Saturday, January 30, 2010

$7 a day - Take that, Rachel Ray!

The past few weeks, I've been missing things. Missing the time to write. Missing news stories, missing important dates, missing the news that last week was The United Way of King County's Hunger Action Week. Granted, I don't live in King County any more, but it's still one of those things I feel I should have known about.
The idea is, try to feed yourself for only $7 a day - also known as the maximum food stamp benefit available in Washington State. Also known as what I have done every day since September.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking the idea. I think it's great. I think everyone should be aware of how difficult it is to eat good, healthy food on food assistance. What I really appreciate is that bloggers like The Gluten-Free Girl - who is, as her name implies, gluten free - are participating and blogging about the experience. It's much more difficult to live off of $7 a day when you can't buy a 99cent loaf of bread.
I am completely inspired by The Gluten-Free Girl's entry about her experience this past week, and I am making my own plans. Plans that include baking my own bread, roasting a chicken, and using my awesome new crock pot. Plans that include a real, honest-to-goodness budget for my food.
Because, you see, for the first time since September, I used up all my food stamp benefits before the month was over.
To be fair, I bought five different kinds of gluten-free flours to make a bread that I took a class to learn how to make. And Xanthan Gum, which is pretty much the most expensive white powder that you can buy legally. Now that I made the initial investment, I can make my own gluten-free sourdough bread, and make sandwiches and eat toast... very exciting.
However, this month I also did things like buy lunch at the Co-Op deli counter several times, as well as buy frozen meals to take to school. When you are living off of $7 a day for food, a $5 sandwich is not a good idea.
Planning meals is a big step in the right direction for food budgeting, and buying in bulk is another good way to stretch your food dollars. That's why I was excited to hear that Costco is now accepting food stamps (I am lucky enough to have a membership, I'm tacked on as a "domestic partner" to a family member). While I was searching the internet to confirm the rumor, I stumbled across this article/blog entry, by Aaron Crow, a "freelance journalist," with a lot of opinions. To give you a general idea of this particular opinion, it's titled "Costco accepting food stamps: not exactly a great idea." Some choice quotes:

"There are no 15 items or less lines at Costco to speed things up because no one buys less than 15 items at a time. I've been a Costco member for about six years, and I don't think I've ever walked out of there without dropping at least $100."

"I don't know how someone on food stamps who is shopping there maybe once a month can justify paying $50 for the privilege of shopping there for a year, but the enticing free food samples might make a meal in themselves during a visit and make the membership fee seem cheap."
And the kicker:  (Note: SNAP is the Federal name for Food Benefits)

"I'm all for increasing the purchasing power of shoppers, but SNAP users may have to be protected from themselves. The federal program prevents some items such as liquor and cigarettes from being bought with SNAP benefits. Maybe it should add Costco to the list of banned purchases."

I have to say, even after reading this article several times, I'm still struck speechless by the ridiculousness of that last statement. And of the article as a whole. Basically, Aaron believes that Food Stamp recipients are simply too dumb, or at least lack the self-control, to spend their benefits wisely. Since he himself can't go into Costco without buying a 25 gallon jar of olives, it obviously means that poor people won't be able to do so, either.
I could go on for pages, dissecting this mans logic, but I don't need to. Because he is wrong. I know this because I am on food stamps, and I plan on using them to purchase Quinoa, frozen vegetables, and possibly coffee. I will not buy "four pounds of red king crab for $99.99," because I am not an idiot.

Unfortunately, this attitude towards Food Stamp users is quite prevalent. There is a strange assumption amongst the general population that people who use food stamps are lazy, fat, and stupid. The New York Times had an interesting "debate" about this in December.  - I use quotations because everyone seems to agree. The second paragraph of the introduction sums it up nicely:

If people buy fresh vegetables or other relatively expensive though nutritious foods, they are considered to be living high on the hog at the taxpayers’ expense. But if they buy cheap foods like hot dogs they are criticized for poor health habits.

 Imagine you are feeding a family of four - you jumped through all the hoops to get food stamps, you now have $22 a day to spend to feed your family. You also work two jobs, can't read English at all, get around on the bus or by walking, and are unfamiliar with most of the food you see in the grocery store. How do you feed your family? You find the cheapest, most filling foods you can find, that take the least amount of time to prepare, or that your kids can prepare on their own while you are at work. So: hot dogs, canned soup, microwavable meals if your third grader can read the directions.

We need to teach people how to get the best nutrition for their dollars. We need to teach people how to cook with the food available to them - whether you came from Mexico, Thailand, or India, the food on the grocery store shelves is not going to look friendly to you. We need people to understand that sugary breakfast cereals and soda are not foods that will help them get through their day, no matter what they see in the advertisements.

The PTA at my school is starting a schoolyard garden, something I think all schools need, especially low-income schools. Students and their parents being involved and educated about gardening is how we start a food revolution - and that's what we all need, whether we are on public assistance or not.

**Edited to add:
I just found this article about the United Way Challenge at the Seattle Times website. I almost feel like the people who are "taking the challenge" aren't taking it seriously. They are worried about entertaining? First of all - it's totally possible. My best friend came over for breakfast this morning. Also, why do you think potlucks were invented? Second of all - when you are living off of an income that qualifies you for food stamps, you're probably not worried about hosting the neighborhood cocktail party.

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