Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lessons from Living on a Food Stamp-Sized Budget

If you read extensively in the food and sustainability media (which I assume you do if you are here), you can't have escaped the news that celebri-chef Mario Batali has just spent a week living on a food stamp-sized budget.  He is doing this in protest of proposed cuts to the program, and I have no doubt that he experienced a real change in the way he eats. I will therefore resist making too many cracks about him potentially missing his white truffle oil.

Many bloggers run a "food stamp challenge" for themselves in an attempt to better understand the food situation of those in poverty, and some conclude that it is government subsidies that are critical to the good health of these citizens.  This may or may not be your conclusion, but I thought it would be interesting to compare my own food experience with that of the food stamp budget to see what complexities emerge that might make this problem more than just a simple problem of governmental transfer payments.

I generally keep track of the money Mr. FC&G and I spend at grocery stores and farmers' markets.  I make no effort to restrict us to items that would be allowed under the food stamp program, so along with our pasta and potatoes, these figures tend to include the odd bottle of injector cleaner, an area rug, or a grinder of Himalayan sea salt.  For the first four full months of 2012, we had the following totals:

  • January:  $557.87
  • February:  $354.82
  • March:  $308.55
  • April:  $466.68
  • Overall Average:  $421.98
The SNAP budget for a family of two is $367 per month, so you will note that for two of our four months, we actually spent less on groceries than the SNAP program would have allowed.  The average expenditure puts us just $55 over the SNAP budget, so we are not eating at the poverty level, but we are certainly not overspending for a DINK household with two healthy incomes.

So what are the complicating factors?

  • Our list here doesn't include restaurant meals, which probably average one per week.  On the other hand, these were four pretty good months to choose, because Mr. FC&G was not travelling for business and doing a lot of eating out on per diem reimbursements.  These totals are more or less what it took to feed us.
  • We were not eating badly.  We eat hormone-free cheese; local, free-range eggs; local, grass-fed beef, and free range chicken.  I suspect the SNAP program administrators would blanch at the $6.50 I just paid for a pound of grass-fed stew meat.  We make extremely healthy choices.
  • On the other hand, we have the ability to make those choices.  Looking back on my grocery tallies, there were days that we went to three different grocery stores and a farmers' market to get our food.  We can drive anywhere we wish to source our food, and we can (and do) choose to spend up when we are at a farmers' market, because we want to keep our local providers in business.
  • We have the money to stock up.  Part of this tally includes a stock-up spree on organic vanilla that Mr. FC&G undertook when reading of threats to global vanilla supply.  We regularly stock up on pantry items like flour, honey, olive oil, and other things when we see a good price, whether that throws us over the SNAP budget each month or not.
  • We have a garden.  Although these four months were certainly the most garden-free of the year, we still were eating canned and dried foods from last summer, and I expect our monthly outlay will drop very shortly as I start bringing in fresh produce.  We have the land and the tools and the knowledge to produce our own food.
So what does this mean?  Well, for me it indicates that we must do a better job using space, particularly urban spaces like rooftops, to allow more people to grow and produce food to live within a budget.  One of the differences between the experience of the poor historically versus now is that it used to be common for residents of tenement buildings to keep chickens for meat and eggs.  Although I can't imagine how that must have smelled in apartments with too many people and too few windows that opened onto air shafts, it points out that we have required the poorest members of our communities to be divorced from the sources of their food.  Changing the SNAP budget one way or the other won't make anyone's life more sustainable.

As always, I don't want to turn this into a political blog, not least because I believe that caring people across the spectrum look at the problem and propose a variety of ways to solve it.  However, my take-away from my analysis is that it is not just a question of budget, it is a question of time, knowledge, and ability to pursue procurement of the kinds of foods we want to eat to stay healthy.  When we have those tools, we can even throw the occasional choice from the automotive section in there.
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