Monday, June 23, 2008

The real food stamp challenge

At Half Changed World, Elizabeth is doing a real food stamp challenge -- genuinely reflecting on the cost of food instead of seeking confirmation for an expected outcome. It gives her a lot to think about.
So why are we finding it relatively easy to stay within the Thrifty Food Plan, when by all accounts, people on Food Stamps are struggling badly to cope with rising food prices? My guess is that there are several things going on:
  • First, most people on Food Stamps are working, and thus receive less than the maximum monthly benefit. In theory, Food Stamps aren't supposed to pay for all their food -- they're supposed to use some of their cash income for food as well. But low-income families have many other demands on their income (if I remember correctly, about half are spending 50 percent or more of their income just on housing). Food is the easiest part of the budget to squeeze, particularly if you're willing to invest the time in going to food pantries.
  • Second, we have a car, and so can travel to low-cost supermarkets and warehouse stores. And we can have enough cash to buy large quantities when they're on sale.
  • Third, we're eating very little meat, and relatively little processed food. We often make a big batch of pancakes or waffles on the weekend, and reheat them for breakfast all week, which is a lot cheaper than breakfast cereal.
I think nobody would find the Thrifty Food Plan to be a permissive food budget. Some would find it adequate, and some not even adequate.

But here is the hard policy question -- hard even to ask without seeming heartless. If the Thrifty Food Plan is adequate for many, but not all, then should the maximum food stamp budget be raised?

The Thrifty Food Plan, and hence the program benefit, are already indexed for food price inflation (though the adjustment lags during a particularly inflationary year, such as the current one). What makes the question difficult is that the Food Stamp Program does two things: (a) it provides resources to low-income people, and (b) it insists that by law the program participant may not spend those resources on anything other than grocery food, even if the participant's own judgment is that she needs to spend only part of those resources on food.


Rebecca Blood said...

As you know, I did the same challenge (with organic food) last year, and it was easy for me, too. I shopped the way I usually shopped and cooked the way I usually cook and we ate very well.

However, I concluded that the Thrifty Food Plan is fairly unrealistic for most people for one main reason:

The Thrifty Food Plan says it is designed for food that will be cooked from scratch at home. Since I am at home all day, this was no big deal for me. But as you know, most people work outside their homes and so they can't stop in the middle of the day to mix up some bread or start beans cooking or the like.

Furthermore, when you're out all day at work, often the easiest and most appealing thing is to have someone else cook and clean up - a restaurant, or even a heat-and-serve meal (processed food - which is more expensive).

It would appear to me that the Thrifty Food Plan model is premised on an outdated idea of the family: one parent in the workforce, and the other one at home. With someone at home, it's perfectly doable to cook this way. (I didn't need to shop any differently than most people do.)

It's also based on an outdated idea of homemaking skills. Whether or not it *should* be so, in the last generation, lots of "basic" homemaking/meal planning/cooking skills just haven't been passed on.

Parke Wilde said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I think the recent 2006-2007 edition of the Thrifty Food Plan is a little more lenient toward packaged food, requiring a bit less cooking in the kitchen, but your point is well taken.

What a quandry.

If the Thrifty Food Plan were set higher, to allow for even more packaged and ready-to-eat food, what would be the rationale for not allowing restaurant food? Cost? Healthfulness?

And suppose the TFP were set higher to allow for more packaged and ready-to-eat food. Would we really tell a low-income family that wants to save money by cooking at home, freeing up money for other critical needs, that doing so is criminal?

Janet said...

I've puzzled over this one myself. I advocate cooking from scratch, and I know you can be employed and do it. It does, however, require planning and some know-how.

I know there are or have been some Extension programs aimed at teaching people survival cooking skills and knowledge, but I wonder whether those should be part of the high-school curriculum, since lots of people obviously aren't learning them at home.

Of course, Food Channel notwithstanding, home cooking just doesn't have the marketing that fast, processed food gets, and in our media-obsessed culture, I suspect that makes a difference. Somehow, I can't see a "Beans--it's what's for dinner" campaign anytime soon, because beans aren't high profit and would need an image remake, too.