The Serious Food Economy Challenge
Posted June 14, 2007. Included in this document are a media release, an opinion article, and correspondence with The Denver Post.
Contact: Ari Armstrong 
The "2007 Food Stamp Challenge," in which various public officials, activists, and journalists ate on $3.57 or less per day, resulted in numerous calls for increasing the tax dollars spent on food stamps.
Ari Armstrong replied, "The original Challenge was not a fair test. The participants I've read about didn't make a serious effort to economize in their food purchases. My mom used to feed our family with nutritious meals for far less than that amount, accounting for inflation. My wife and I are so confident that we can eat on less than $3 per person per day that we're willing to do it for a full six months, not the mere week specified by the original Challenge.
"There's a catch: for each dollar we come in under budget over that period, supporters of increasing the food-stamp subsidy have to collectively pay $10 to a nonprofit of our choice.
"I'll call this 'The Serious Food Economy Challenge'."
The Armstrongs originally made this challenge to Diane Carman and the editorial writers of The Denver Post, none of whom agreed to the challenge, even though they suggested that the current food-stamp budget is inadequate.
"This just goes to show that these writers for The Denver Post lack the courage of their convictions," Armstrong said.
The Denver Post also declined to publish Armstrong's response as a guest editorial. It is available [below].
Armstrong criticized several food choices made by participants of the original challenge:
* Bill Scanlon of the Rocky Mountain News admits to wasting part of his budget on Ramen noodles.
Yet, according to NutritionData.com, this food has little nutritional value. No good points are mentioned for the food under the web page's opinion. The web page states, "This food is high in Saturated Fat and Sodium." (Scanlon didn't specify the exact type of noodles, so the exact nutritional content may vary.)
"It's no wonder that when people spend their limited budget on food that's not very good for them, they don't feel so great," Armstrong said.
* Roxane White, manager for Denver Human Services, wasted $5.46 on "instant soups" and $7.45 on "five prepackaged frozen meals," according to the Rocky Mountain News.
"If White can't economize any better than that, then I have to wonder why she's trusted with a tax-funded job that oversees the spending of tax dollars. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that instant soup and frozen dinners aren't the best value for the money, especially while on a tight budget," Armstrong said.
* Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper ate "a dinner of a baked potato topped with Velveeta cheese," reports The Denver Post's editorial board. According to NutritionData.com, Velveeta cheese is "a good source of Calcium, and a very good source of Phosphorus." However, it "is very high in Saturated Fat and Sodium," and it gets only one of five stars for "optimum health."
Armstrong summarized: "The argument that the food stamp budget should be increased because it's impossible to eat nutritiously on $3 or $3.57 per person per day is fallacious. And my wife and I are prepared to prove it. All we ask for our trouble is that the advocates of more tax spending for food stamps agree to fund the nonprofit of our choice once we prove them wrong."
The rules for The Serious Food Economy Challenge are as follows:
* Even though the Rocky Mountain News cites the figure of $3.57 per person per day, the Armstrongs will eat on only $3 per person per day, since that's the figure used by The Denver Post.
* Ari Armstrong will record and publish food receipts for the entire period at FreeColorado.com. Armstrong will also make reasonable efforts to record the approximate time spent shopping and preparing meals, in order to forestall the excuse that the exercise would be too time consuming for most people.
* Alcohol, except for beer and wine, will not be included in the food budget. As Carman notes, alcohol including "wine is explicitly not allowed -- no matter what the price -- under food-stamp rules." However, the Armstrongs will not drink any beer or wine outside of the alloted budget, because those drinks contain significant calories.
* The Armstrongs will not accept any free food, except that they may host dinner parties in exchange for attending dinner parties later with the guests on a one-for-one basis, attend dinner parties at which each guest brings a comparable amount of food, and eat Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with friends and/or relatives. The Armstrongs agreed to this rule despite the fact that many recipients of food stamps have access to free or discounted food from various sources.
* The Serious Food Economy Challenge will run from August 1, 2007, through January 31, 2008, if advocates of spending more tax dollars on food stamps accept the challenge.
* The total budget will be calculated at $3 per person per day for two people for 180 days, or $1,080. The Armstrongs may save money from week to week, but in no week will they spend more than $60 on food.
* Any advocate of spending more tax dollars on food stamps may promise money to help fund the challenge. The minimum promise per contributor is $100; a maximum at or above that amount should be specified by the contributor. The Armstrongs will accept the challenge once a minimum total of $2,000 in promised contributions has been received. All promises of contributions must be received on or by July 10, 2007. Promissory notes should be mailed to Ari Armstrong, 9975 Wadsworth Pkwy. #K2-111, Westminster, CO 80021.
* Following the six-month period, if the Armstrongs have spent less than $1,080 on food, those who agreed to fund the challenge must contribute $10 to the nonprofit of the Armstrongs' choice for every $1 that the Armstrongs have saved out of the total budget. If more than that amount has been promised, the total contribution will be split among all those who have promised a contribution, in proportion to the maximum contributions specified. The contributors must then send a check directly to the nonprofit specified no later than February 29, 2008.
* Ari Armstrong will publish the name of anyone who promises to fund the challenge but later backs out.
June 20 update: One person recently asked through e-mail whether my wife and I would use a warehouse membership to purchase food while on the challenge.
I replied, "We do have a Costco membership, but we've already decided that we won't buy food there during the challenge (if anybody backs it), or else people will complain that we're benefiting from a membership that's difficult for the poor to purchase. (It turns out that I usually only buy higher-cost specialty items there, anyway, such as organic butter and pine nuts.)
"I also have a food dehydrator that I won't use during the challenge (except for food to be saved until after the challenge), because of the same potential complaint."
Another person asked whether I (or some other party) would agree to fund a nonprofit at a rate of $10 for every dollar we go over budget. I replied, "There is simply no way that we can fail. The only question is, how much will we come in under budget? Besides, I am already undergoing significant 'cost' by even going through the challenge, because I'll have to watch my budget carefully and publish detailed notes about it. Nevertheless, if somebody writes me and tells me they will support the challenge only if I'll pay $10 for every dollar we go over budget (as if), I'll agree to the condition." So if those who agree to fund the challenge specify a nonprofit, I'll pay $10 to the specified nonprofits for every $1 that we go over budget, in proportion to the maximum contributions specified.
To date, nobody has agreed to support the challenge. -- Ari Armstrong
Will The Denver Post accept a serious food-stamp challenge?
by Ari Armstrong
I hereby challenge The Denver Post to put its money where its policies are. In alternately preachy and whiney articles about the 2007 Food Stamp Challenge, columnist Diane Carman and the paper's editorial writers claim that the money provided by food stamps -- $3 per day per person -- is inadequate.
My wife and I have agreed to limit our grocery budget to that amount for a period of six months, a time long enough to put the budget to the test. Here's the catch: for every dollar we save over that period out of the total budget, The Denver Post (or its individual writers) must donate $10 to the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI).
Why ARI? I believe the work ARI does to defend capitalism provides the best foundation for prosperity to the benefit of both rich and poor. (I have neither notified ARI about the plan nor asked the organization's permission. If for some reason ARI turns down the funds, I'll choose another nonprofit.)
I hope the Post is ready to break out its checkbook. I'm a great economizer. I learned from a master: my mother. For a number of years, my step-father worked his way up a sometimes-rickety career ladder as a pilot. I remember eating lots of beans and rice. I remember sleeping four kids to a room while my parents rolled out the couch in the living room. But we never lacked for essentials; my mom saw to that.
The Denver Post wants to force working people with their own budget worries, my mom, and my wife and me to pay more money in taxes ($4 billion more per year, according to a figure in the Post's editorial) to further subsidize those taking food stamps.
My mom had some comments about that. She said, "Twenty years ago... I'd feed a family of six on $90 to $100 a month." I checked an inflation calculator, and that works out to $180 today. That's $1 per person per day for groceries.
My mom continued, "It can be done. And the nutrition quality isn't too bad, really. That's still having meat, and some fruits and vegetables... I'm not for food stamps... I think that people should work, and I think that neighbors and churches should take care of each other.
"I'm not for welfare, period. Cut it out... Have you watched people who use food stamps pay for their food, have you seen what they get? They get processed food. They get already-prepared cookies... potato chips, and stuff they don't even need in the first place. Because I've watched people do it. And then they pay their cash for their tobacco, and it's wrong."
Of course, other people (such as my wife's family when she was a child) do use the resources responsibly and stay on the program only for a short period. Nevertheless, I agree with my mom that forced welfare programs should be phased out (along with other controls that hamper the job market), not expanded, so that voluntary charity can return to its proper role of helping those truly in need due to no fault of their own. Voluntary charity respects the rights of those who earn the money, and a dollar given voluntarily is more likely to be spent judiciously than is a dollar taken by force for a tax program.
My family's experiences illustrate another important fact neglected by the Post: most poor people soon move out of poverty. This is no surprise: as people gain experience and knowledge, they earn more money. Most budgetary emergencies are temporary problems.
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.
The point of the Food Stamp Challenge was to convince public officials and other notable figures to spend no more than $3 per day on food for a week. But that's not a fair test. The officials who took the "challenge" had an incentive to fail at it and whine as loudly as possible because of their prior commitment to tax-spending hikes.
Mayor John Hickenlooper blew his budget on Velveeta cheese, reports the Post. U.S. Rep. James McGovern ate a cheese tortilla for dinner. Scott Downes of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy "was so hungry" he spent $7 on a turkey sandwich, adds Carman. That's not economizing. That's playing a PR game.
My wife and I are prepared to take the challenge for real. If these writers from the Post turn down our challenge, that will demonstrate only their lack of confidence in their own opinions.
Correspondence with the Post
I sent the following correspondence to various employees of The Denver Post on June 11:
Dear Denver Post,
On the same day, Diane Carman wrote back, "I have no plans to accept the food-stamp challenge at this time."
On June 13, I sent the follow-up correspondence:
Later that day, Bob Ewegen wrote back, "I'm afraid your proposed oped doesn't work for us, Ari."