Food Challenge Gets First Taker
by Ari Armstrong
This document, originally published on June 24, 2007, has since been updated.
June 28, 2007
Richard Watts has found some additional links of interest. An AP article dated June 20 and published by Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel states: "Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his wife recently took part in the 'food stamp challenge' -- spending just $3 a day each on their meals to match the amount spent by the average food stamp recipient in Oregon." The AP's statement is misleading because, as is explained in more detail below, the "average" recipient is expected to also spend personal funds on food. The poorest recipients receive substantially more from the food-stamp program.
Watts also found Kulongoski's shopping list. Some of his purchases are quite reasonable. As I have done, he purchased potatoes for 20 cents per pound and milk for $1 per gallon. He also bought a small chicken for $3.06 and a loaf of bread for $1; not bad.
However, Kulongoski also bought a box of brand-name cereal for $2.99. His money could have gone much farther with something like a box of oats. He spent 67 cents on instant noodles, which have little nutritional value. He purchased canned beans, even though dry beans are much cheaper. His payment of $4.39 for peanut butter and jam bought him some protein, fat, and several vitamins and minerals, but on a tight budget it's basically "splurge" food. (Certain foods that one might purchase sparingly while on a limited budget over a span of months don't make as much sense for a tight budget spanning only a week.) Finally, Kulongoski spent $1.99 on processed macaroni and cheese and imitation cheese, which don't offer great nutrition for the buck.
Interestingly, the article (by Peter Wong) points out that Kulongoski "was accompanied by more than a dozen reporters and photographers." Yet how many of those reporters bothered to offer the other side of the argument?
"Rachel Bristol, the executive director of the Oregon Food Bank," told Wong, "You also find that the cheaper foods tend to be higher in calories and carbohydrates -- lots of rice, pasta and beans, and not a lot of fresh produce."
Well, bring it on, folks. My wife and I are prepared to eat on the same budget for a full six months. Just today I noticed a variety of fruits and vegetables that regularly cost less than $1 per pound, such as frozen vegetables, red cabbage, and bananas, and many other sorts of produce routinely go on sale for less than $1 per pound. (Today I purchased more than 20 pounds of 25-cent bananas for dehydration.) Yes, we plan to prepare plenty of beans and brown rice (while mostly skipping the pasta), but we also plan to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Here's what the June, 2007, edition of Consumer Reports says about nutrition (pages 13-14):
Backed by a growing body of research, nutritionists have come to a rough consensus on what a truly healthful diet looks like: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and some lean meat and fish, healthy fats, and whole grains. And minimize refined grains, potatoes, full-fat dairy products, and added sweeteners -- especially in the form of soft drinks.
We can definitely do far better than the average American does at sticking to such a diet even on $3 per person per day. However, while added sweeteners are basically bad for you, potatoes in moderation are basically good for you: NutritionData.com gives potatoes a four-star rating for optimum health. So we do plan to eat some potatoes, given their low cost and reasonable nutrition.
A two-person household can receive up to $284 per month in food stamps. My wife and I are prepared to eat on a joint budget of less than $180 per month over a span of six months. In other words, we're prepared to spend (at least) 37 percent less on food than what people taking food stamps are assumed to have available for food.
All we need is for those who favor increased tax spending on food stamps to come forward, support our challenge, and show that they actually believe what they say in public.
June 26, 2007
Richard Watts pointed me to a critique of the original "Food Stamp Challenge" published by Tom Blumer's BizzyBlog on May 22.
Blumer offers a more detailed analysis of a point I made in an article rejected by The Denver Post:
My wife and I have agreed to the stated budgetary constraints even though the original Challenge is ridiculous. Nobody is preventing recipients of food stamps from also spending (God forbid!) some of their own money on food. Nobody is preventing them from picking up free or discounted food from private charity organizations, such as the food bank from my wife's childhood church. Nevertheless, we'll spend only $3 per person per day and buy all our food from regular suppliers.
Blumer points out that the average amount received in food stamps is less than what recipients actually spend on groceries. Blumer points to an article by Mona Charen and information published by the USDA.
If you go the state of Oregon's website and calculate your eligibility for food stamps, you will find that a family of four with no income (and 70 percent of food stamp recipients do not work at all) is entitled to $518 monthly or about $32 weekly for each person. This is a very rough estimate because all sorts of factors are taken into account in calculating eligibility, including number of dependents, housing costs, expenses and other income.
In the cited article and also in an earlier one, Blumer points out that an individual can actually receive over $35 in food-stamp benefits per week. Each person of a two-person household can receive over $32 per week. Nevertheless, my wife and I are happy to proceed with the six-month challenge on $3 per person per day if the advocates of more tax spending will back it.
The USDA document that Blumer cites notes that food-stamp benefits are means-tested and that "food stamp households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food." It lists the maximum monthly allotment for a single person as $155 and for a family of eight as $932.
June 24, 2007
Stephen Raher has become the first sponsor of The Serious Food Economy Challenge. I've worked with Stephen on some political issues, and I deeply respect his thoughtfulness (even when I disagree with him). Here's what he had to say:
I'm not really an "advocate of spending more tax dollars on food stamps," but I do generally think food stamps are a good idea. However, it is a seriously flawed system and I think the challenge is a great way to point out some of the problems. And I'd love to see you succeed -- it's a terrific idea.
As the rules state, "The Armstrongs will accept the challenge once a minimum total of $2,000 in promised contributions has been received."
Given that Raher is the first person to back the challenge, I encouraged him to say a few words about his nonprofit of choice. He replied:
As for a nonprofit of my choice, that's a hard situation, since I give to a lot of nonprofits each year. Given the context (i.e., the debate over food stamps), I think I'll go with the Cato Institute. Like Colorado Freedom Report, Cato is an organization based on principles and objectives that I agree with. Although I don't always agree with the ultimate conclusions reached by Cato (or Colorado Freedom Report, for that matter), I strongly believe that policy debates can only benefit from the participation of parties that are focused on strengthening freedom and liberty -- whether it's personal, legal, or economic. Unlike so many political players these days, Cato uses reliable information and takes morally consistent stands.
On further reflection, it strikes me as a good idea to give every sponsor a similar number of words to pitch a nonprofit. (Please note that I may not agree with the objectives or means of those nonprofits.) I'll post additional updates regarding the challenge in this document.
Following the publication of a related article in the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Pierce also wrote in with the following words of encouragement:
I really appreciated your editorial challenge. I was offended by all the whining and complaining printed in the articles about how it's impossible to eat on the food stamp budget. My family eats well for about $3 per person per day, and that budget includes diapers, paper products, and toiletries. If anyone is not able to get by on that budget they are not making responsible choices.
Not all of the replies have been as complimentary. Among the comments at the News's web page are the following:
Oragnic milk for $1 a gallon is a lie.
And here is my reply:
On June 22, somebody posting under the name "[Repugnants are liars]" posted the libelous comment, "Oragnic [sic] milk for $1 a gallon is a lie."
Yes, anticipating that some numskull would question the claim, I took a picture of the milk. Of course, the reason it was so cheap is that it was nearing or beyond its expiration date. The price of marked-down milk varies; I've also seen organic half-gallons for $1.50. By the way, with most of the rest of the milk shown in the gallon I made a tasty batch of flan.
The potatoes were marked down to $1 for a five-pound bag. The bananas were on sale because their skins were beat up and blackened. (The insides were fine; I think I discarded part of one banana from a large bunch.) The red-leaf lettuce was on sale for $1 per head for a week. The head that I weighed was heavier than a pound. (Green-leaf and Romaine lettuce were on sale for the same price.) The price listed for pinto beans is the regular price for the bag.
These just happened to be some of the items I've purchased recently. I regularly find great deals on a variety of grocery items. And many more items are very reasonably priced even when not on sale.
A friendly poster going by "momma y" had some interesting things to say (and correctly guessed that the items were marked down by a regular grocery store); her comments are worth reading, as are various comments by others.
The poster "coupon clipper" writes: "I'm sure Aris mom who observed that family buying cookies and chips don't live off it. Probly was a little treat. So, don't be a hater Ari." I'm not being a "hater;" I'm being a critic. Neither have I claimed that all food-stamp recipients use their stamps irresponsibly (see the column that The Denver Post rejected). We did have cookies, cakes, and so on when we were kids: my mom made them from scratch, which is far less expensive. I don't think junk food is an appropriate use of food stamps. The program is supposed to be used temporarily. If you're going to spend other people's money -- money collected by force -- for your food, at least have the courtesy to spend the funds on stuff that actually benefits your body.
My mom's broader point, of course, is that it's not much better to spend food stamps even on good food only in order to blow one's own cash on items that damage your body. Food stamps should not be used to free up other funds for damaging, self-destructive, or even pointless expenses. If you're poor, you should be trying to figure out how to earn more money, not blowing your limited (and subsidized) budget on junk like cigarettes.
Other Media on Food Budgets
Two readers sent me links to fascinating stories about budgeting for food. The first article is from The Washington Post of June 19; it's by Sally Squires and titled, "How Far Can Your Dollar Stretch?"
Squires relates some additional facts about food stamps:
Food stamp benefits, which go to 26 million low-income Americans annually, are given out monthly, not weekly, allowing recipients to buy in bulk. That average $21 per person per week becomes about $90 for the full month. A family of four can receive a maximum of $518 per month -- or about $120 per week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
(The Rocky Mountain News's editorial writers also point out that "the average monthly benefit per person $94. In Colorado, the average monthly benefit is $106.")
Squires relates the story of "Tom Wolfe, owner of a natural foods store in Takoma Park," who spends "just $25 a week for food." Wolfe wrote for the Post, "I have been able, through careful planning, to feed myself well -- with enough left over to prepare lunch four days a week for the five people on the staff of my store... Virtually my entire diet since April has been grains and beans certified-organic and a mix of organic and cheaper non-organic vegetables."
Squires herself went on the original challenge and purchased dried beans, canned salmon, watermelon, eggs, whole grains, olive oil, and vegetables. She concluded that "eating on a food stamp budget was challenging, but not as difficult as some members of Congress might think."
The second article related to me is "What the World Eats" by Time, which cites photographer Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet. Shown are figures for particular families for a week's budget. A family of four in Japan eats for $317.25. A family of five in Italy eats for $260.11. A family of six in Chad eats for $1.23 (yes, the decimal is in the right place). A family of four in North Carolina eats for $341.98. A family of twelve in Egypt eats for $68.53. It's evident by the photographs that people in wealthier countries can afford much more prepared (and much more junk) food.
Should enough people step forward to fund the challenge, I'll have plenty of opportunities to explore the issues of poverty and nutrition in greater detail.