Food Stamp Challenge Reflections: 7 Quick Takes
Friday, December 19, 2008
(I know the 7 Quick Takes should be, ya know, quick takes; but as I was typing this up and came out with 7 reflections, I couldn't resist!)

I tried the Food Stamp Challenge in October, and was surprised at the results. We used less than half our "allotment", spending just under $500 for the month.

However, I've been thinking about this challenge. It's easy to play at poverty. For many, being frugal is a means to an end, and it can be entertaining, but it is not a matter of survival. If one scores a great deal at CVS, it's wonderful; but for most of us in the Mommy Blogosphere, if we can't get shampoo for free, we still have the means to purchase it.

We might, out of necessity, go without luxuries like packaged chicken broth, but it's never really a question of whether we'll eat. It's more a question of what we'll eat. We choose to eat beans instead of steak to achieve a goal - staying at home with the kids, paying off the car, or even just to beef up our retirement savings. If we choose the steak, we might have a goal setback but it is not a catastrophe.

We might have a tight grocery budget, but generally a dime increase in a bag of flour will not break us. Our children will still eat. If eggs are too expensive, we have the means and the knowledge to buy something else. If milk prices rise too high, we will hop on the Internet and research the McDougall diet or buy calcium fortified orange juice or look up and calculate the calcium requirements for the members of our family. We have education, knowledge, and resources to overcome many challenges.

It's easy to say, "Well, I used only half of what the government would give me. It's not that hard." But to do so denies the reality of the situation many food stamp recipients are in.

I am not trying to stereotype anyone; the following broad generalities are based on my personal experience with friends and acquaintance who were food stamp recipients coupled with reading various reports and human interest stories published by the papers.

Here's why what was easy for me and an intellectual challenge to stretch my paradigms and budget may not be so simple for others.

1. I was able to price shop. I have three major grocery stores, a Big Lots, a dollar store, AND a Super Wal-Mart all within a quarter mile of my house. I have walked to the grocery store before!

Reality: Many people live in very urbanized areas, where grocery stores are few and far between. Often, the nearest place to buy food has expensive, convenience store prices and poor selection, especially for fresh produce.

2. I was able to make many things from scratch. I am a stay at home, homeschooling mom. Baking bread, for example, is not an insurmountable obstacle.

Reality: Many food stamp recipients are "working poor". They work a full time job, maybe two. Then they must pick up their children, supervise homework, perhaps go to the laundrymat on their days off, and fit making budget meals into the limited evening hours, after they are exhausted from the day's work. For a woman working double shifts, having a three hour window of time in the kitchen for mixing, rising, and shaping loaves could be impossible.

3. I have reliable transportation. It was not difficult for me to stock up on a 10 lb. turkey for $4 and a 6 lb. roast plus buy regular groceries and frozen foods.

Reality: Many food stamp recipients do not have cars; they rely on public transportation or pay exorbitant fees for taxis. If they can't carry it in their arms, they can't bring it home. They might have children tagging along, as well. Would you carry a 10 lb. turkey on a bus, if you also had your four year old along as well as your other necessary groceries?

4. I am part of a team that includes another adult. When I am busy or overwhelmed or tired, there is a backup. If I am tied up making yogurt or kneading bread or cooking eggs, and the kids need something, there is usually another adult around (at least at dinnertime) to tend to them. I don't usually have to leave the kitchen or risk burning our meal to bandage a scrape or change a diaper.

Reality: Many food stamp recipients are single parents, or work split shifts so there is only one parent at home. If a situation arises that needs parental intervention, including a sick child, a neighborhood skirmish, a childhood injury, that parent must leave the food (possibly to ruin). Also, everything is on one person, making it more difficult to come up with creative meal ideas or even make many things from scratch.

5. I have easy and quick access to the Internet. Thousands of recipes are a click away; I can cruise over to Hillbilly Housewife and print out a $45 dollar menu and grocery list. I can read frugal blogs and nutrition websites. I can plan to make the most of my money. I can read, I can write, and I can generally tell which foods are not a good buy.

Reality: Many food stamp recipients do not have daily access to the web. If they can get to a library (see the above paragraph on transportation) they can find cookbooks or access the Web - but it takes time and familiarity to know where to look. There are still illiterate people in America; many libraries probably don't carry The Tightwad Gazette in Spanish or Russian or Swahili.

6. I have many modern conveniences. I have a reliably working refrigerator and freezer; I don't worry that my meat won't keep or the milk will spoil. I have a large pantry to store food bought in bulk. I have an oven, a stove, a microwave, and a crockpot to cook a variety of dishes in a variety of ways; I have a blender, an electric mixer, and a drawer full of gadgets and utensils designed to make cooking easy and enjoyable.

Reality: Many people do without even a basic kitchen. At one point, my family lived in a weekly motel. Most of the other "residents" did not speak English; many were migrant workers. We paid $10 a week extra for a mini fridge, and I cooked in a crockpot plugged in on top of the dresser. We washed our dishes in the bathtub. We also were fortunate enough to own a microwave. My pantry consisted of a Rubbermaid tub; my kitchen tools were a knife, a vegetable peeler, a cutting board, and a can opener.

We kept lunch meat and leftovers for husband dear's lunch in the fridge; every night I would make a quart of powdered milk for the children because that was all the fridge would hold. I had transportation; I visited the grocery almost every night for the next evening's meat and meals (we could only hold about a pound of meat of that fridge, I could not buy ahead.) However, I could not cook many frugal staples - like rice or pasta. I could make beans in the crockpot, but I couldn't make cornbread to go with it. I couldn't buy frozen vegetables or keep homemade, cheap chicken broth on hand. Everything had to be canned or packages and shelf stable (adding to cost.)

7. I had the luxury of failure. One of my meals did not turn out. (Well, it did eventually, but took much longer to cook than anticipated and wasn't done until 8:30 pm!) What did we do? Bought a rotisserie chicken.

Reality: Food stamps cannot be used at fast food restaurants. If a meal is ruined, it still must be eaten or the family must go hungry. This is exacerbated by the time constraints; if one cooks almost everything from scratch to stay under budget, and nothing is prepared, then there is nothing to eat (at that time.) It is a luxury to run for fried chicken or to even have the time, resources, and knowledge to prepare and freeze a casserole ahead.

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My random musings on our economic crisis have made me think that many people are going to embark on a path to frugality. Even people who may have retired early and are living "off the interest" are going to be slashing costs or looking for work as the Fed lowered their interest rate to an obscenely low amount. Nobody is making anything off interest, now!

I hope they practice frugality before it is a necessity, and make their mistakes while they have the luxury of recovering.

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posted by Milehimama @ Mama Says at 12/19/2008 08:00:00 AM | Permalink | |