Thus Spake Zuska

How to Feed 4 On a Food Stamp Budget

From the Philadelphia Daily News (the same paper which recently brought a Pulitzer Prize to Philadelphia for amazing investigative reporting by Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman):

HOW WELL can a family of four eat on just $68.88 a week? For more than 38 million Americans, it’s more than a matter of conjecture…To find out how well you can eat on food stamps, we asked two chefs and a magazine food editor to plan seven days of meals for a family of four using that budget: $68.88.

I like best the solutions proposed by Jose Garces, who went 66 cents over budget, and explains his solutions thus:

Inexpensive basics – such as pasta, beans, greens and potatoes – can get tons of flavor from spices and herbs. The same foods also can taste radically different from one meal to the next – Indian flavors one night, Asian the next and Mexican on the third.

Garces suggests that budget shoppers start in the grocer’s ethnic aisle, where the products generally are less expensive.

Budget cooking “traces back to roots in ethnic cooking,” he said. “If you look back in history, people had to survive, and using inexpensive products became ways to survive and using those inexpensive products became traditional dishes.”

To create his menu, Garces drew on his Mexican roots, as well as his love of Indian food. Beans, spices, herbs and produce are at the heart of both cuisines – and are among the least expensive ingredients at the grocer.

At the article site, you can find links to proposed menus from the three cooks/editors, and some recipes.

A few problems with any of these solutions: as noted in the article, cooking from fresh ingredients takes more time than buying processed food, so although you get more, and more nutritious, food for your dollar, there is the time cost. And the working poor are generally exhausted at the end of the workday. If you have not ever been a member of the working poor and cannot conceive of just how exhausted you might be, I recommend reading Nickel and Dimed for a glimpse.

The other problem is that, in order to cook from fresh ingredients, one needs to build up a certain set of basic tools and general cooking ingredients that you use over and over. Pots, pans, knives, a cutting board, cooking oil. Even spices, though you don’t use much of them in any one meal, cost a good bit to buy a whole jar at a time. One can probably shop second-hand stores for some of this stuff but still, money has to be allocated for these things, and where is the money to come from, if you don’t already have this stuff?

Sixty-eight dollars and eighty-eight cents is not a lot of money. I am impressed that any of the three were able to come up with 84 meals for anything like that sum. I wonder if Sharon Astyk could do a better job – with more greens and less meat, maybe? All three seemed to spend a big portion of their budgets on meat. Seems like if you focused on non-meat protein sources you could stretch your budget further, but I suppose they didn’t want to seem like they were imposing vegetarianism on the poor.

Or maybe the whole thing was just an exercise in illustrating how shabbily we treat the poor. “Here, try to feed yourself and your family on this pittance in our nation that worships expensive cuts of meat*! We realize you are exhausted and forced by economics to live in neighborhoods that haven’t seen a fresh vegetable in decades. That’s why we created fast food restaurants! I believe if you look under the bun you’ll find an only moderately limp leaf of lettuce! Now, good day – I’m off to the martini bar!”

No wonder Sharon wants everybody to grow at least a little of their own food.

*oh hell, it’s worth quoting from that restaurant review.

The gaudy theatrics of an opening-night extravaganza have become as expected as meat and potatoes for Philadelphia’s new herd of luxury steak houses. But when Union Trust threw its preview bash in February, just as the economy was spiraling toward the abyss, it haughtily raised the bar to a prime new grade of crass.

With showtime searchlights on Chestnut Street strafing the night, a $550 vertical rib-eye tasting for four on the menu, ice sculptures channeling rivers of vodka, and a Brink’s truck making special delivery of a $29,000 bottle of Black Pearl Cognac, the bombastic debut was meant to send a message: In a city being courted by ever-grander palaces of beef, the $12.8 million, 280-seat Union Trust intended to be the grandest of them all.

The soaring former bank space (and Jack Kellmer jewelry store), with its ornately coffered ceiling arching 60 feet over the terraced dining room of velveteen booths, private rooms peering down through Palladian windows, and a marble staircase sweeping up to a glass-wrapped mezzanine, was the closest thing we’d get to a carnivore’s cathedral.

Indeed. Let’s see…$550 for a vertical rib-eye tasting for four…that’s just about eight weeks worth of food-stamp meals for a family of four. But who’s counting.

Comments

  1. #1 Kate
    April 30, 2010

    In addition to needing the cooking implements, you also need to have access to a store that sells produce, has an ethnic section, sells beans, etc…there are a lot of people who have to shop at the equivalent of the Qwik-E-Mart. Not a lot of greens, beans, grains, or fresh foods in those locations.

  2. #2 bluefoot
    April 30, 2010

    A point worthy of note is that food stamps often also have to be used for necessities that aren’t food: toilet paper, soap, etc. All those other things one buys at the supermarket (assuming you live near one) that aren’t food. So it’s functionally less than $68.88 per week.

    The other big problem is food prep and storage. One of my graduate school apartments had a very tiny refrigerator and a small oven and stove. This meant that I couldn’t use normal sized pots and pans because they didn’t fit. The other problem was ants and roaches. We couldn’t leave any food out, even in the cabinets (and sometimes the refigerator), without them being in secondary containers of thick plastic or metal. That gets expensive quick.

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    April 30, 2010

    the gas or electricity used to do the cooking isn’t free, either. when i lived in NYC, i had to turn off the gas because it cost $21/month — just to have it available for use. i couldn’t turn off the power because i had a refrigerator to keep going, but i certainly didn’t use anything that required power if i could avoid it (i charged my cell phone and laptop at the public library, for example)

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    April 30, 2010

    oh, i forgot to mention that, to qualify for food stamps in NYC, you had to be fingerprinted and go through a criminal background check before the food stamps are approved. thus, many many people who qualify for food stamps refuse to even apply, which places even more pressure upon the already overwhelmed food banks.

  5. #5 Vicki
    April 30, 2010

    Cheap sources of spices can also be hard to find, or get to. I can (for example) get 2 ounces of cumin at the right shop for a bit less than I’d pay for a little bottle at the supermarket, but “the right shop” is not in my neighborhood, or even on my way home. So that’s extra time and energy, even if we stipulate that I wasn’t paying for the travel–and those monthly unlimited transit cards, while a good deal if you commute every day, require spending money up front. Also, you’re getting more spice that way, but the upfront cost is still there, when what you might want to do is divide that money up and get (say) a third as much cumin, some thyme, and some black pepper.

  6. #6 NancyNew
    April 30, 2010

    I have access to several “seconds” grocery stores (they sell slightly past due, or overstock goods. Shopping there judiciously means I can really cut some costs on some good stuff (yogurt quarts, $.50, for example, but what they have from day to day or week to week is unpredictable. I noticed when the current economic downturn started, the shelves emptied faster.

  7. #7 Tizzle
    April 30, 2010

    You can use food stamps to buy toilet paper? Is that universal? I just got them, and am afraid to have anything turned down at the register.

    I came here to nitpick. Meat is really not that expensive. Unless the only vegetarian protein you get is beans, which I am going to learn how to cook/prepare/enjoy in the coming months, being a veggie can be kind of expensive.

    Or is my urban slightly-foodie bias showing?

  8. #8 Moopheus
    April 30, 2010

    At least around here, the cheapest sources of spices tend to be Indian markets. Because Indian cooks go through spices in quantities that would terrify the average white-bread American, they sell in large quantity at relatively low prices. Same with rice–20-lb sacks of basmati for under $1/lb.

    It is true that meat can be had for generally less than nonmeat protein, largely because of intensive factory farming and government subsidies for feed. The government wants meat to be cheap. Vegetables are economically disadvantaged in that way–fewer subsidies, more labor-intensive production.

    And it is also true that almost no effort goes into helping people be less dependent on processed food. We’ll give them money to buy food, but not to buy pots and pans, not to make sure they have a place to use them, or any clue how. The government’s response really is: make the crap as cheap as possible, give money to buy the crap. The end. The beef, corn, and processed food industries are the real beneficiaries of the system, and they fight to keep it that way.

  9. #9 Shelly
    April 30, 2010

    No, you can’t use food stamps to buy toilet paper, or any other non-food item. Speaking from experience.

  10. #10 Mu
    April 30, 2010

    Unless you restrict yourself to beans and potatoes, vegetarian proteins are extremely pricey compared to meat. You can get cheap meat cuts for $1.50/lb, containing probably 25% protein, that pound covers half the daily protein requirement for your family of 4.
    But I agree that food preparation time/equipment/space often dictates choosing less healthy and more expensive purchase choices. Somehow I don’t see a single mother with two kids spending 90 min in the evening cooking stuffed bell peppers over rice even if it’s complete nutrition for only $3 after she went to three stores to buy the sales offers.

  11. #11 rpsms
    April 30, 2010

    You can make a decent meal from scratch for 4 in 20 mins. I have done it every day for my wife and kids 20 years running.

  12. #12 bluefoot
    April 30, 2010

    To clarify my comment re using food stamp to buy non-food items: I know people without other sources of income who traded some portion of their food stamps for cash in order to buy non-food items. Sorry about the confusion.

  13. #13 William Rourke
    April 30, 2010

    Went back and read your little blog. You’re kind of a cunt.

  14. #14 Comrade Svilova
    April 30, 2010

    Every time “food for the poor” gets in the news, people are very quick to provide suggestions for what those in poverty “should” do. It’s nice to see that most of the posters here are offering their own experiences, but aren’t suggesting that any one person’s experience is universally applicable. I’d also like to echo the points made above about the need for more than just food — appliances, cookware, etc. are necessary to good eating but often very expensive!

    My partner and I have a very old electric oven that is prohibitively expensive to run. We only use it twice a year, and we try to use the stove top only once a day. It is so hard preparing nutritious, inexpensive food without proper cooking equipment. Once we can save up for a new stove, I hope we can get an energy efficient model so that all our meals aren’t based around microwaved or thawed frozen vegetables!

    Access to an oven is something I know I took for granted growing up, and it’s something that is often incorrectly assumed when middle-class or upper-middle-class people discuss prescriptions for nutrition for the working class and/or the poor.

  15. #15 Michelle
    April 30, 2010

    In regards to the expensive cookware, if y’all have extras that you’d like to share with those who need and can’t afford it, you can post giveaways on freecycle.com. This website also allows you to see what others need so you can consider whether you have that something sitting in your closet unused.

  16. #16 Tony P
    April 30, 2010

    I’ve got us down to about $350 a month for groceries for two people.

    So that works out to about $80 a week. Love dishes with pasta, beans, etc.

  17. #17 Tamara
    April 30, 2010

    Your region and work circumstances can make a difference too.

    A particularly tough pattern, found in larger cities where child care is expensive and commutes are long is tag teaming. Many months, I meet my husband at a metro stop with the children, pass them to him as he leaves work, then they metro home and I go to work. They arrive home around seven p.m.–the children and I having left home to start the commute to the metro stop at 4:30.

    The crock pot helps some, as does cooking and freezing on days off

    This can make it hard to make foods that require significant prep (though crock pots help.) Divorced parents have it even harder.

    That said, dinner tonight was: chicken and dumplings made with homemade dumplings (really cheap), celery, carrots, and leftover chicken made into homemade broth. One of the cheapest things you can do with meat is rubber chicken. Get one roasting chicken. Roast on day one, pull off the easy to reach leftover meat for a casserole on day two, and boil the bones into soup on day three. (Chickens cost four to six dollars if you buy the evil factory farmed ones, which are all I can afford at present.)

  18. #18 Cara
    April 30, 2010

    Even spices, though you don’t use much of them in any one meal, cost a good bit to buy a whole jar at a time.

    Exactly. I read the line about spices and produce being inexpensive and I wondered where he shops. Spices are generally pretty outrageous and if you live in snow country produce is NEVER really cheap, it’s just slightly less expensive in summer.

    They mean well, those folk, but honestly.

  19. #19 Lab Rat
    May 1, 2010

    Beans are a lifesaver when I’m running low on budget. They come in tins (so can be stored), they come in big tins (so lots of them), they mostly come with spices in the surrounding sauce already and they are nice and cheap, you can usually get three tins for a pound and then just throw them in with pasta.

    Although it does get a bit boring three days in a row.

    Good ovens though are an absolute godsend. While I was at uni they took all the ovens out of the kitchens for health and safety reasons and we were left with just a microwave. Trying to make cheap healthy student food with a microwave was all but impossible, I think I just ended up getting cheap van takeaways or canteen food for most of the year

  20. #20 SargassoSea
    May 1, 2010

    I have been a member of the working poor and so much of that exhaustion is born of worry. It’s exceptionally bad, of course, if you have kid/s – struggling to keep your *chin up* so they won’t know that you’re desperately trying to figure out how to feed them tomorrow.

    That sucked worse than anything I have ever had to endure. And I cry every time I think about it – like now.

    Eat the rich!

  21. #21 Jim Thomerson
    May 1, 2010

    It has been very difficult to get food stamps in Texas. Saw on the TV today that things are much better, @ 80% of the applications are being processed in the required time period. There has been a huge surge of applications over the last year or so.

    Is the Department of Agriculture still handing out surplus farm produce to po’folks? I recall honey, cheese, and butter. Don’t know if there was anything else.

  22. #22 Catering Equipment
    May 1, 2010

    Although you can probably feed a family of 4 on a low budget of $68.88 per week, the reality is that you will have to compromise on the food quality and nutritional value. As some of the prople pointed out above, not all this money is spent on food and even if it was, there is no way you could sustain a healthy diet on that budget for long.

  23. #23 stripey_cat
    May 2, 2010

    I was curious, so I poked around a bit in our nearest supermarket. The cheapest source of calories was vegetable oil, followed by tinned kidney beans. A good half of the pulse products undercut even the cheapest meat products for protein prices (this may vary country to country more than I realise, of course). Quorn and such are stupidly expensive, but rice and beans is perfectly acceptable and only slightly more expensive than dirt.

    As a student, there was one year when I lived on less than £200 over rent and bills. I was going home for the holidays, and my mother was front-loading me with things like spices and the odd luxury, and I had access to a fridge and a decent oven, but I kept myself well and tastily fed (healthy and physically active) for 27 weeks at less than a pound a day. Admittedly I did get the money up front, so I could afford to buy large bags of rice and pulses (although nothing more than 10kg because I had to carry them home). I was also very lucky in that I lived near some excellent ethnic grocers and had access to decent vegetables from the market but come on! Rice, pasta, dried pulses, tinned tomatoes, are very cheap round here. More glamorous fruit and veg can be dear, but the basics (onions, carrots, potatoes, brassicas, apples in season, bananas for treats) aren’t. Of course, the only animal produce was modest amounts of yoghurt and cheese, and the very occasional box of eggs, which helped keep the prices down (cheap meat in my experience is too vile for me to want to eat unless I was actually starving!). As it happens, I wasn’t really driven to this by poverty (I could have asked my parents for money if I’d really needed to), but it was OK and I didn’t really feel the deprivation – not to say I didn’t love eating out if someone treated me, but I didn’t miss things like meat, out-of-season fruit, or baking day-to-day. On the time front, I think I spent probably less than five hours a week on food prep.

    If you don’t have appliances, can’t afford the power, or are stuck in the butt end of nowhere (or some really dire urban slum) then it’s not an option, obviously though; still, I’d say that most people in my experience who could benefit from cheaper food bills are held back by aspirational attitudes, the belief that cooking is hard, or simple ignorance of nutrition and cookery. For instance, several of my fellow-students became ill on a much larger food budget than mine because they were either not budgetting over the whole term (ie splurging on luxuries they saw as necessities for a few weeks then starving for the last month), or were missing important nutrients (like vitamin C or fibre!) from poor planning and fussiness about food.

  24. #24 rb
    May 2, 2010

    I find these articles interesting. My family of 4 survives on $70/week food budget (actually less), a little more than that on total grocery budget (cleaning supplies paper goods etc.)

    I do very little shopping in prepared food aisles.

  25. #25 clamboy
    May 3, 2010

    Annnnd, there is one more thing yet to be mentioned, in addition to pots, pans, utensils, basic cooking skills, time and energy to cook, etc: a working stove/oven. And yet, and yet, those darn poor have it so darn easy!!

  26. #26 catgirl
    May 3, 2010

    I would like to add that foods that are cheap in some supermarkets can be really expensive inside a city. When I was in college I would stock up on Ramen noodles when I was home for breaks because I could find them for 8/$1.00 and sometimes 12/$1.00 when on sale (that’s $0.125 and $0.083, respectively). But at the local 7-11 (the only food store within walking distance), Ramen noodles cost $0.40 per pack, and were never on sale that I can remember.

  27. #27 Comrade Svilova
    May 4, 2010

    Rb and Stripey_cat, maybe I’m reading your comments incorrectly, but I’m trying to figure out whether you’re simply offering personal anecdotes or if you feel that you have an answer to the problem that the OP addresses.

    I’m never sure how to read statements about someone’s own admirable and/or thrifty food choices. Are they meant to say that everyone else could/should do the same thing?

  28. #28 MissPrism
    May 4, 2010

    There are a few problems with these “well, when I was a student I lived on four and ninepence a fortnight by buying a sack of oats and a barrel of salted herring” stories, if they’re meant as advice for the poor.

    Firstly, being a student is temporary, and that makes all the difference. It can almost be fun to slum it for a few years – I was lucky enough to be a student during the UK supermarket price wars when Tesco baked beans were 2p and loaves of bread 8p – provided you know that there’s a better job coming and then you’ll be back on the fresh pasta and Gorgonzola in no time. But when it’s going to be like this your whole life, those virtuous lentil curries might taste a bit more of deprivation.

    Secondly, students are typically single and independent with a lot of control over how they spend their time – even if they have a lot of work to do. Few students have the time cost of childcare, children’s fussy tastes, or the timing of other people’s work schedules to deal with.

    Plus, of course, the people telling these anecdotes were extremely unusual students if they weren’t spending about as much on alcohol as food. I’m not condemning it – sharing a bottle of £2.99 Bulgarian cab-sauv added a bit of fun and variety, and even some vague semblance of luxury, to one’s regular diet of things on toast or noodles. However, a woman on minimum wage spending half her food bill on wine would be held up as an example of shocking waste.

    I think what I’m getting at is that if you aren’t a student, eating like a student really sucks. Few people would cope with it for long without making for the burger bar.

  29. #29 skeptifem
    May 4, 2010

    Oh lord, all the fuss over vegetarian protein sources. It is hard not to get adequate protein from 3 meals a day. Avoiding protein in food is difficult. Unless you are an aspiring power lifter it isn’t cause for concern.

  30. #30 Zuska
    May 4, 2010

    Some people who are sure it is so easy to eat well on a dirt-cheap budget while holding down two or three jobs to make that pittance and caring for children really ought to take some time to read something like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed”.

  31. #31 JustaTech
    May 5, 2010

    I cannot speak from personal experience about eating while poor, so I’ll say something that I have had personal experience with.

    1. In Seattle now many if not all Farmers Markets will take foodstamps/WIC, which I think is awesome.
    2. In the Boston area there are charities that take gently used home goods and donate them to people moving into Section 8 housing. I haven’t found one in Seattle, but I think that’s an awesome thing to have.

    3. I think that schools should start offering nutrition and cooking classes. If your parents work 2 jobs each, when exactly are they going to have time to teach you how to cook? Heck, even if they don’t work that much there are still lots of people out there who don’t know how to cook and can’t teach their kids. That could be good for everyone, not just people on a limited income.

  32. #32 DuWayne
    May 5, 2010

    Just a couple of things that can be very useful, depending on what sorts of stores you have available. Speaking from the experience of one who has had to operate on an even smaller food budget at times – getting food stamps was a total step up.

    Vegetable protein can actually be really cheap, if you get the dry stuff. There is regular TVP which is easier to find, but for those concerned about too much soy, there are other options. Unfortunately, options I have only ever seen in particularly large and well stocked Asian markets. But if you can get to one, you can get dry veggie protein that is wheat based. Either way, you get the equivalent of about ten pounds of meat for (usually) three bucks or less. As an added bonus, straight out of the package it makes a great snack for infants who are recently started on solid foods. When they get it in their mouth it reconstitutes and either they will hate it or (and this is the only reaction I have seen with five babies now) they will really get into gumming it for a long time.

    Depending on where you live, Winco is just about the best budget shopping I have ever used. Shy of that, as much as I dislike Walmart, cheap groceries are more important than political statements – especially when you have kids to feed. Currently, given the options of Meijers or Walmart for produce, I generally do Walmart because not only are they generally cheaper but for some reason Meijers produce has seriously sucked ass lately.

    In any case while spices tend to be pricey, if you have access to an Asian and/or Indian market they can actually be pretty reasonable. Hispanic markets also tend to be pretty good for reasonable priced spices. They also are usually good for low priced teas. Coffee can usually also be found, but I have generally found it doesn’t really work so well for me. And of course a decent spice garden takes up little space and costs very little to get going. It most certainly won’t provide everything, but it can definitely take a bite out of the cost of spices.

    Another thing that makes for a somewhat improved diet is replacing rice with whole grains. I am particularly fond of amaranth for the nutritional value, but not so much for the expense. Quinoa is cheaper and almost as good. Mixing in some rice or tabouli can stretch the grain and make it more palatable with less cooking.

    Unfortunately food allergies make things a lot more difficult, but if you have to deal with those it might help to talk to your caseworker about it. In a lot of states dietary restrictions – especially food allergies – will make a difference in the amount of food money you get.

    It is also worth asking your case worker if they have a recipe book. I know that MI used to provide a book that would help set up a monthly budget with recipes. It is also a good idea to ask about cooperative buying organizations. For example in Kalamazoo county, MI, there is a church that buys a bunch of food wholesale, and then creates food packages you can buy – with or without food stamps. I was curious when I discovered that and called DHS in Portland (where I lived not too long before) and discovered that there are three different organizations in the area that do something similar.

    The bottom line is that it pays to talk to your caseworker about what sorts of options you might have available to you. It is very likely that they can either help you directly or point you to help in stretching your limited food budget.

    And in my experience – which granted is limited to three states – you cannot buy anything except for food with food stamps. A lot of places may give out vouchers for toiletries, others may provide some directly – otherwise some food pantries or other social service charities might help.

  33. #33 anonymoose
    May 5, 2010

    I am a graduate student, feeding a family of 4 on food stamps, and we are struggling to get our kids to an adequate nutritional level as demonstrated by the USDA food pyramid. It cannot be done with our allotment, something even our caseworker admitted to us, unless we, the adults, step back our calorie content to less than what we should consume every day to live. So now my partner and I no longer eat one meal a day each (I picked lunch, partner no longer eats breakfast), so that my kids can hit their vegetable needs. The recipe pamphlet we got has a food pyramid on it, but the actual recipes do not meet the food pyramid suggestions. I am not eating enough calories to concentrate well in my lab. And i am so, so tired of worrying all the time, and being told that if I just ‘add saffron’ to rice it tastes great! I cannot afford spices – even a $5 bottle is a meal for both my kids, gone out of my budget.

  34. #34 skeptifem
    May 5, 2010

    Anonymoose- Do you think people in your area are in the same boat as you? If there is any un-used space in the area maybe you could try to organize a community garden in your neighborhood. It is a cheap way for many people (who are lacking time & money) to make vegetables. I am not trying to be bossy or anything, the idea just sprang to mind and I wanted to share. I hope that you guys make it through everything ok :(

  35. #35 DuWayne
    May 6, 2010

    anonymoose –

    Could you please do me a favor and email me? While I am definitely as asshole sometimes, one thing I am not an asshole about is breaking anyone’s anon (unless they email me threats and/or really obnoxious bullshit). I would be extremely grateful to discuss something with you.

    duwayne.brayton at gmail dot com…

  36. #36 joy
    May 7, 2010

    You needn’t “take time to teach a child how to cook” when you’re poor.

    If you have no child care, your kids are home with you when you are preparing meals. So you get them to help you. Two, or four, or however many, more hands is less work that YOU have to do. Thus, poor children learn how to prepare their own meals very early.

    I was “cooking” by age five, and know people who could not only feed themselves but their younger siblings and sometimes their parents by age seven or sooner.

    One also learns by imitation how to do one’s own laundry and go to the grocery store — where one learns to avoid the prepared foods and shop thrifty, probably while rolling your eyes at the rich whiteys buying their luxury items (such as jelly, or coffee).

    I think cooking and basic-survival and budgeting classes should be taught to the middle- and upper-class kids. Do you know how many middle-class and richer people I know who don’t even know how to do their own laundry, and/or throw out their clothes if they get rips and tears? Seriously.

  37. #37 joy
    May 7, 2010

    Also, I am a single female recipient of public welfare, and it’s hell living with roommates. They are middle-class and upper-middle-class students who assume that because they are “poor”, they can eat my food because “at least [I] get food stamps.”

    I have anorexia, and also survive off of vegetables, basic starches, and beans or TVP to keep my costs low, but I can’t afford to feed even MYSELF when all of my broccoli, all of my bok choy, all of my rice, for a week goes into making white boys’ “group curry” for ONE NIGHT.

    And then I’m expected to buy more, or when I buy more for myself they eat it all again, because “[I] have food stamps.” Like it’s an automatic gold machine or an ever-replenishing fountain that never runs out.

    They sometimes cloak it as “doing me a favor” (look, I cooked tonight! why are you pissed? we’re gonna eat good food for one day!) … but it’s incredibly disrespectful and privileged. People who are not on food stamps do not understand food stamps any more than they know what it’s like not to be white.

    Oh, and DuWayne, as I remarked indirectly on another thread, it’s really refreshing to see a dude on here who makes sense and/or isn’t totally oblivious.

  38. #38 Comrade Svilova
    May 8, 2010

    I’m sorry to hear about your situation, Joy. I’m not on food stamps, but am I on a limited budget, and it is very difficult dealing with roommates who don’t understand the necessity for budgeting and eating thriftily. One of my current roommates has friends over for steaks or lobster at least once a week. Drinking expensive liquor follows. She has a very wealthy family (maids do all the cleaning at her parents’ home, so she doesn’t really know how to look after herself) and just doesn’t get why I don’t share my food. Best of luck dealing with everything.

  39. #39 LKL
    May 8, 2010

    Shopping at a co-op or natural foods store is prohibitive for most things, but if they have spices in bulk it can be worth an occasional trip: bulk spices are often 1/10 as much as jars, sometimes even less.

  40. #40 LKL
    May 8, 2010

    ^that is, of course, if you are lucky enough to have access to such a store.

  41. #41 simba
    May 8, 2010

    Joy- that really sucks. I’m a spoiled teen living in college (not an analogous situation, I should be kicked off this thread) and my roommates do things like cook my unfamiliar food and then throw it out because it’s not what they thought it was. A box of dried food under the bed can work well, or hiding it in a drawer where it’s hard for vermin to get at it.

    What assholes. Hope you get it sorted out.

  42. #42 joy
    May 8, 2010

    simba, seriously, I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. The whole “keeping things in my room” has occurred to me before, trust me.

    It doesn’t really work when it’s fresh vegetables, and/or you live in New York City where anything left out is an invitation for mice and roaches to move in. And believe me here, too, they can get into ANYWHERE.

    (I have, or at least had, a roach the size of a small VW bus in one of my “safe” drawers for a while. It got so cocky it would come right out and look at me before going back to crawling all over my silverware.)

    I think the problem is not with ME, it’s with the system. I’m not yelling at you, just trying to let you know — telling me to buy prepackaged food (which is not economical) and hide it in my room is like telling a woman not to drink while she’s wearing a short skirt.

    Likewise (and you did not do this, but others did) telling poor people to just lay off the Cheetohs and go buy veggies at Whole Foods is entirely condescending and miles away from the point as well.

  43. #43 LKL
    May 8, 2010

    Joy-
    I’m reminded of an old freezer that my grandparents had in their garage, with a lock on it. Maybe someday you’ll find one for free on craigslist, or something – though I hope your situation changes first. It’s awful that you’re stuck with such self-absorbed brats.

  44. #44 joy
    May 8, 2010

    I do not need to buy an old freezer so that I can lock it. Society needs to change so that people stop fucking people over.

    That was the point of what I wrote. Not “I dunno what to do!” Because I KNOW what to do, I have done it before, and I am doing it now. Thanks for the advice, though.

  45. #45 LKL
    May 9, 2010

    I didn’t mean it as advise so much as, ‘wow, that’s shitty, this is what it reminds me of.’ I apologize if I was condescending.

    I don’t think society is going to change much, though.

  46. #46 jess
    May 9, 2010

    My friend who grew up very poor goes green at the mention of TVP, because it was pretty much all her mum could afford to feed them with when she was little. It still represents poverty and makes her feel sick to think about.

  47. #47 joy
    May 9, 2010

    “I don’t think society is going to change much, though.”

    Not in my lifetime, no. Definitely not.

    But I have to think that it will some day. I have to do something about it (like screaming in some white guy’s face, “I’m not your mother! Buy your own food!” instead of just quietly suffering and locking my shit away like I’m the one who’s done something wrong simply by existing). I have to try, or I will go crazy.

  48. #48 DuWayne
    May 10, 2010

    Joy –

    I really despise the whole “ooh! you have food stamps!!!” fucking bullshit. I was out of work, recovering from an injury – trying to keep a roof over my family’s heads. I had two kids to feed, one of whom was an infant who’s mother had medical issues that prevented breast feeding – so we were buying fucking formula on top of trying to eat on occasion and feed the six year old.

    We eventually had to work our way through eviction and getting across the country to family who could help. I can assure you that three days in coach on a train with a six year old and a ten month old sucks sweaty donkey balls.

    And still a couple of “friends” had hope we could help because we had fucking food stamps.

    I can totally understand a certain level of clueless, but I totally fail to comprehend why people fail to grasp the idea that food stamps are provided to people who fuckingwell need them.

    As an aside, I have been totally lucky on the roommate end. My first real experience with them was when we moved to Portland and split for about a year. My first roomie was really awesome – a believer in shared meals in spite of my inability to contribute as much as he could – ironically because he had food stamps (and other helps). My second (my first was HIV+ and got into a housing program that prohibited roomies) set were a gay couple who were all about sharing the occasional meal with me, when they noticed I was out of food. They were also markedly light on the meals I shared with them.

  49. #49 joy
    May 10, 2010

    DuWayne —

    Yeah, I think my problem is that two out of three of my roomies are rich white boys.

    Both of whom also complain that I should “get (another), REAL job” because it’s not fair that they have to pay rent. They’re “poor” and in college, and thus can’t get jobs! Who am I kidding! I must be crazy and/or irrational to suggest that.
    In addition to the “you have ‘stamps, so your life must be easier than ours.”

    In other words, my time is less valuable than theirs because I am lower-class and female. If I didn’t pass for white I’d say that played a part as well.
    Mostly, they want a teat to suck on so they can avoid facing the real world, and since I’m here, they expect mine to be available. Wrong!

    Most people just do not know how poverty actually works, and they wind up perpetuating really shitty stereotypes. As if the ones here weren’t enough, several showed up on the “White Men” thread too — ie, people on state assistance are lazy, ignorant, and dirty. Yeah. Thanks, guys, you’re really helping.
    Preaching to the choir, I know, but it’s worth repeating. Shit burns my biscuits.

    I’m glad you got out of your shitty situation (I assume). On my end, I only have two weeks left of the White-Boy tenure, and then I’m getting another queer mixed-race female to replace them. State-Funded Queer Estrogen-Palace, here we come!

  50. #50 DuWayne
    May 11, 2010

    Oh, I am working my way out of it. I’m going to school and have a lot of prospects for grad school and a decent career beyond. It helps to be studying for interconnected degrees that will virtually guarantee reasonable employment and will likely provide very lucrative employment.

    I get very irritable about stigmas in general. I tend to focus rather strongly on addictions and other mental problems, because they are most relevant to my own life and desired career path. But I get very tired of these ridiculous stigmas across the board. There are many individuals who are worthy of criticism, while there are few groups that are worthy of the same.

    The biggest problem I think, is that people attach too much importance to certain specific labels that happen to fit a person, while ignoring the ones that are actually important. I mean for fucks sake, we are all defined by thousands of thousands of labels. Yet when you happen to be on state assistance, that label supersedes “hard working,” for some reason. And if you’re a dirty junkie, dying of your addiction, that label supersedes “human fucking being.”

    That is not to say that all of those labels aren’t important to some degree or another – they are. But when we decide to define people based on a specific label, pretending they are more important than any other characteristic of a person we are engaging in discrimination. And while that is not always a bad thing to do, all too often is also means we are engaging in bigotry.

  51. #51 joy
    May 11, 2010

    “all too often is also means we are engaging in bigotry.”

    For sure.

    However, I reserve the right to discriminate against white men. Any color of men, really. Not all men, clearly — but as my experience with them has been almost entirely terrible, why not? And it’s not like they don’t discriminate against me.

    Also, by the way, that was the point of what I wrote here. 1. That people have a lot of misconceptions about poverty, 2. That white men especially have a sense of entitlement over poorer people, particularly women, and 3. That personal experiences can serve a purpose to educate other people about, well, the fact that other people are human fucking beings too.

    People don’t expect us to talk back. To have existences, much less valid ones. People don’t expect people on public welfare to be lucid. So I often feel it’s up to me to illustrate the fact that, come on people, get a grip. Look into my eyes. They’re clear — and even if they weren’t, there’s still a person in there. If you talk to me, I’ll talk back. If you ask me a question, I will answer it. If you hurt me, I will hurt. If you eat my food, I will go hungry.
    Just like any other person. Just like (general) you.

    (Apparently people had a problem grasping that on another thread. Maybe because people don’t have the ability to actually relate to other human beings, but I assume that everyone does? Or maybe it’s just some people, like trolls, who lack that kind of empathy.)

  52. #52 Johnny
    May 17, 2010

    There’s not eough information given to venture an absolute yes or no response to the question.

    The amount of food one nneeds to consume would be determined by caloric need, which in turn would be based on such things as age, gender, activity level, whether breast feeding, pregnant, etc.

    Eating healthy on $68 may be do-able if two of the family members are infants and the adults’ caloric needs are very modest … and the family does some pretty smart shopping. On the other hand, if mom and dad are pretty active and the kids are male, teenage athletes it would be near impossible to eat healthy on such a budget without some pretty serious heroics, such as growing one’s own garden, belonging to a buyers’ club etc.

    I’m a little confused by the question though. USDA’s benchmarks/index for the cost of eating healthy on a thrifty budget would be considerably highter than $68.88. That’s the index used by most states when determining thir payment level for SNAPS/Food Stamps. Could it be that the family receiving $68.88 also has another source of income? Or, maybe there’s some other unknowns?

    Here are the USDA’s benchmarks as of March:

    http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/2010/CostofFoodMar10.pdf

  53. #53 joy
    May 18, 2010

    “Could it be that the family receiving $68.88 also has another source of income? ”

    No. It is that they’re starving.

    You’re missing the point, and viewing this as some kind of SAT math question, instead of thinking about what it’s like for people whose actual, practical lived experience is thus.

    Let me guess. You are white and have never been poor or met a poor person. “I was in college!” doesn’t count.

  54. #54 becca
    May 18, 2010

    I started an eco-friendly vegetarian co-op during undergrad. For much of that time, I was the one handling food ordering. So, in a sense, I’ve fed a ‘family’ of 14 on $1400/month pretty easily. Economy of scale and vegetarianism (lots of vegan stuff) makes for pretty cheap eating. That said, I didn’t *really* do it, because almost everyone ate outside the co-op for some meals. It also eventually went up to $115/month.
    Because of lack of space and privacy, co-ops don’t work so well for families (though co-housing that is family oriented looks wonderful, I have less experience with that), but for single people it can solve a lot of those bad roommate problems, provide wonderful community and food, and allow you to live pretty cheaply.
    I *don’t* think student poverty is the same as public welfare single person poverty, which itself is different from trying to take care of family on foodstamps poverty. At the same time, there is going to be significant overlap in dietary survival strategies among those groups (my co-op was about 1/3 undergrad, about 1/3 grad and about 1/3 non-student).

  55. #55 Zuska
    May 20, 2010

    It’s really important to make these distinctions between types of poverty and ways of being food poor, especially the known temporary (and thus romanticized) state of singleton student poverty versus the grinding daily no end in sight poverty with the responsibility to care for and feed children. I’m grateful to everyone who has taken time to contribute detailed knowledge and perspectives to this thread.

  56. #56 joy
    May 20, 2010

    It disturbs me that this thread has turned into some kind of “shame the poor” thing.

    If that isn’t what you mean, Becca, I’m really sorry. I do know what you mean — I did Food Not Bombs for two years while I was in activism, and yeah, between donations, dumpstering, and buying in bulk from the city co-op, our costs were painfully low.

    But most people IN ACTUAL POVERTY can’t swing that. If you work 9am to midnight (and yeah, that happens a lot; bosses see no problem in double-shifting and if you need the money, you do it), you can’t just stop by the friendly local vegetarian co-op if they’re only serving until, say, 8.
    Even if you work 9 to 6, you still have to get out of work, get transportation, get your kids together … you’re exhausted, they’re exhausted, and then even if you do go, you get stared at by white people who have faux-hawks and patronize you.

    And I’m curious to see how you think going to a prepared-food co-op would solve a roommate problem like mine. Rich people do not understand poverty. They take food from people who are on food stamps. Where the food comes from (the store, or from a co-op) is irrelevant.

    The government should allocate more food to low-income people. It’s that simple. Stop treating this like it is an SAT math problem to be solved, and think of an actual solution that would work.
    Clearly, “poor people eating less and/or budgeting better” IS NOT the best solution. What’s left is either what I wrote above (upping food stamp amounts to accurately reflect food costs), or survival-of-the-fittest-style “letting everyone starve.” Choose wisely, even in your mind.

  57. #57 becca
    May 20, 2010

    Zuska- I don’t think it’s the temporary nature, per se, that makes student food-poverty more bearable. Or romantic illusions. I say this because many of the people in my co-op had *chosen* relative food poverty, and found it quite bearable. What’s different is 1) agency and 2) purpose. A student who knows they can go out and get a job that will feed them decently has a different peace of mind than someone who does not have that option. A person, be they environmentalist or very religious, who is eating low quantities of food for some greater good, can also handle it more easily. Madame Curie’s “heroic years” for her sister, Ben Franklin conniving to get half his food budget in cash so he can live on crackers and books, countless poets in garrets… sure, they’ve been overly romanticized. But what’s really different is agency and purpose. Choice.

    joy- this was a housing co-op, not a food co-op. I should have been more clear. Most housing co-ops (New York ‘co-ops’ as a legal semi-ownership being a separate matter) consist of a group of people who have chosen a particular intentional community with collective ownership/governance (http://www.couch.coop/Prospective.html). They typically share labor and meals. People like that *might* solve some of your roommate problems. They would certainly give you an avenue where your voice would officially be welcomed in expressing your feelings about it and people who would work *with* you in coming up with a communal policy re: private food vs. public food (we had exactly such discussions, and they were… interesting test cases of democracy, shall we say, which is what made me think of it in the first place).
    Most of our students and non-students were poor by income standards. There *were* some conflicts in which I think socioeconomic class played a role (e.g. debates about whether it was ok to go ‘dumpster diving’ for food). But overall, I think food was (as it is in many contexts, and partly by design) a binding force, serving to bring people together. I find this notion that seems to be emerging, that different kinds of poverty necessitate different kinds of eating, to be a little understandable. But it’s foolish to let that get in the way of recognizing ways in which food can bring us together. It disturbs me that, in trying to emphasize that, I can come across as ‘blaming the poor’. Perhaps time to examine my privilege, though I’m mostly coming up confused.

    Naturally the government should allocate more food to low-income people. Given the wealth of our society, I don’t think anyone should have to feed a family of four on $68.88 a week.

  58. #58 joy
    May 31, 2010

    Hey becca, sorry this took a while to respond.

    I may just be overly touchy on the subject, but yeah.

    I’m an anarchist. Or, post-punk, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve lived at collectives and on squat farms. (And I’ve been ‘dumpstering’ a number of times, it’s very satisfying.)
    People still took my fucking food, because hey, I could just buy more with my ‘stamps, right?

    If one does not grow up poor, one does NOT know what it’s like to be poor. It’s the truth. If one comes from a middle-class background and is thrust into temporary poverty through school, etc, then one does not truly understand what it’s like for “lifers.” Me, for example, I’m going to be lower-class (economically) for the rest of my life, and am fine with that. I’ve been dumpstering and taking handouts since the time I was a child, I know my way around the day-old produce, so that gives me an incentive to work harder to achieve a cooperative community where this ceases to be a problem for anyone.

    What is the incentive for some kid who can just go home to Boston or the Hamptons and live with his or her parents (as distasteful as that may be)? Social equality? Maybe. But what does one know about need if one has never been in need?

    Sorry to be a jerk, but honestly, I’ve been trying to figure this out since I was nineteen and first lived somewhere other than on a farm or a commune. (I’d go back to the commune, but it was primarily for Hare Krishna devotees and they got a little impatient at my desire to stay secular.)

    Also, if it makes you feel better, it bothers ME that people assume I wandered in here off the street, so to speak, and have no radical sensibilities or scholarly inclinations. That I am, essentially, uneducated mainstream white trash.
    Is it because I talked about being on food stamps?

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.