Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Cost of Food

I love food. This, I'm sure, comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I love planning food, preparing food, and, of course, eating food.

Despite my love for food, or perhaps because of it, we stick to a relatively tight food budget. Each month, we budget $200 for groceries. We also have $100 for eating out, which we rarely hit unless we're traveling, but I look at that more as "entertainment" than "sustenance." We could easily eek the extra meals out of our current grocery budget if needed. And we live in DC (=expensive). This includes the slightly-higher cost of our weekly CSA box (local and organic produce), as well as some nice-to-haves such as our beloved Trader Joe's vanilla ice cream and nuts. I certainly don't feel that we're depriving ourselves by any means, and we definitely don't go hungry (hungry Preethi = highly unpleasant Preethi).

I read an article recently (oh how I love Mark Bittman) that discussed how junk food is not really as cheap and real food is not really as expensive as the media and others sometimes make it seem. I was pretty surprised to see that the program-formerly-known-as-food-stamps provides $5/person/day for food. No, that's not extravagant, but it's certainly more than manageable, and is more than we currently allot.

I am all for government assistance where needed. I fully support paying taxes into a system that helps those that need it and allows them to get back on their feet. But I have pretty much negative desire to give my money to allow someone else to spend more on nicer food or by spend less time preparing it, if that is, in fact how things work.

I think Bittman makes a great point in laying out a few basic, easy and cheap meals. I am extremely grateful to my very frugal parents from whom I learned that it's normal and expected to cook meals at home, buy the cheaper-than-canned dried beans, and sometimes settle for bananas and apples instead of raspberries if there's no more room in the budget.

What do you think? Am I way off base here? Am I misunderstanding how much money is allotted/how food stamps work?


natalie said...

I think you might be misunderstanding the situation many people on food stamps find themselves in.

My own mother was a single mom with 5 kids at home. She worked every single day, and made us dinner every day, but she didn't have time to make noodles from scratch or cut and trim her own green beans. Relying on canned and prepackaged goods was the balance she needed to make it possible for her to fulfill all that she needed to do.

I have a good friend and coworker right now who is on food stamps. She lives alone with her son in an apartment two blocks from mine that is about 200 sq ft total. 80% of the space in the room is covered by the queen size bed she shares with her 4-year old son. The shelves on the wall are the storage area for all of her belongings, clothes, etc. They don't have a private bathroom, and the building they're in doesn't have a kitchen at all. She has a hot plate, a mini-fridge, a rice steamer, a slow cooker, and a microwave, and that is how she has to do all of her cooking, using an end table for all of her prep work. She lives paycheck to paycheck, and food stamps is the only thing that allows her to have food at all.

A ridiculous number of my co-workers work 2 jobs. I know a dozen people that work 2 full-time jobs. If they are able to cook at all, after working 16 hours in a day, it's probably only going to be something from a can or a box.

There's a lot of research out there about this, but in many low-income neighborhoods, corner stores and fast food restaurants outnumber markets and grocery stores to a great extent. In philly, we had 4 different farmers' markets each week, either on campus or within 3 blocks of it. In Southwest Philly, where my YW lived, there was only one grocery store. Lots of people would have had to walk 20 minutes, or rely on the trolley, to get there. Meanwhile, 6 different corner stores are within a 4-block radius of their house. When poor kids walk to school in their neighborhoods, the only food they come across is chips and soda and candy.

It has a lot more to do with accessibility and access to resources than a person's willingness to cook well. It has a lot to do with what people have time to do after working (maybe multiple jobs), arranging for childcare, picking up their kids, and shopping. Additionally, food stamps are not accepted everywhere. Many farmers' markets aren't equipped to accept them, and I think you've seen enough of the produce sections in city grocery stores to know that they're sometimes less than inspiring.

I love you dearly, Preethi, but I think it's a stretch to imagine that someone who qualifies for food stamps is living "more easily" than you or I are.

Dblock said...


Because I'm on disability due to my anxiety/depression I receive food stamps. I only receive $20.00. I can assure you that I am not living high off the hog, in fact, its a struggle to make it at the end of the month and I highly resent the implication that people like Bittman make, I would really like to see him do more with the income that I have.

The only luxury that I have is my dog and I don't consider him to be a luxury as his presence helps me with my anxiety

Dblock said...

Another thing that people don't understand about disability payments. The amount of money that I receive per month is a direct result of the amount of money (i.e) work credits that I have put in. The amount of money I receive will be way different than the amount my neighbor may receive because of how much much money, we have earned. So, basically, what I'm saying is this, The other money I receive like social security is a direct result of what I've earned over the course of my work life. It has nothing to do with what your paying in taxes.

Emery's said...

I get mad when they make two purchases. One with their food stamps to buy their food (of course always the name brand items) and the second purchase with cash to buy an obscene amount of alcohol and cigarettes. If they have so much money to spend on those items why are they on food stamps? That's what always makes me mad. They spend almost as much on those items as I do on my groceries.

Andi said...

In Utah, you actually get more than that if you qualify for the full amount of food stamps. I have a friend who receives $570/month for a family of 3 (herself, her husband, and her baby). It does seem like a lot. We also have a family of 3 and budget $200/month for groceries like you guys do, and we get by just fine!

Dblock said...


I buy brand name foods because they are usually better quality and taste better. Am I suppose to apologize to you for that? I don't think so, because if I am, it won't be coming anytime soon. Like I said earlier. if you or anyone else can make $20.00 a month last for 30 days I'd like to see you try. As for what I spend the rest of my disability money on, since it comes from my own money that I've earned and paid into, it would really be none of yours or anyone's business, But, I will say this, 1/3 of my income goes to medical bills because of my disability, which only leaves me with #400. I would assume that they (People like me who are on welfare,) are working low wage paying jobs which why they are on welfare in the first place.

This is a topic which truly makes me angry(not what I really wanted to say, but this isn't my post) and when people say they get pissed off at what they see people buying it will eventually come back to bite you all in the butt because we are all but one paycheck before being on the street.

I'm sure this will not happen to someone like Dan or Preethi, especially given the fact that they have a rather larger family that will undoubted help them out if they were ever in need. But, some people don't have that rich resource of family

And let me be clear in my use of the word rich. By rich, I am not speaking monetarily, I am talking about being blessed with having jobs that can support and sustain. By rich I am talking about having the support of family whom you know that you can count on in times of need.

I have worked ever since the age of 12. I am not rich in any of those things mentioned above. Yes, I did put myself thru college and have a degree. But, that was not enough and when I became sick, I did not have family to help me. And when I went to the Bishop for help he tried to tell me it was just a matter of Budgeting. Horse pucky if I ever herd it. Especially since it was during the middle of winter and my heat bill was $190.00. That was the last time I went to the Bishop for help because like you, he clearly did not get it.

Why am I telling you this, because if you could, I would invite you to come to my apartment. take a look around and see what luxuries I have. Please look inside my refrigerator, its nearly empty, I have four packs of chicken left to last me till the end of the month, in my cupboard, I have can tomato sauce. I have corn, peas and carrots.

Come look at my shoes, all of which have holes in them and look at all of clothes.

This disgusted attitude that you have towards people like me who are on welfare, or disability is the same disgusted attitude I have with people like you who just don't get it and never will

preethi said...

Thank you all so much for your insightful comments. I really do appreciate it, and am grateful for the additional information some of you have provided. I think Natalie makes some excellent points regarding time and access constraints. Still, I think some of the "extra" money going into food stamps could also be well used in investing in grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods (something I studied extensively in my graduate program, and about which I feel strongly).

Dblock (I can't seem to figure out who you are from your user ID - probably Mommy brain - I apologize!) - I want to clarify that I'm not opposed to food stamps by any means. As I mentioned in my posts, I think they can be incredibly useful and absolutely have their place. From the information you've given, I'd venture to think that you are more than deserving of that help - if not more. My thoughts were more directed at some relatively high food stamps payments - which, from several of the comments as well as emails, it appears exist at times.

Editorial note - I'd also invite all of us (myself included) to refrain from generalizations. Few things are entirely black and white - for instance, several of you pointed out that not ALL food stamps payments are inflated, while others of you have indicated (one from personal experience) that some ARE. While we do have wonderful family, there's no guarantee they could help us if needed. Some will need the entire amount they are allotted (if not more), while others will try to game the system. Let's all try not to make assumptions about others' circumstances. :)

Dblock said...


Dblock = Sister Russo,(south Phillyward sorry I thought you could figure that out thru email attachment

preethi said...

OH! Hi Sister Russo. :) Thanks for clarifying and for your comments!

Dblock said...

I don't want you to think I'm a internet stalker, I use your blog to get to Katie and Bart's blog, its the only way I know how to do it.

preethi said...

Don't worry - I don't think you're a stalker, and we're thrilled to have you here. :)

Maren said...

I would like to say that this is quite the heated discussion. Which I will not enter, because I have some strong feelings and I think maybe they would just incite more issues. However, I WOULD love a post on how the heck you all live on 200 bucks a month in groceries. My grocery budget is much more than that, and I feel like I am already pinching pennies and trying to be frugal...I have recently cut it by about 1/3 but still...We belong to a CSA, and ours is 100/month, there is no way we could live on only 25 extra bucks a week in groceries! You are amazing. (PS--I think Easton eats 2/3 of our box of produce per week)

PS I hate Mondays also. But now I kind of like them.

becca said...

I agree with the comment about the lack of grocery stores in certain areas. When we lived in the district for a month it was IMPOSSIBLE to get to a grocery store that sold produce. I had to get stuff delivered to my house to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

Maxine Parrish said...

Interesting comments, all. My family went on food stamps for a few months in Utah when Collin went back to school full time and I was home with Isaac. They did indeed give us WAY too much money and wouldn't allow us to have a lower monthly allowance when we requested it. Still, I am thankful for the system (which I absolutely didn't feel guilty for using, both of us having worked hard to pay into it in the past and present).

I do agree that people in general, welfare or not, should be cooking real food from scratch whenever possible. And my grocery budget is definitely more than $200/mo. I think meat purchases (we have meat 3-4 times/week) and a baby who can polish off half a large container of yogurt or cottage cheese in one sitting contribute...

Shelby said...

I read the article online, and then proceeded to read all 12 pages of comments, and as evidenced by the comments both on the Times' site and here, people feel very strongly about this topic. I do think that Mark Bittman oversimplified the issue- certainly parents working 2 and 3 jobs want to spend what precious time they have with their families. And then there is the issue that many people lack adequate kitchens and/or cooking skills to prepare a meal.

I will tell you what I have a problem with, however. That is when students who have the time and are perfectly able to hold down a part time job to cover their expenses choose instead to remain unemployed so that their family will qualify for government programs such as food stamps, WIC and Medicaid. Especially when those same students demand "smaller government" and deep cuts to government programs once they are finished with school and gainfully employed.

There...I said it. Now I feel better. :o)

Shelby said...

Lest anyone be offended by my comment, allow me to further clarify...I am talking about students who (and I guess people in general) who say, "I don't want a job because then I will not qualify for food stamps." I am all for food stamps when people really need them. What bothers me is when people work the system and ultimately take money away from those who really do need it.