Saturday, September 22, 2007

Food Stamp Challenge

On Wednesday September 19, 2007, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a fascinating piece entitled “A taste of poverty.” The aim of the article was to focus on “[Sherrie] Tussler, the executive director of the Hunger Task Force, and her 10-year-old daughter, Madeline, vowed to live on $21 of food each for an entire week - the average allocation for a food stamp recipient - as part of the Food Stamp Challenge, a national effort to highlight what Tussler says is insufficient funding for the federal Food Stamp Program.”

The timing was rather interesting for me personally. The evening before my wife, my son, and I helped sort and box donated food items at that same Hunger Task Force. We volunteered through my employer, Genesis 10.

Now I will say this is an admirable thing. Many of us don't realize what it's like to go without, or with less than we are accustomed to. We have cravings—but how many times do you want something but, after scanning a full fridge, go back to the TV and resist a craving because one doesn't find something one likes?

But there were also some questions I had about the article, perhaps some flaws. These I'd like to address.

The reporter does not tell us how Ms. Tussler comes to the $21/per person/per week allotment. The reporter does give us these statistics:

  • $33 billion dollars--food stamp program
  • 27 million people served in 2006

A quick calculation (on my computer calculator) brings this to $23.50 per person, per week (Sherri spent $21/pp,pw). That's American dollars, not Canadian (as of today the Canadian money might go farther). I'll give Ms. Tussler the benefit of the doubt that $21/week was easier to do mathematically than $23.50.

But I'm assuming that all 27 million received food stamp aid every week. Again, the reporter doesn't share with us something important like, oh, say, the average number of weeks a food stamp recipient receives aid. If the average length of assistance is 26 weeks, then you can double the per meal at $2, the same as the rate we pay for my son's hot lunch at the Lutheran elementary school where we send him ($40 for 20 meals).

There was another question I have. This was to replicate what a person could eat getting food stamps. As part of her “ordeal” Ms. Tussler made it a policy not to accept assistance from anyone. During the week she did this she was at a golf outing that raised funds for various charities (she stood at a hole to inform golfers about the Hunger Task Force.) Many offered her food, but she refused. I found this interesting because it would be like someone down on their luck, getting food stamps, but refuse food pantry help. You see, in America food stamps aren't the only way people get assistance. Many churches and groups (my church included) have food pantries. Besides Hunger Task Force, Second Harvest and many churches and individuals help to stock these food pantries. In fact food stamps aren't even the only government assistance available! There is assistance for housing, jobs, drug treatment, and a whole host of other programs all in an effort to help people. Unfortunately it's easy to focus on one small segment, blow it up like it's the sole source of assistance, and plead for more assistance.

As you read the article there were other items that jumped out at me. She eschews meat for peanut butter for the cost. I can buy a pound of ground turkey at Aldi for 69 cents. That's a few meals for two ladies right there (spaghetti, chili, Hamburger Helper...). 69 cents for the pound of turkey, $1 for a box of Helper, water should be free from the tap, maybe a quarter cup of milk. In our family the three of us get a good meal and some leftovers for the next day. A 29 cent can of vegetables from get the picture.

Then I noticed they reported what she spent for milk--$4 for one gallon! In the last two weeks I bought 2 gallons for $5 at Lena's and 4 half-gallons at Walgreens at $1.29 each ($2.58/gallon). Seems to me the exercise may be beneficial just in basic grocery economics. And one doesn't have to resort to bargain-basement grocers, either. Sendik's in Milwaukee, a traditional high-end grocer, is very competitive in its milk prices—with a name-brand milk! I recently paid $2.39 a gallon and not long ago it was regular priced at $1.99/gallon (Golden Guernsey, no less, which has caps to donate to my son's school for extra income for the school).

So while I admire the exercise, and appreciated reading about it, I would like to see some depth to the story. One angle could be explored is what the average recipient actually lives on on a weekly basis. Another is to show there is a panoply of assistance in America. Ms. Tussler chose to follow her regimen; many others have no choice, but they also don't turn down other offers of help. And finally, we can all be smarter in our shopping.

Ms. Tussler also wrote about declining help: “But I also know that after repeated requests for help, even family and friends will eventually set limits.” Something tells me the same holds true for taxpayers as well. We are told that this, that, and another program needs more funds, but the problems seem to linger. Maybe we need to put faces on the problem? Maybe the answer is fewer food stamps and more local charities like churches, food pantries, and the like?

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