I was chatting with my husband and he mentioned that he recently read 50 percent of people in this country used food stamps at some point during the last year. My husband is the not-prone-to-exaggerating sort, but I had a hard time believing this horrifying statistic. "Why is this not on the front page of every newspaper?" I spluttered and vowed to look it up.
As of March 2013, the number of people on food stamps was actually 47 million, or about 14 percent of the population. Compared to the original 50 percent number, 14 percent sounded so reasonable that I was going to give my husband a hard time about his memory and drop the issue, until it hit me how truly startlingly this number is. Especially when you consider that to be eligible (at least in the state of Maryland where I live), the net income for a family of three cannot exceed $16,608. Even with that tiny amount of money, the maximum benefit is $408 a month.
The food stamps program was designed as a supplement to low income families and was not meant to be the sole source of food income. In reality, many people are depending on food stamps and charity programs to eat. One disabled woman I know has zero income-producing capacity. She is eligible for the full $408 a month, and that is the only amount of money she has for food. Fortunately, she is the only person in her household and does not have to share. When it comes to food stamps, it does not pay to be married.
As a nutritionist who pushes locally-grown and organically-produced food, I started to wonder if I was out of touch and whether my advice was practical for low-income families. Critics have claimed that organic food movement is elitist and producing safe/healthy food for the masses is too expensive, but is this true? I decided to determine if a person living completely on food stamps could make ends meet shopping only at Whole Foods and the local farmers market.
For the purposes of this experiment, I pretended I had only the maximum $408 a month food stamp benefit for myself. My healthy dietary goals were:
1. Buy organic when available at either the farmers market or the closest Whole Foods market.
2. Consume the recommended 4 to 5 servings fruits/vegetables per day.
3. Eat only whole grains.
4. Meet the recommended protein requirements for an adult female of at least 45 grams per day.
5. Include meat and eggs. While a vegan diet is arguably a healthy choice and it is easy to stay on a strict budget if you are willing to eat beans twice a day, I don't believe this lifestyle choice should be forced on anyone.
6. Avoid complicated cooking, as I would presumably be exhausted from working my crappy low-paying job or from looking for a crappy low-paying job if I was relying of food stamps. (Or I would be disabled.) Politicians have argued that in this day and age ANY job is a good job, but I disagree. Jobs that do not pay a living wage are crappy jobs.
Finally, I had to deduct bus fare. Taking the bus is going to be necessary, as Whole Foods and farmers markets are usually not located near low income housing areas. For this reason, I subtracted $6.40 (the cost of one trip to and from Whole Foods and one trip to and from the farmers market in my area) from my available $94.15 for the week ($408 x 12 months / 52 weeks) leaving me $87.75. I decided to make menus and price out two days worth of food for simplicity's sake. My budget for two days is $25.07.
I went to both my local famer's market and Whole Foods on Saturday, June 15 and took advantage of any sale items and availability of produce on that day only. Some of the items, such as a box of oatmeal, would require buying 8 packets but I cost it out for the amount I was using.
There is enough left over in the budget for coffee and tea (which I don't drink), condiments and an occasional treat. The cookies at the farmer's market were $1.50, for example and one could be squeezed in. Organic Whole Foods brand frozen yogurt was $.56 a serving and that would be possible, too. The protein requirement was easily achieved and also met the higher men's recommendation of 56 grams without even counting the multigrain bread.
While rigid planning and budgeting is not easy, healthy and organic eating is possible on a strict budget without adopting an unusual or crazy diet.
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