Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Food Stamp Challenge

The Executive Director at Jewish Community Services blogged on her experience living on a food stamp budget for a week. This interested me because her comments on how hungry she felt and her 'food insecurity' (worries that her $21 food budget wouldn't last her the entire week) reminded me of a common criticism of the local eating movement: that eating locally would be impossible for someone on a limited budget.

But when I looked at her food choices, I had to wonder. She chose highly processed foods such as boxed breakfast cereal instead of something that would have offered her far more calories for the penny such as oatmeal. She chose convenience foods such as prepared spaghetti sauce, bagged 'baby' carrots, hot dogs, pretzels and microwave popcorn. She chose relatively expensive foods that provided very little caloric content such as a bag of organic lettuce (which used up over ten percent of her budget for the week all by itself) and very little in the way of nutritive value (2 2-liter bottles of pop.) Her fresh fruit choices included 4 apples for $3.44 when bananas were 4 for .79 and tangerines were 4 for fifty cents. When faced with a budget of $21 for the week, why wouldn't she simply add a couple extra bananas and/or tangerines to her cart instead of spending a whopping 16% of her budget on what probably amounted to 250 calories? Her shopping cart didn't contain much in the way of budget-conscious healthy standards -- where was the 10-pound bag of potatoes that leapt immediately to my mind when I considered the idea of trying to feed myself on $21 a week? No wonder she was hungry!

Her choices are hers; as she points out in her blog, it's none of my business whether a food stamp user chooses Cheerios over oatmeal. I agree, it's not my business. But it doesn't follow that her hunger is evidence that $21 is 'ridiculously insufficient' to provide adequate food for one person for one week. Her hunger and her food insecurity were the result of her food choices, not of her budget.

At Kroger's -- not the cheapest option for food buying -- I found these prices:

10 pounds potatoes $3.98 3000 calories
2 pounds rice $1.79 3000 calories
2 pounds beans $1.39 2340 calories
42 oz oatmeal $2.17 4500 calories
1 gallon milk $2.99 2400 calories
1 pound butter $2.72 3200 calories

That comes to $15.04 for 18,440 calories. The average diet is 2000 calories a day, so this is enough food for over nine days all by itself, which means that one week's food if you ate nothing but these food items would cost $11.39, leaving nearly ten dollars -- almost half the budget -- to buy other items. Assuming you're eating these other items, you'll of course end up eating less of the pantry staples, which means they'll stretch even further. At this point, she could afford the pop and the lettuce AND the apples.

Now, this is truly subsistence eating. It would be boring in the extreme, and while 'boredom' is a silly consideration in the face of true hunger (I suspect many people all over the world would be thrilled to be similarly bored with their diets), very few of us would expect anyone to eat this monotonous a diet week in, week out here in the land of plenty. But the fact remains: no one need go hungry or worry about their food lasting the week on a food stamp diet.

But that still leaves the question of whether eating locally is doable for a low-income individual. It would require a different set of pantry staples. Rice doesn't grow in Ohio. Local milk and butter are available only to those who have access to a car, because local milk means raw milk and that can only legally be obtained in Ohio directly from the farm via a herdshare and at around $5 a gallon, which by itself renders it unlikely for inclusion in a food stamp diet. Even dry beans and oatmeal can be difficult to find locally. But down at Findlay Market, smack dab in the middle of Over-The-Rhine, all farmshed vendors are required to accept food stamps.

I may have to try a Local Eating Food Stamp Challenge.


Renee said...

I had the same reaction to the story. Not that it would ever be easy to survive on $21 for a week... you'd have to know how to actually cook, and frugal food tends to need time. Rice and beans. Cabbage and potato soup. Lentil soup. Bean soups -- things where meat is more of a condiment, like using a smoked ham hock to flavor soup, or a little bit of beef in a big pot of rice and beans, or a bit of sausage in sauerkraut or lentil soup. Colcannon is potatoes and kale (or spinach), no meat at all. The way people used to eat in the 30s and 40s. Cabbage, potatoes, carrots could definitely be local, and maybe the dried beans? There's a great little spice shop at Findlay where you can buy a smidgen of herbs and spices, if that's all you need, so you wouldn't have to lay out $3 or $4 for a single bottle of bay leaves or thyme or whatever. Local business, but not locally grown, though.

Alyssa said...

This is probably out of your local range, but there's a dairy in Wooster (Hartzler's) that produces milk for grocery stores. I can get it at my local giant eagle. It's low temp pasteurized and not homogenized. AND you can return the glass bottles so they get recycled. It is however $2.99 for a half gallon, but it comes from my local store. It's definitely in my 100 mile radius as far as local, but then again, only extreme NW and NE aren't.

valereee said...

Alyssa, I've heard of Harzler's! I wish they were near us -- I'm definitely going to try to find their milk next time I drive up north. But, yeah, they're a hike for us.