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. Continue reading