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Patrons of a Food Bank

In Washington DC, Delegate Eleanore Holmes Norton and others are attempting to live on SNAP benefits for a week. SNAP stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” (also known to many as food stamps). The average monthly benefit for one person in 2011 was $133.49 per month which works out to approximately $29.66 a week (assuming an average of 4.5 weeks a month) or $4.23 a day. Doesn’t sound like much does it?

There have been various iterations of food stamp programs in the United States, going back to 1939. The first Food Stamp program was set up to use up food that the government deemed to be in surplus for people on relief. Since then there have been many iterations of helping the poor obtain food. This program has been with us through both Republican and Democratic led governments. The purpose of the program, as laid out in its implementation is to assist low-income households in obtaining adequate and nutritious diets.

In June, 2011 45,183,931 Americans received SNAP benefits. This cost our government $64.7 billion in 2010. It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. There is no data that I can find about how many people actually try to live exclusively on their SNAP benefits, but I have to assume given the anecdotal evidence of how many are people shopping at Wal-Mart at midnight at the end of the month that the number is high.

Besides SNAP benefits, people also turn to local food banks to try to deal with the situation of not having money for food. Not everyone has access to a food bank and for those who do, the amount of food that a person generally receives for a month is approximately 3-5 days worth of food.

In doing research, I found a web page by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion for “Cost of Food at Home“. It details on a monthly basis, the United States Average Food Costs at Four Cost Levels. For September of 2011 (the latest at the time I wrote this), a single female between the ages of 19 and 50 had weekly food costs as follows:

  • Thrifty: $36.90
  • Low Cost: $46.50
  • Moderate Cost: $57.10
  • Liberal $73.30

I note here that the “Thrifty Plan” is still higher than the SNAP Benefits but the “S” does stand for supplemental. The difference is $7.30 a week or $32.85 a month. Not much, but for some fairly insurmountable. But what constitutes a thrifty plan? Well, upon further digging I found the USDA Thrifty Food Plan for 2006. This publication states:

The TFP provides a representative healthful and minimal cost meal plan that shows how a nutritious diet may be achieved with limited resources. The Plan assumes that all purchased food is consumed at home. The TFP was last revised in 1999.

The paper goes through how they choose to develop the “market baskets” and what dietary standards it covers. (It does note that it comes nowhere near the daily recommendations for Vitamin E or Potassium recommendations. So I have SNAP Benefits, the cost of a Thrifty food plan in Sept, 2011 and a definition of what the food plan is. With the help of a spreadsheet and online shopping via both Wal-Mart and PeaPod, I was able to gather a rough look at how much food the federal government believes is healthy for me, what that amount entails and what it costs today.

I had some leeway for my shopping, specifically in the vegetable department. I opted for fresh fruits and vegetables that were in season (and I reasoned cheaper) as well as items that would give me more leeway in cooking varied items.

  • Total Actual Cost of Food for a Week : $40.87
  • Thrifty Food Plan Food Costs: $36.90
  • SNAP Benefits: $29.60

Actual costs for food were $11.27 higher on a weekly basis than SNAP benefits. Recall that this is for a single person. Families would probably see a greater difference. But there was a much more glaring issue that I found. The TFP assumes specific weights of food that are not close to the way a super market chooses to sell its food.

Take Oatmeal for instance. I chose to analyze a box of regular oatmeal, not instant, not in packages. The weight of the box was 32 ounces and cost $3.99. The government recommendation was 0.38 of a pound for the week. While that worked out to $.58 in the analysis, a person still needs to spend $3.99 to buy it. Yes, a person purchasing the oatmeal will be able to use it up during the rest of the month and stretch it out, but that oatmeal is approximately 3% of your entire food bill for the month. Stretching this out to all the foods, you have to wonder how realistic the plan is or if it is merely academic? Can someone really survive a month on this? In order to buy enough food to make the TFP requirements, I would actually have to purchase $70.01 (note it’s probably more, since I gave up on doing the “Other Foods” section). That is more than half of the allowable monthly benefit. Sure there would be some food left over, but not nearly enough to get through the rest of the month with the rest of the money ($63.42).

The current Republican Congress is lobbying to cut the Food Stamp program. Although their 2012 budget, which did include cuts was rejected, it’s quite possible that they will try again. In a time of rising unemployment, the SNAP benefits are necessary, even if they don’t cover everything. For some of us $11.27 a week isn’t much. For others it’s the difference between eating or not.

For those of you who are either on SNAP, utilize a food bank or need assistance how do you manage? I sincerely wish to know since after doing this (admittedly academic) exercise, I don’t see how someone can eat a decent, nutritious, healthy diet solely on government and local benefits.

4 Responses to “Thinking about Food Insecurity”

  1. Kate says:

    decent, nutritious, healthy diet

    I think you’ve answered your own question? The foods that are covered by SNAP aren’t always the best options for people/families, either.

    One of the challenges faced by many folks– even those who don’t qualify for SNAP– is that the best, most healthy, and better-nutrition foods are often more expensive than their counterparts.

  2. Keith Campbell says:

    I’m food banking at the moment. It helps enormously, but that’s only because we happen to have an excellent food bank. Every week is not a good week, and the availability of anything in particular fluctuates wildly, but every week I come out with at least one very full canvas tote bag, often more, and on occasion, in a really excellent week, nearly three. (That’s rare, but it does happen.)

    That said, if I were eating only what I got from the food bank, I would not be eating “a decent, nutritious, healthy diet.” It can often be counted on to provide meat, but except in late summer/early fall, decent vegetables are rare or nonexistent. Sometimes there are salvageable fruits and veg (like, I managed that apple crisp for Samhain by taking half again as many apples as I’d need, and then cutting out the bad spots). But mostly, what you get from a food bank is either canned, or dry store, or carbohydrates. Gods help a gluten-intolerant trying to live off a food bank. Eating low-carb if a food bank is your primary food source is essentially impossible.

    On the other hand, as a supplemental thing, it helps quite a bit. My food bank in particular has what I believe to be a higher-than-usual availability for meat. It’s not great meat, mostly — not the quality level I’d buy if I were decently employed — but it’s meat. (And in the fall, better than usual, because they get so much donated venison. My freezer is full of venison at the moment. Lots of lower income families won’t take the venison because they don’t know what to do with it, or their kids won’t eat it, or whatever, which sometimes means I can load up as much as I can carry. A couple weeks ago I was told to take as much as I wanted, because they were trying to clear it out of the large freezer to make room for an incoming shipment of chickens.)

    So that, supplemented with fresh veggies and eggs and milk and butter from the grocery store, means that whatever else I can’t manage financially at the moment, I will not ever be hungry unless I’m too lazy or tired to cook. I’m grateful that I know *how* to cook; I’m quite a good cook, and I can take the stuff I get from the food bank and spin it into meals for multiple days, even in a week like this one where I can’t manage much in the way of vegetables. I can go a week on a big pot roast or a big pot of soup. I turn out meatloaf regularly, and a meatloaf is good for four days or so. I’m still eating the ten pounds of chicken quarters I cooked last week, I just cooked it all at once, pulled the meat off the bones, and put it in tupperware in the fridge. The bones are also in the fridge waiting to become chicken stock.

    But I’m fortunate. I know every food bank doesn’t give out as much, or as much of use, as I get from this one. (It often has little gourmet or organic things, stuff from Trader Joe’s, stuff from gourmet shops, all the bread anyone can carry, etc. One of the local catering companies sends their leftovers to the food bank after an event, so I’ve even occasionally come out of there with baked salmon for dinner, or a nice chickpea-and-couscous salad, or a big container of marinated tomatoes.) Every food bank isn’t this nice.

    There’s always bread, though, in every food bank I’ve ever seen (and I even used to work at one). The local bakeries donate the day-old stuff that no one wants, so there’s often actually *good* bread. Yes, the wheat demon. But if it’s all you can get… :-/

    • Penelope Schmon says:

      You’re lucky. Our food bank doesn’t have meat as a rule. The last time I was there, for my family of four, I got ONE grocery bag containing a bag of rice, a box of cheerio’s, a dozen cans of vegitables and a few cans of fruit. There was a small can of tuna, too. On that day, the local church had provided a massive amount of homemade veg soup in quart containers, we got one. There was a quart of frozen strawberries, one average size (read it fed the boys) frozen chicken, and we were allowed to pick from yesterday’s cakes and pastries donated by the local grocery store.

      Of course, there was the usual bread in large supply, though most of it was dinner rolls, not sandwich bread, but I make my own bread whenever possible, so that wasn’t an issue.

  3. Penelope Schmon says:

    That depends on your definition of “live”. IF you are very careful. IF you plan your meals, your shopping trips. IF you clip a lot of coupons, watch for sales, etc. It is possible to stretch the meager allowance that you receive for say, a family of four (roughly about $300 give or take depending on your state/county and total family income) last the entire month. It is of course, better if you have access to such things as Costco, or Sam’s Club, or BJ’s because then you can make some bulk purchases that can last over the month or more. However, food prices in those places do tend to be on the high side overall. If you are a clever shopper, and do mostly Aldi’s and other discount chains, your dollars will stretch further.

    But do not think that folks on food stamps get to eat steak every night. We don’t. And don’t think that we can have the luxury of organic foods, and can’t really even consider the nice gluten free, or other dietary specific foods that are on the market. We can’t. Not and have that $300 last the entire month. And that also doesn’t take into consideration, babies who need formula, (at $20+ for a can of powered which lasts approximately 3-4 days) or teenagers who eat their weight in food every day.

    We have a family of 4. Two adults and two teenagers. We have to watch for HFCS, as well as a list of artificial food additives and sugar content. We try to eat as much real food as possible and avoid the processed stuff whenever we can. Our monthly food budget is nearly $600 and that is with me being a careful shopper who plans every meal and buys in quantity whenever possible and who has access to the commissary on base where the meat is at least 35% less than the regular grocery store. Try doing it if you only have access to the supermarket chains.

    Oh, and another thing to consider: food stamps do not buy toilet paper, bath soap, laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, trash bags, silver foil, pet food, or other non edible things that most people find they need every day.