The “Food Stamp Diet” and How It’s Different From Being Poor

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Every so often one hears about people doing the “food stamp diet” in order to see what it’s like to be poor in America. The idea is to subsist for some period of time (often a week) on the amount typically given to members of the “food stamp” program. Here’s one example, prepared by the Food Research and Action Center back in 2007. That one challenges you to live on $21/week. Here’s an annual challenge run by the San Francisco Food Bank. There the amount is $33.04 per person per week.

These amounts vary not only due to region and inflation over time (food inflation has actually been pretty high over the last five years, grocery store prices are up 6% from last year) but also because these are different attempts to model how the food stamp program works. Food stamp benefits are based on the idea of supplementing a family’s income so that the family can (according to the program’s rationale) afford to consume the amount of food budgeted according to the “thrifty plan” from the USDA “cost of food at home” guidelines. Of course, since food stamps can’t be used for anything other than approved food items, and they’re given to people who are already very short of money, the effective result is that people are often trying to get all their food off just the food stamp amount, even if the program is assuming it’s only a supplement.

What got me thinking about the topic is that I saw one of these “hunger challenges” linked to some time ago, via some Catholic organization which was encouraging people to take part “in solidarity with the poor”. I saw the amount mentioned in the San Francisco challenge of $33 per person per week and thought, “Wait a minute, for our family of seven that would be $231. That’s more than we spend per week on food, and we’re around the top 20% line in family income.” In normal times, we were spending around $200/wk on food. Since we’ve been on a tight budget paying off the boiler, we’ve managed to get that down to $100-$150 depending on the week (including household cleaners, diapers, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)

So, is being on food stamps really cushy? Are these challenges just designed wrong? Being a chronic number cruncher, I had to get into it a bit.

First off, it seemed like the challenge was designed for one adult to take, so I wanted to make sure that I was translating it to family terms right. Here’s my formula: The 2011 San Francisco Food Bank challenge (based on average food stamp benefits in CA for that year) was based on $33 per person per week. The USDA thrifty plan budgets $41.50 per week for an adult male between 19 and 50. Based on that, I’m assuming a payout of 80% of the estimated thrifty plan cost. Now I need to figure out how much our family would be budgeted according to the thrifty plan:
1 male 19-50 at $41.50
1 female 19-50 at $36.80
1 child age 1 at $21.10
1 child age 2-3 at $23.10
1 child age 4-5 at $24.00
1 child age 6-8 at $30.70
1 child age 9-11 at $35.00
Total: $212.20

Now you discount by 10% because we’re a family with 7 or more members: $190.98

Now you assume we only get 80% of that budget as a food stamp allotment: $152.78

That now puts the amount pretty much in line with what is a doable but tight food budget for our family. Having established that, my further thoughts fall into three categories:

How Do We Keep Our Food Budget at Food Stamp Levels?
Even when we were feeling fairly flush, and not trying to keep our food budget super low, we never spent all that much more than $200 per week on groceries, and while averaging $120/wk for the last while has taken concentration, it doesn’t really take that much deprivation. I think part of that probably comes from that fast that MrsDarwin and I both come from fairly frugal backgrounds, so our cooking instincts are low cost. Here are some of the keys to keep things cheap:

– It’s winter, so we’re having a lot of soups: a carton of broth and a pound of dry beans with various things thrown in for body or flavor can easily feed all seven of us for about $5 and leave enough to put away several servings of left overs.

– Using meat as a flavoring, not a dish. We’re never into big hunks of meat eaten strait at the best of times, as a matter of cost and of culture. (Plus we’re helped along at the moment by a large quantity of pig which resides in our freezer since MrsDarwin’s mother gave it to us for Christmas. We’re making it last and loving it.)

– Starch is your friend. When it comes to filling up lots of hungry young Darwins, pasta and rice are essential. For those of us decidedly not trying to grow, the recourse is portion control rather than subsisting on proteins and vegetables.

– No sodas or juices. Milk and water are the orders of the day for the young Darwins. (And I’ve cut back the beer budget to virtually nil so as to do my part.)

– Make it from scratch. We never bought much prepared food, but now we’ve taken that down to virtually nothing.

– Shop where it’s cheap. You’d think that dealing with pricing, I’d always do this, but neither of us particularly likes looking for coupons or going to havens of extreme low price. (We tend to stick to our mainstream supermarkets and Trader Joe’s.) However, since having to cut back we’ve started going to Aldi and it has allowed us to cut back a lot in certain areas. (Butter at $1.90/lb, milk at $1.99/gal, etc. Got to love German efficiency.)

Ways People Taking This Challenge Should Make It More “Real”
One of the things that makes the “Food Stamp Diet” promotional materials look deeply silly at times (especially to anyone who’s actually lived on a lower middle class budget) is the ways in which people doing it seem to be out of touch with what most people on low budgets eat and where they shop. For instance, the 2007 set of promotional materials designed for congressmen warns participants, “A gallon of milk costs close to $5, a box of cereal is more than $4 and one apple can cost .60 to $1 each. These numbers add up quickly.” I can’t imagine where they’re shopping, but I pay $1.99/gal for mild, $1.99 or less for a box of (non sugary, house brand) cereal, and $1/lb or less for apples.

So if you’re going to take the food stamp diet challenge, at a minimum stop going on about organic and the fat content of your ground beef. Buying organic is, rightly or wrongly, a luxury and one way of consuming less fat is to eat less meat rather than spending a lot of money on extra lean meat.

Also, for those who really haven’t experienced how “the other half” lives, try committing to doing all your shopping at places like Wal-Mart, Aldi, Family Dollar, etc. You’ll get more food for your money, and you’ll also find yourself standing in line with people who really do use food stamps. Whole Foods and the local farmers markets are not where the poor shop.

Why We Still Have It Way Better Than Most People On Foodstamps
All of this could easily make it sound like it’s pretty easy to get by on food stamps, indeed that the poor have it pretty easy. That is not necessarily my point here, so let me run through a couple ways in which it’s far easier for us to live on this food budget than it might be for many real families among the working poor:

– Economies of scale matter. Even the 10% discount that the USDA applies to the budget for families of 7 doesn’t make up for the fact it’s much cheaper on a per person basis to feed a large family than just 1, 2 or 3 people. Feeding two people on $44/week would be a lot harder than feeding seven people on $152/wk.

– An intact family with a stay at home parent helps a lot. One of our keys to living cheaply is that MrsDarwin is at home and able to get dinner started before I get home, make the kids lunches from scratch, etc. It would be much harder for a family with only one adult and a couple kids, or even with two working adults to stick to the same budget. Time is money, and as a single income family we have more time for certain things. (Of course, in some families, a parent, grandparent or other relative might fill this second adult slot.)

– We have the time and transportation to shop at three different stores during the course of the week and to bring in a week’s worth of supplies from each store. If we had to shop day by day, or only at stores near public transportation, it would cost us more.

– We know that we do in fact have plenty of cash flow, even if we are trying to devote most of it to paying off a big expense rather than groceries. So we don’t have any of the chronic anxiety of not being sure we’ll be able to make ends meet.

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  1. “And I’ve cut back the beer budget to virtually nil……..”

    You must have a death wish – you’ll let too much blood back into your alcohol stream. 😉

  2. For our family of five we have $150.00 alloted a week for groceries and food. We find that adequate for food and cleaning supplies, and that includes one or two fast food meals a week. Back in 1982 when I was studying for the bar exam my wife and I got along on $15.00 a week for food. Koolaid is a good cheap drink, and a can of tuna fish can make two good sandwiches for a lunch with some left over to feed the sixth, canine, member of House McClarey.

  3. I think the biggest stumble would be the cash flow issue rather than the actual dollar amount. You can save a lot buying in bulk, but that’s hard if you’re getting your food stamps in dribbles. Here at the Zummo house we like to eat and eat well. We make most food from scratch so that saves. We recently signed up for a meat CSA from a local farm. So we’ll get monthly deliveries of free range meats from PA for a little less than we were paying for regular old meat from the grocery store. The catch was we had to pay for 5 months worth and have a freezer. Not really an option if you’re on food stamps, but it is possible to eat fancier food for less than Whole Paycheck prices.

  4. You’re getting milk for $1.99 a gallon at Aldi’s? I just picked up a gallon from Aldi’s tonight and it was $2.79. (This is in central Illinois.)

    Although I don’t have it worked out to the penny I generally can get by with feeding my family of 2 adults and one teenage girl with a pretty substantial appetite for about $80 to $100 a week. I could probably go lower than that if I really tried (e.g. cooked everything from scratch, grew our own veggies, etc.) but the other two members of the family have some pretty strong brand name and grocery store chain preferences that are a bit pricier than Aldi.

  5. Don The Kiwi,

    Well, I may have given up beer, but I still have gin, bourbon and scotch in the cupboard. A man does have to live.

    Mrs. Zummo,

    Yeah, the ability to stock a freezer (and the money to do so a good prices) is definitely a help in eating cheap and quality.


    Wow, I wouldn’t have thought the local differences were so much. Milks is $2.50 to $3 in regular supermarkets here (just north of Columbus, OH) and Aldi’s consistently has it at $1.99. Seems like prices were fairly similar in Austin, TX as well. Of course, our cows aren’t unionized…

  6. Over the couple of years, I’ve been following most of the “food stamp diet” rules DarwinCatholic lists and not only have I saved lots of money, but I have lost 40 pounds, and rediscovered the joy of cooking! I have a freezer full of homemade soups and stews, and just finished making a batch of 3 bean chili.

    While buying in bulk can be money saver, a lot depends on what sort of storage space you have available and how many people you are shopping for. If you live in a 1 bedroom apartment with a galley kitchen (as many elderly people do), you don’t have a lot of room to store Sam’s Club size packages. Nor is it practical for one person to buy bags of apples or oranges – I love Clementines, but always have to take some to work to share, or they’ll rot before I can eat them all. I spend less at the grocery store than I used to but make more trips there to buy small amounts of fresh fruits and veggies.

    A Whole Foods is very close to where I live so it’s convenient when I’m making something and find I’m short an onion or a half a cup of flour or rice (since they sell bulk items). Some of their house brand 365 items and sale items are good deals, but if you load up at the salad bar or at the deli counter, you will indeed see why the place has been nicknamed Whole Paycheck. I do more of my shopping at Aldi’s, particularly for staples like pasta and condiments. I never buy soda – a massive savings right there- and have a supply of bottled water on hand only in case of emergency. The tap water here tastes just fine (I know that’s not the case everywhere though.)

    It’s considerably cheaper to buy a whole head of cauliflower or bunch of carrots rather than cut-up, bagged veggies. If you can stomach them, canned sardines are among the best deals around- cheap and chock full of protein, calcium, and Omega -3.

  7. I work part time in a grocery store and I will say that people eat quite well when they use their EBT cards….they buy chips and soda and meat and veggies and all kinds of food..also cooked food from the deli..barbecued or fried chicken…fruit snacks and juice for the kids…….after their “groceries” are in the bag…. they buy lipstick, shampoo, conditioner, hair color, makeup, bath puffs, eye shadow, etc.,etc. with their debit card or with cash! I once asked a young well-dressed woman how to get one of those cards…she told me where to go and how to get one. I was tempted, but just went home to my husband and family….lol

  8. Milk in WMass: 2.89 gal. whole milk at Save A Lot vs. up to 4.99 gal. at chain supermarkets. Lowest price I can find for essential butter is 2.79.
    On Friday, I bought one huge orange from CA for 1.85, a bunch of georgeous red grapes for 8.78 (!!), same as pkg. of hamburger or a roasting chicken, and felt – splurge – at the supermarket.
    Sometimes when I’m in line at check out, I imagine what would be in my basket with one of those cards, but most of the time, I avoid getting in line behind full carriages – near occasion of judgment.

  9. Mrs. Zummo-
    EBT cards are issued once a month, to the best of my knowledge. One of the complaints is that this makes it too hard to budget….

    There’s a reason I don’t shop during the first week of the month if I can avoid it.

  10. I’ve worked as a grocery cashier, too, and it’s sadly apparent that almost no food stamp recipients buy cookable, economical food. They buy pre-made frozen pizzas, ice cream, bags of salty snacks, and tons of pop. I know the single mom is usually working a lot of hours and can’t cook every night, but there’s some loss of attention to cooking on the weekends, let’s say and working through food during the week, which is how I grew up.

    It’s culture, or education, but they are misusing their food stamps in a majority of the cases. And “they” are not all one ethnic group or race, it’s across the board.

  11. Your budget sounds like the one my family uses! (except there are eight of us) Mom staying home and making almost everything (like our own pizza) from scratch really helps.

  12. $5 per person, per day, for 7 days amounts to $175. If I tally up all the groceries (food only) and all the dining out we do (which we do a lot of), I acutally come out to about $7 per per person per day, not $5. We frequently have “the locusts” over (my son’s friends), though, and they raid the ‘fridge. They eat out with us and sometimes even go shopping with me even when my own kids are sacked out in front of the idiot box (sad, huh?)

    Even, then, though, I feel confident I could bring down the cost of food considerably–I use a “bring it to your door” food service for some items and that can be quite expensive, if convenient. (Many of those items I can get for cheaper at the store.) Interestingly enough, an aquaintance’s husband works for the “bring it to the door food service” and commented that a heavy proportion of sales come from food stamps.

    For plan for this Lent (which almost coincides with the end of coporate accounting season) is to tackle the food budget. The public schools in the area are now offering not only “free lunches”, but “free breakfasts”. (We do not use the public schools, so I guess I have to feed me own kids). I can’t help but wonder, if all these families are on food stamps and their kids are getting “free breakfast/lunch” if they aren’t eating even better than I am.

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