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May 22, 2007


Carol Gilbert

I have followed the Food Stamp Challenge and reported on it for my readers on Associated Content. You may be interested in looking at the 4 articles I wrote, particularly the comments section. This issue generated a lot of interest and in general I think people were very supportive of the Challenge and hope to see positive improvements in the Food Stamp Program.

Dave Ribar

Dear Mrs. McGovern:

While I salute the attention that your challenge has brought to the issue of hunger, you have done so while misrepresenting the goals and operation of the food stamp program. The $21 figure that you used for the challenge, which represents the average benefit paid per person, is not the appropriate figure. The appropriate figure for a household with two people would be closer to $33 per person (hardly a princely sum but substantially higher than the figure you have quoted).

Benefits for the Food Stamp Program are set based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), developed by the USDA. Households with no other resources or with very few resources receive benefits equal to 100 percent of the TFP. This is where the $33 figure comes from. Benefits are reduced for households with more resources, as these households are deemed capably of contributing something toward their own food budgets and therefore are only partially subsidized for the TFP. The $21 figure that you use reflects a mixture of households with different levels of resources. Using this figure sends the unfortunate message that households aren't supposed to contribute their available resources toward the purchase of food.

To take an extreme case, the minimum food stamp benefit is $10 a month. This would be the benefit received by a household with an adjusted income close to the poverty line. It would be unreasonable to expect such a household to get by on only $10 a month, and indeed the household would be expected to cover almost all of its food expenses on its own. The $21 figure combines households like these, which are only partially subsidized, with households that are fully subsidized and with households with subsidies in between. However, the challenge treats the $21 as if it is the full subsidy amount, which it isn't.

In fairness to the program, you should explain this error.

Cynthia Fow

I used to live at Longfellow place (Boston, by Mass General) in a high-rise apartment and I was engaged to a UN representative; so I know how to eat in style. I generally only bought meat from Lobel's in NYC. I have expensive taste and I also have beyond a masters degree. Now I am permanently eating on $20/week. What is troubling, that few think about, is that one doesn't have pantry goods to make a good meal. All you can do is wait for a sale at Hardee's. There is no point in making your own mac & cheese because you don't have the Greuyre cheese and the cheddar, or a fresh tomato to slice for the top. No wonder people just get thenon-nutritious Kraft version. No mushrooms or roasted red peppers, celery or carrots to enhance a meal, just the basics. I suspect that the representative who bought a chicken used food she already had in her pantry or fridge if all she ate was chix soup. I make my own chix stock w/celery, carrots, onion, spices, and poach in store-bought chix broth so it is extra rich and tasty. The worst part is not being able to buy anything healthful. I can't afford the carrots, celery, or broth for my stock. When I run out of spices, that will be the end. No fruit smoothies, no blueberries w/oatmeal, no salad, no strawberry shortcake, no wine. I used to spend my summers having smoothies, fish, bibb lettuce w/berries and red onion,washed down w/Shiraz etc., certainly not now. Also as one ages one often can't eat cheap foods. Many can't eat iceberg lettuce which is cheap, but they can eat bibb or baby greens. I had some cranberries from Thanksgiving (which is all I had)and I wanted to use them up. I thought I would make the regular salad but an orange was $.68 and an apple was over $.50. I decided to change to Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish (NPR) because I had some sour cream I purchased on sale in March and I had a small white onion--can't afford the delicate taste of a red onion. I hate to think of the farmers' mkt.They will wonder where I am. No wonder the Salvation Army only hands out coupons for McDonald's. I am not on food stamps but wondering about the next meal is scary; not to mention one's health concerns.


I think it boils down (pun intended) to perspective. My family (2 adults and 1 child) spends $220 per month on our grocery bill (not including eating out which is about 2 times a month for $40 total). Granted, we don't eat lavishly yet we are not starving and eat nutritiously. Even if there was just two of us, that put us at $110 per person or $3.67 per person per day based on a 30 day month. We could afford to spend more and could eat more lavishly but we are content.

Your current eating/spending habits ultimately depends on how difficult it would be to spend $3 a day. For my family, it would not be that difficult because we are not far from that number already. If you plan and shop smart, you can make your money go far when grocery shopping. That goes beyond just grocery shopping and includes all areas of spending money. Tack on a good budget along with disciple and you can amaze yourself on what you can accomplish for so little. If somebody was used to spending $8 per day, it would obviously be more difficult as that would be a reduction of more than half what that person was used to spending/eating. I would like to know what is the average food cost per day of those who participated in this program.

Jeff Carr

Mr. and Mrs. McGovern, I'd really appreciate it if you took the time to read this.

This isn't directly associated with the food stamp problem, but it does relate directly with what I believe is a far more important global food problem.

As you saw when you were shopping, cheap, high carb, staple foods are very important when you're working with a restricted budget. That's one of the reasons that they are considered to be possible Giffen goods. (A Giffen good is a theoretical good where as the price rises, the demand for the good goes up, as the good is irreplaceable and remains the cheapest alternative available, but the rising prices reduce the ability to purchase more expensive alternatives.)

What you may not know is that the cost of tortilla's in mexico doubled in the last year. Living on the restricted budget that you did last week should really help you appreciate what a huge problem the doubling of tortillas would have done to further reduce the quality and quantity of your meals. Wheat and corn prices around the world are both rising, not due to a drought or decreased production, but due to a new competitor for the world's food supply, our own automobiles.

The biggest problem with this new competitor is that demand for biofuel is being artificially driven up over the next 40 years by policies put into place by first world governments. The rising demand will increase prices dramatically for the cheapest foods, which (if Giffin is correct) will ironically increase the demand for those very goods, decreasing the variety of food eaten (affecting health) and increasing demand (and thus prices) even higher. The reason Giffin goods have been theoretical up to this point is that there has always been a cheaper alternative for the poor to turn to, however the demand for these crops are rising dramatically at a global scale, which will lead to no alternatives for our worlds hungry.

The largest problem with the artificial demand placed on staple foods by the first world is that in a time of drought, the first world will buy up to their legally required limit of those foods for gasoline production, leaving an abnormally small percentage for the rest of the world.

That is my largest concern.

I do not understand the legislative support for biofuels. They are less efficient as a fuel, and the claim that they lead to reduced carbon emissions is a falsehood. It does make sense that we do want the carbon that we produce to be converted back into oxygen by plants, and the biofuel people are right, that the very plants used to make the fuel will assist in converting the carbons created back into oxygen.

This however, is an illusion. If you are looking to plant more crops, you will choose a fertile plot of land. A fertile plot of land is already converting carbon to oxygen. Planting corn (or sugar, wheat, beets, etc..) in place of whatever is growing there already won't increase the amount of carbon turned back into oxygen. It *may* increase it slightly while your crop is densely planted, but will be decreased the six months your crop is idle.

I know that our fuel and environmental crisis are huge problems, but stealing the food from the mouths of our hungry to drive our cars is not the answer.

Thanks for listening,

Jeff Carr


Perhaps we still have a voice in the matter, but the food's still elusive and so is the challenge! I'd bet not many of those involved in deciding how much is enough for food for this nation's poor have ever considered how they would survive on what they're expecting of others. Yes, I read the analysis of how the monthly amount is calculated, but it does not take into consideration that children of the household have no say in how a family's income is spent! But none the less, it is the children who suffer most from hunger; even where there is ample compensation resources to reduce the food stamp allotment to a token $10.00/month. No provision is given for special diet foods required by diabetes or other ailments of household members. There are abuses to the food stamp program ... we all know this. But that still does not excuse the blatant hunger of many of this nation's families who have genuine needs for the basics of life. Many families who do not receive food stamps are living on the razors edge. The minimum wage for this nation is disgraceful! Why not allow families to take care of themselves AND their families by earning a decent wage for the many hours (and sometimes moonlight jobs) they devote to earning a living? How can a nation of wealth justify the poverty of its own people ... well, it CAN'T! When the working poor can't meet their basic needs, it flows over into almost every program that's set up to eliviate it; which, by the way, never do. Billions of dollars are pumped into programs to resolve hunger, healthcare, housing, etc., when in actuality, a decent wage could and would eliminate almost all the challenges created by the shamelessly low income of the average household! Get a clue ... go to the quick of the problem and REALLY find resolution by increasing the minimum hourly wage. Then get another clue ... go to the quick of the problem why many aged Americans have to resort to dog and cat food for protein! Don't you get it yet? This may be the wealthiest nation on earth, but poverty is inflicted on the majority by controlling wage/hour laws to prevent them from ever getting a hand-up; the most they can ever hope for is a hand-out from programs that will never resolve anything that is human-created by ignoring the root cause of the problem: Wage hour rates are TOO LOW!!! Think about it: Hunger and poverty do NOT have to dominate this nations people!


Speaking of minimum wage, this food stamp experiment reminds me of an episode of the television show "Thirty Days". The show creator, Morgan Spurlock of "Supersize me" set out to see what else he could discover in thirty days.

In the first episode of the show, Morgan and his fiance move to Columbus, Ohio and try to live on minimum wage for thirty days. They brought nothing with them but the clothes on their backs and one week's pay in cash - got jobs, a small dingy apartment (with no furniture!) and mostly lived off of beans and rice on their $5.15 an hour. No credit cards.

Even with two salaries they had a hard time staying on budget, and it put strain on their relationship. Then, to test what it's like for families surviving on minimum wage jobs, they added Morgan's niece and nephew to the mix (just for the weekend).

It's incredibly eye opening, and they did this for not a week, but a MONTH. I think viewing this show would be an excellent addition to what you learned yourselves in a week on the "food stamp" diet. You should check it out.

Lisa Kays

Thanks very much for doing this, and for taking the time to write about the experience.

At Washington Area Women's Foundation, where our mission is to support low-income women and their families, we've been so intrigued and impressed by this concept that a number of our staff are participating this week in a locally led food stamp challenge.

We're blogging about it as a means to capture the experience and raise awareness, as you did. Thanks again for your honesty and candor throughout this experience, and for continuing to raise awareness about this important issue.


I do not live on food stamps, because I do not qualify. Rather, I am a college student who lives on a meager food budget. When I started college 3 years ago, my $20 a week would buy me SO much more food.

I work for my University, but I wish I worked for Wal-mart. Wal-mart pays more. As a starting employee, I was paid $6/hr. Now I am up to $6.70/hr. I can only work part-time (a full time job is hard to get around here), so about $520 comes out to my monthly budget (after taxes). My usual food budget is $4/day. If I can find a hearty free meal one day, such as left over food from a conference at work, I can work with $5/day for the next 4 days. That doesn't always work out, department policy says if I eat anything from catering at work without being expressly invited by the person in charge of the event- I will be fired.

Reading your journals reminds me of some of my dilemmas. I also fear eating up my entire food supply before the week is over. Yet, if you have extras on grocery day, you get to have a "Sunday dinner".. a feast.

As for nutrition, it's a wobbly thing to balance. Most of the time I'll gain weight because of all the unhealthy food. In my college town, there's no work between spring and summer semesters, so right now I'm out 3 weeks of pay. I've been rationing food more than ever, and just discovered I've lost 4 pounds in 4 days. 123 pounds to 119- yikes! I'm getting a friend who works at Dominoes to get me a pizza tomorrow night, but I can't abuse that too often. I've found I eat lots of carbs, and I try to limit how much sodium I eat. Cheap packaged foods are full of salt- lunch meat, ramen, soup, etc.

I can't wait until I graduate! One day I will shop at Central Market, fresh veggies and fruit are SO good!

Claire Kurschner

I've been reading over all the experiences of the people taking part in this challenge. My hat goes off to you.

But none of you seem to know how to "shop poor". I'm a senior citizen, and here's what I do, on a fixed income of about $900 a month. I do have a savings account that I use for things like my car insurance and emergencies, so I guess I'm better off than some.

I don't have a weekly shopping list. Instead, I shop for the bargains and buy enough to last. I may buy chicken one week and staples another. Each month I take inventory of my pantry to see if I need flour, sugar, salt and other basics. One of my strict rules is, don't buy any prepared packaged foods.

First I budget something for staples. I buy dry beans of all kinds at .49 to .79 a pound. I buy bulk brown rice at .69 a pound (at a bulk grocer). A large box of non fat dry milk, plain bulk rolled oats, and canola oil are other staples. I stock up on pasta when it's less than .75 a box. These last for a a long time and are only pennies a serving.

My monthly shopping list includes some fresh vegetables that are always cheap - cabbage, kale or collard greens, carrots, potatoes and onions. Fruits include bananas at .49 a pound and any fruit in season that is under a dollar a pound. I buy fruits and fresh vegetables more often because they spoil.

If I buy any meat, it is chicken legs and thighs which are currently .99 a pound if you by at least 3 pounds. Beef liver is another good buy, as are chicken livers. I divide these up and freeze portions. I keep the portion size small. Eggs are also a good bargain. I eat 4 a week so a dozen lasts for a while.

Canned goods include tomatoes and a few other vegetables, like beets. As always, I shop the sales.

Frozen food includes spinach, corn, and any other vegetable that is on sale. I buy large bags of the store brand.

I don't buy packaged bread unless I can get it at a local outlet store. I do buy whole grain or whole corn tortillas which cost less than a dollar for a package of 10.

In the dairy aisle, I look for cottage cheese, or shredded cheese, or yogurt. If it's not on sale, I don't buy it.

If I have money left, which I sometimes to, I invest it in more leafy greens or more canned tomatoes.

With these foods, I am able to prepare healthy meals for the entire week, with leftovers to freeze.

Breakfast is oatmeal, milk, and fruit. Lunch is soup made with leftovers and a piece of fruit, or a tortilla egg sandwich, or leftovers from dinner. Dinner might be brown rice and beans and leafy greens, or I might have a piece of chicken instead of the beans and a potato instead of the rice.

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