A really good, somewhat expensive cereal which is high in fiber and protein, vitamin C and antioxidants. I recently found it for less than 3 dollars a box, making my daily cereal roll in around 60 cents. Add some powdered milk to that and you’ve got a darn cheap breakfast.

    And I don’t need variety. I eat the same breakfast every day. I like it, I don’t get sick of it, and it’s really healthy so why fix it if it ain’t broke? That’s just me, sure, but I really don’t think it’s our responsibility to make sure that food stamp participants aren’t getting “tired” of their free food.

  25. Vanessa says:

    Dr OZ and Dr Roizen (authors of “YOU On A Dite”) say that one should eat basically the same thing for breakfast and lunch everyday – establishing the routine makes it less likely to stray into an unhealthy alternative.

  26. Shauna says:

    That’s funny. I was just telling Jesse last night that anytime I’ve successfully followed any kind of healthy eating plan, I’ve eaten the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day only varying my dinner because the routine is helpful to me.

  27. Vanessa says:

    Now that I think about it, its been the same for me.
    When I did WW a couple years ago, I had the same thing for breakfast every morning (oatmeal – the flavor would vary periodically) and lunch (fish taco from the taqueria) but dinner would be different – it tended to be a recipe from one of the WW cookbooks.

  28. mj says:

    planning is a great idea IF you have that life-skill under your belt. some people also have to take the public transportation so it makes it harder to shop at different places to get things on sale. you are not accounting for food spoilage or storage. the rep. suggested buying 25# of flour and potato etc. i couldnt fit all of that food in my house and keep it fresh until it was consumed. God Bless!

  29. Elie says:

    He should tryed a month instead a week thats how long we have to make it too.

    and for them cuting food stamps to fund the Program

    that the Presdent wants to start up he and the others can pay some of it out of their pay they can afford it.

    cutting back on th food stamp Is going to hurt alot of people that needs foodstamps to live.

  30. schrodinger says:

    Eggs for 49 cents a dozen at Aldi; milk for 99 cents a gallon. A loaf of whole-wheat bread for $1.29 and a jug of orange juice for $2, good for 8 1-cup servings… let’s see now, one egg is about 4 cents. Add a splash of milk for scrambling, to the tune of maybe a nickel. A cup of juice would be a quarter, and a slice of toast or two for a dime. Do the math– my whole breakfast works out to less than 50 cents. Boil the egg instead of scrambling, save a nickel. I can even get good coffee there for about 3 bucks a pound, which would last me a few weeks at a cup or two a day, and about 60 cups per pound.

    Sausages run about 2 bucks for a 6-serving package or 33 cents a serving. A pack of frozen veggies goes for about a buck breaks down to 20 cents a plate. A 10-pound bag of ‘taters? 99 cents and a bag usually has about 15 to 20 potatoes in it. One per person, so 5 cents a person. Dinner cost per person? 58 cents. So, 2 meals cost me $1.08 per person. Lunch? PB&J and milk works for me and costs less than 50 cents a sandwich. Golly, I might even be able to afford to split a one-dollar can of peaches or some applesauce for dessert.

    And in this scenario, I haven’t even resorted to boiling up a 69-cent bag of pinto beans and a buck’s worth of ham pieces from that $4 TWO pound package. Yes, a buck 69 for a pot of ham and beans that’ll feed me dinner for several days. Add in some rice (another 69 cents a pound) and that can stretch out for another few days.

    But I can bake a potato and throw on a few globs of canned chili (a quarter of a can that costs 2 bucks) and have a nice lunch for about 60 cents, or boil up some noodles, toss in a handful of veggies, add a spoonful of butter and some milk and seasoning, with a dash of Parmesan cheese (2.99/8 ounce jar) and make a faux pasta primavera for less than a dollar a plate.

    Yes, with some creativity it can be done. And no need to subsist on PB&J and Top Ramen. In fact, that ramen crap has never crossed our threshold. My folks are from the Depression Era and there was no Top Ramen, yet they ate just fine.

    Start thinking outside the box and you’d be surprised what you can do with very little.

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