Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Living on SNAP

Can a person eat well on a food stamp budget?

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

Food stamps are a flash point in current political debates. The federal program now called SNAP-Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-gives recipients up to about $2 per person per meal. Members of Congress, like Goldilocks, have to decide whether that is too little, too much, or just right.

I tried my own experiment during the two months leading up to Christmas. With our four sons grown and out in the world, and if we had no income, the two-person Susan-and-Marvin household could receive a maximum of $734 over a two-month period. I kept track of what we spent on groceries, with food shopping mostly at Walmart.

We spent $709 during the test period, a little under $2 per meal per person per day. For breakfast we tended to alternate oatmeal and muesli plus unsugary cereal. For other meals we didn't have much meat but enjoyed black beans and corn-together they make a complete protein-plus roasted squash and sweet potatoes, which are nutritionally good and not all that expensive. I also liked Susan's homemade pizza and the popcorn we'd make in a pan.

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We had advantages over some SNAP recipients, such as nutritional knowledge and a car to transport groceries. Peanut butter and carrots are, in my opinion, a great combination, but that prejudice is not universally shared. We didn't have children lobbying for costly brand name cereals.

On the other hand, we weren't cooking in bulk, we didn't take the time to use grocery coupons, and we didn't scrimp on apples and oranges. The canned black beans we used cost more than dried beans. Poor children typically get free lunches in school and sometimes free breakfasts and dinners as well, saving SNAP parents lots of money.

I don't want to oversell our experiment. Household composition tremendously influences costs, since teenage boys can eat a horse and the bridle as well. The average food stamps household receives $1.50 rather than $2 per person per meal, because the "S" in SNAP stands for "Supplemental."

And yet, a government study showed that most households starting to receive food stamps did not use most of the new income to buy food: They increased their consumption of non-food items, which suggests that many SNAP households weren't hugely needy.

Just as children play with food, so many people relish food politics. Odyssey Networks recently released a video with Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., talking about how they had tortured themselves for a week by spending only that $1.50 per meal. Several years before that, two other liberal members of Congress complained that they were unsuccessful at eating for only $1 per meal.

Of course: That's why the figure is $2 per meal for those without any other income. But others shot back anyway. A natural foods storeowner stayed healthy on $1 per meal by eating grains, beans, and cheaper vegetables. A Washington chef also said $1 per meal worked: He went for quesadillas, spinach-and-meat cakes with brown rice, and orange banana frosties that are "good for you, and they tasted great." And yet, most of us aren't chefs.

My experiment doesn't prove anything either- except it suggests that $2 per person per meal is not unrealistic. I hope liberal and conservative politicians can unite in retaining that per-person benefit level for those with no income-and they should work within budget deficit constraints by pushing steps to reduce fraud and SNAP use by those who don't need it.

As I noted in WORLD's Nov. 19 cover story, SNAP is important for people in dire need, but the left is pushing for more and more people-now 46 million and climbing-to register for benefits. Such program expansion diminishes the resources available for the truly needy and creates cynicism about the program as a whole.

Governments should not be pushing unnecessary dependency. Some schools are rolling out free breakfast programs for every child, regardless of income. Some are proposing to feed anyone 18 or younger on Saturdays as well. That accustoms millions to a life of unnecessary dependency.

Those who really want to help would be better off supporting food banks and expanding plans- Wholesome Wave, Fresh Check, and others-that help truly poor families buy more fresh fruits and vegetables. Oh, and the urban affluent should not try to ban Walmarts.

Email molasky@worldmag.com

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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