Food Stamped

Photo credit: salvationarmyspokane.org

Photo credit: salvationarmyspokane.org

Could you eat for a week on the amount of money a person would receive from Income Assistance? I just watched the documentary Food Stamped, which is about that very subject. The filmmaker, who was a nutrition educator, wanted to try it, to see what a Food Stamp budget was like for her clients. In the US, the Food Stamp or SNAP program provides an average of $1.00 to $1.25 per meal per person.

So, the filmmaker and her spouse pledged to spend no more than $50 for all of their food for a week.

Here’s what the situation is like where I live. It’s a bit of a simplification, but is not far off.

People receiving Income Assistance get two monthly amounts – one for rent and another for “everything else.” For a single adult, the All Other amount is about $238 per month. It has to cover any utilities not included in the rent, plus phone service (if any), transportation, necessary clothing and personal care. Whatever is left over is available for food costs.

Photo credit: blog.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats

Photo credit: blog.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats

The Canadian government issues a tool called the National Nutritious Food Basket to estimate the minimum cost of a healthy diet. I found the figures below here.

For a male aged 25-49, the estimate is $46 a week. A man on Income Assistance would need $199 for the least expensive healthy diet, and would have $39 for everything else that month.

For a female aged 25-49, the estimate is $35 a week. A woman on Income Assistance would need $152 for the least expensive healthy diet, and would have $86 for everything else that month.

Personally, I can pack away as much food as most men – I am active, and neither dainty nor petite!

Health Canada suggests that it would cost the two of us at my house (1 female, 1 male) a total of $81/week for a basic healthy diet. However, it costs more per person to feed a family of 2 than a family of 4, so they recommend adding 10% to compensate, bringing the total to $89.

I need to point out that grocery costs are at least 20-35% higher in Canada than in the US. For example, I compared my city to Charlotte NC (29% lower), Boise ID (32% lower) and Spokane WA (22% lower).

So, if we were in Boise, we’d only need $61 to buy the same foods.

The way I grocery shop, prepare food and eat have changed dramatically over the past few years, but the cost has not! In 2006, I spent $470/month on food for one teenager and myself. In the past 6 months, I have spent $465/month on food for Rom and myself. No change, even though what we eat is quite different! All we have done is absorb the cost of food inflation by eliminating meat, packaged foods, snacks and sweets. (We have been eating a plant-based diet for the past 8 months).

$470/month = $109/week or $54/person

Here’s what a typical day’s food would have looked like for me in 2006:

  • Breakfast: bagel, banana, orange juice, coffee
  • Morning snack: oatmeal cookies, coffee
  • Lunch: salad, toast, yogurt
  • Afternoon snack: apple, Twizzlers
  • Dinner: breaded chicken strips, oven fries, peas, milk
  • Evening snack: pretzels or goldfish crackers, grapes

And here’s what a typical day’s food looks like now:

  • Breakfast: cereal, toast, peanut butter, coffee
  • Morning snack: muffin, orange, coffee
  • Lunch: avocado and tomato sandwich, yogurt
  • Afternoon snack: apple, nuts
  • Dinner: Vegetarian chilli, whole wheat roll
  • Evening snack: none

I would say our diet wasn’t horrible before, but we ate a lot of prepared foods including purchased baked goods, candy, and salty snacks. Our evening meals were usually what I called “kid food” because it seemed like the path of least resistance. It was quick to get on the table at 6 pm.

Here’s the big change: I calculated that I now spend THREE HOURS A DAY on food-related tasks. And that doesn’t even include eating! We make almost everything from scratch. I am literally spending 15-20% of my waking hours to provide two of us with a healthy, Real Food diet!

Our $109/week grocery budget may not seem so much higher than the $89 Food Basket recommendation, but here’s where the differences come in:

  • I can spend as much time as I like comparison shopping from newspaper flyers or online. I have an Internet connection!
  • I can drive from one store to another for the best deals. I have a car!
  • I can stock up on sale items.
  • I can buy in bulk.
  • I can join Costco.
  • I might even have a freezer!
  • I will always have a kitchen with a working fridge and stove.
  • I will never have to worry about roommates or boarders taking my groceries or leftovers.
  • I don’t have to deduct the cost of bus or cab fare from my grocery bill.
  • I don’t have to choose between feeling full or being healthy.
  • I don’t have to spend 3 days’ food allowance at the Laundromat.
  • If I get my period, I don’t have to stop eating for a day to buy maxi pads.
  • If my doctor recommends I get blood work for $14, I can still have lunch and dinner that day and the next.
  • I never have to eat ramen for a week to get through to Cheque Day.
  • I don’t buy strawberries in January, but I could.
  • I don’t have to cringe when someone tells me I should make my own yogurt, and milk is $2 a litre.
  • I don’t spend three hours a week lining up for free meals, not caring what is served.
  • I’ve never been grilled about whether I qualify for benefits.
  • I’ve never had to take tomato soup and Cheez Whiz from a food bank.
  • I’ve gone out for Pad Thai, Vindaloo, Moussaka, and Dim Sum.
  • I don’t have to explain how I’ve become so large when I can’t afford to eat.
  • I can choose a recipe from a cookbook that includes fresh figs and goat cheese.
  • I eat beans and lentils all the time, but I can flavour them with all the fresh ingredients I like.

I could go on and on.

No matter how much I talk about saving money on groceries, eating better and being healthy, it does not compare in any way to people who question where their next meal will come from, or those who eat the same cheap fillers every day, or those who rely on food banks and soup kitchens.

As the Food Stamped movie points out, it takes an incredible amount of time and education to eat adequately on a low income. And it is very hard to get enough calories from buying only healthy foods on a Food Stamp budget.

I work with low income individuals every day, many with lower education levels, and additional challenges such as physical disabilities, mental health issues, partner violence, and awful housing conditions. I am always amazed by the lengths people go to in order to feed themselves and their families and to learn more about health and wellness.

I am aware of my extreme privilege. I applaud all efforts toward sustainable, healthy, fresh and abundant food for everyone.

24 comments

  1. Making meals from scratch takes time. As you said a lot of people have never ever learned to make meals from scratch so education should be part of the equation/requirement when handing out benefits/food stamps in my humble opinion.

    Gill

  2. Fiona

    I just want to applaud this post; especially the dot-points on why it can be so hard for people in insecure circumstances to make ends meet.

    In Australia, we have relatively generous unemployment benefits (compared to some other countries.) However, it still works out to only $35 a day per adult, to cover “everything” (food, utilities, accommodation, transport etc.)

    When you take all the other overheads out, this leaves very little for food. It requires quite a high level of expertise and knowledge – plus the infrastructure of stable accommodation – to feed an individual well on that type of money.

  3. I really have been questioning where these figures come from. Around here a family of 3 living on welfare benefits receives just over $500. The way they figure the benefits for food varies depending on what kind of income you receive and makes no sense.

    I had two neighbors, one who received a combination of Social security and supplemental social security (SSI) and the second received just SSI. The difference in income was only $60, (the one with just SSI receiving the lesser amount). But the one receiving the lesser amount paid $50 more in rent. When it came to their food stamp benefits the one with the higher income and lower rent received $200 a month, whereas the one with lower income and higher rent received only $80 a month.

    The amounts here in the US differ based on which county/state you live in, and where your income comes from, it’s crazy.

    That being said the average person receiving assistance in the form of cash or food benefits has to work very hard to budget to make ends meet.

    • I know what you mean. Another example – if someone is receiving Income Assistance but is able to look for work, they may receive a supplement for phone service, transportation and work clothing. If they get a job, they can only keep the first $300 before benefits are reduced. Meanwhile, they lose their supplementary medical and prescription coverage.

  4. Sounds like a great movie–I will definitely watch it! Most educated people can’t imagine why those less fortunate are fat, eat junk food, etc. but you are absolutely right that people who have the benefit of education/money/good life, also have a lot of other things going for them that helps them eat better than the poor. Great post!

  5. We have a very tight budget for our groceries too, but I can’t imagine trying to come in under budget on what they receive and meet all our other needs. I’m going to see if I can find that movie, sounds awesome! 🙂

    • To be honest, i don’t think I could feed a family of 6 on what you do, even though you must have some economies of scale. But I know you buy quality ingredients, cook at home, accommodate special diets, and so on. I can’t imagine doing that on Income Assistance.

  6. Oh no, I love to go out for a Pad Thai – I can make it myself, but that shrimp paste invades my nostrils and apartment for a L-O-N-G time afterwards (I best use it up though!). Definately something I’ll need to see – I love these sorts of documentaries – and I’ll also add the one that livingsimplyfree wrote about regarding refugees.

  7. That sounds like a really interesting documentary. Like Fiona said, we just get one amount in Australia, which has to cover everything (and usually doesn’t), but I keep hearing about food stamps on other blogs. I agree that it takes a lot of time to eat a real food diet, and also some kitchen equipment and organisation. I am on a very tight food budget at the moment – trying to limit myself to $50 a week (everything is expensive in Australia too!), but yesterday I went out and bought a slow cooker to use to cook stews, curries and dried beans, which will make everything much easier.

    The documentary reminds me of another one by the guy who did Super Size Me, where he lived on minimum wage for a while. They ate a lot of beans and rice, but I remember they went to the movies and bought popcorn and drinks, which goes to show how people’s perception of necessities can be different. I was yelling at the TV because as a kid we were never ever allowed to buy food at the movies, my mum brought it in her handbag.

  8. EcoCatLady

    I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this post. I’ve put Food Stamped in my Netflix Queue, but at the moment it’s only available on DVD, not streaming, and I fear in this household DVD’s are reserved for movie night with CatMan – and I don’t think he’d enjoy something quite so serious on movie night! But maybe I could get it at the library.

    Anyhow, I’ve often wanted to try one of those food stamp challenges. I looked it up and here in Colorado the average benefit is about $32/week per person. I’m pretty sure I could do that, but it would be fun to try.

    Back in my completely starving days, when I lived on absolute dirt, I got pretty good at feeding myself on virtually nothing. My eating habits have improved significantly since those days, so it would be interesting to see if I could still eat healthy on such a tight budget. If the stars align to make it doable, I may have to give it a shot. Stay tuned… 🙂

    • If you take up the challenge, I would love to hear about it. Eating on a tight budget is one thing; eating healthy is another altogether! I looked for a streaming copy of the movie online and didn’t find one; I borrowed mine from the library. Since it was only an hour, Rom was willing to watch it with me.

  9. An interesting post – we have had similar documentary films and programs on TV over here – I have very mixed feelings over this issue. In my job I see the bank statements for people on benefits and low incomes and it is noticeable that people will pay large amounts for things like entertainment (SKY TV packages etc) and contract mobile (cell) phone use as a necessity whilst probably eating very unhealthy foods because they are so much cheaper. I often think if they would switch the amount they spend on TV and mobiles with their groceries then maybe they would spend less time sitting being entertained and more time and a bigger percentage of their income buying and cooking healthier meals.
    On the other hand it is hard when you have very little coming in to make ends meet as one large unexpected bill can totally wipe out anyone’s budget plans and can leave you suddenly in debt very quickly when there is nothing to fall back on and as your bullet points show the opportunity to save money by buying in bulk for instance are just not available in the same way. We have lived through times of relative ‘plenty’ and times of scarcity. We always chose to live within our means no matter how little we had coming in each month and adjusted our lifestyle to suit and I think this is quite a key point.
    Educating children early in school must be the answer and way forward both in terms of eating healthier and understanding financial matters and budgeting so at least they are aware there is a different way but it is not necessarily an easy way – you certainly have to work hard at being thrifty and healthy. All credit goes to those people who are trying hard to make their lives better. Our benefits over here are very varied and the more unhealthy you are the more benefits you can acquire!
    Could I manage on one of the state benefits and live healthily? I would like to think so if I had to – perhaps I will challenge myself.

    • In order to challenge myself, I would probably have to limit our household to $50 for a week for the two of us, like they did in the film. I am psyching myself up to try it some time. I think I would find it hard not to use anything that I already had in the cupboard, for example, all of my baking supplies, and I doubt if we could afford milk, soy milk or cheese on that budget.

  10. It takes a great deal of motivation to change your shopping and cooking styles. If you’ve always eaten out of a box, that’s what you know. If you’ve never gardened, or cooked from scratch, or menu-planned, then it’s hard to make those changes.

    In the US, I do think our school system could include at least one semester of how to feed yourself well, on a small income. We just assume that kids are getting this information at home, when in fact, their parents can’t feed themselves well, either.

  11. Sonia

    This is a topic very close to my heart after spending 3 years working in very closely with a food bank. I still think of the many people I met and the lessons I learned. “Priorities” for some individuals were defined in ways that made no sense to me (wherethejourneytakesme mentioned a number of things I saw) yet for them, having cable truly was important when there was absolutely no other entertainment to be had; that individuals who are forcced to use food banks are sometimes those whom we least expect (like the elderly living on very small set incomes); and that while education really does go a long way, sometimes it’s just easier to give in an buy that hamburger at McDonald’s rather than have to figure out all of the components that the burger takes and then having to figure out how to cook it and make it taste decent. Living on social assistance and having to depend on food banks is *not* easy and I am quick to defend those whom I know are trying to desperately better their lives 😦

    A number of years ago, activists in the US challenged politicans to live on $21/week (the food stamp alotmentment at the time and some of activists blogged about their experiences. Some fo the blogs are still available and are a really interesting read about how not only is it difficult to eat fresh food but also to actually reach the recommended caloric amount (avg. of 1200 day for a woman). I try and avoid reading the comments about the challenge though as they make me see red with their blame, lack of empathy and huge doses of misinformation. .

    • Hi Sonia! I agree that people from all walks of life are tempted to do what is easier. We are not always rational beings! I am among the fortunate, and even I kept cable TV when times were the tightest, because I knew I would be spending most of my time at home and there would be nothing else to do. I am continually impressed by the life skills of people on the lowest incomes. My experiences have shown me that the vast majority are working very hard to get by. Off topic a little, one “chain email” that really made me see red was about refugee benefits. It claimed that refugees were “coming into the country and stealing $1700 a month in benefits away from our own seniors who worked hard all their lives.” First of all, only a limited number of refugees are allowed to settle in Canada and they are proven to face persecution in their home countries. I called a local organization to check on their benefits, and they receive a ONE TIME allowance of $1700 to set up their household when they arrive in Canada. I un-friended someone who continued to circulate this after I spoke to them about the facts!

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