Nathaniel reads foodie blogs (yes, he really does) and came across this post on one of his regulars. The author is taking the United Way Hunger Challenge: Live like a poor family on food stamps, spending only $7 per day on food for a week. The numbers are slightly different, of course, for couples and families: $12/day for a couple, $18/day for three in the family.
Before taking easy and cruel hits on poor people, I wanted to check these numbers and a few more statistics. So I went to the USDA and found their average per-person monthly food stamp benefits (it actually varies by state because each state divvies up its own federal funds for this program and may increase them in general or for extra-expensive areas like cities): $101. They count it per person, so with Ransom our three-person family would supposedly get $303-ish, but we can be fair and say he’s half a person (he only eats mush and nurses right now but I definitely eat more to keep up with his nursing) and round the grocery benefit to about $250. That is actually about what we spend in groceries each month. It’s also much less than this hunger challenge: $15/day for 30 days equals $450.
Grocery prices near D.C., however, are about a third higher than what I’ve shopped in the Midwest. So we could say a 2.5-person family really needs about $300 a month to eat like we do on the “challenge.” And, honestly: I buy whatever groceries I want, and we still don’t spend that amount.
[expand title="Click the arrow to continue reading."]Ok, so I don’t buy filet mignion. And I make a lot of my own bread. But that’s because I think prices for expensive meat cuts are absurd and because I like eating my own bread. But we eat plenty of meat (hamburger, whole chickens, chicken legs, pork chops, etc), and that’s about the most expensive stuff we buy. Fruits, grains, and veggies are cheap.
So, point one: We would have to actually increase grocery spending to take this “Food Hunger Challenge.” Not much of a challenge, clearly.
Point two is not going to conclude from this that “food stamps are entirely too high!” Honestly, I don’t think I’ve got enough information here or in my head to make that judgment. We don’t know how food stamps apply across specific jurisdictions like our more-expensive D.C. because I haven’t seen or noted those numbers. Knowing what I do about statistics, we can’t yet make this conclusion. And I don’t think food stamp recipients should necessarily be “punished” for receiving welfare by giving them less than they actually need to have some decent food. (Though, clearly, they generally do get enough for this.)
Point two is actually about the information gap poor people have versus middle-class people. Nathaniel works with a bunch of poor, inner-city, minority young men.* Their idea of food is McDonald’s. Their idea of choice in food is McDonald’s or Wendy’s. I’m not even slightly joking.
Poor people don’t just lack food or money. They lack a mental pantry, as well—the ability to look at beans, salt, rice, and tomatoes and make a yummy cheap dinner for four people and two nights for $6 ($8 if you add some sourdough bread from Trader Joe’s). Fast food sounds cheap but, really, it’s expensive. It’s bad for your body, so means current and later accumulated health problems and thus more cost, and you can eat more nutritiously for about the same or even less expenditure. Fast food, prepackaged food, is for convenience, for laziness, and for ignorance. This isn’t meant to be quite as pejorative as it sounds, and I’m not in favor of anything stupid like the government regulating fast food out of existence. (Although I might be for self-control and foresight reducing the number of fast food restaurants that exist by reducing consumer demand for them.)
Unfortunately, food stamps only feed people’s tummies, not their brains. They don’t necessarily help people make more and better food with less money. But government programs can’t really give that. Only people can. Only neighbors can. And whom does Jesus say is our neighbor?
* I prefer “poor” rather than “low-income” because poverty is more than merely having a low income. Poor is an entire class, a way of living and thinking. Nathaniel’s parents didn’t have much money, but their kids all got good educations, ate homemade food, went to church regularly, etc. I would not call them poor, exactly. Plus, “low-income” is merely a useless doublespeak euphemism, like “passed away” for “he died.”
Image by Wonderlane.