After Thanksgiving: Thought exercise on the Food Stamp Challenge.

Between what I gave the kids to pay for the holiday meal and what I spent for that meal on my own, I spent well in excess of the average amount of monthly food share benefits in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, for FY 2011, the average monthly FS benefit for one person is $116 and change. So, ~$116 for the whole month, with most months averaging 4.5 weeks, means that a person on food share has about 25.77 a week for food. If you were really in food share, more people in the family does not mean that everyone gets that same amount–I have never met anyone getting more than $200 no matter how many are in their family. This averages about $44 a week.

The premise of the Food Stamp Challenge is that you will live on a week’s worth of food share benefits, without assistance from your personal food stock, your friends, or even the doughnuts offered at a work meeting. You live on the average amount in your state for a week. If all you do is buy a single dollar item off a McDonald’s menu for 3 meals a day, you will spend $22.06 for a week’s worth of food in Milwaukee county.

I chose McDonald’s because they have a specific dollar menu that is ubiquitous throughout the state–you might be living in a food desert, but you can likely get to a McDonald’s. While I would never call McDonald’s healthy, or even desirable food, the dollar menu does allow for dairy and salad choices. Lastly, there is a menu builder on the McDonald’s site that lets me play with a configuration of food that I would eat off that menu and determine what sort of average nutritional value that would give me.

So, you play around with your choices and the best sample daily menu that I can come up with, that does not exceed the guidelines for daily intake of sodium or cholesterol, only provides 910 calories and, at best, about 1/3 of your needed intake for various nutrients. 330 of those calories come from fat. The *most caloric* menu arrangement (a sausage biscuit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) will get you to 1700 calories, and has a *terrifying* nutritional profile. However, even 1700 calories is less than the 1800-2200 calories most adults should be eating.

Thus, the cheapest use of your food dollar–stopping at a restaurant during the course of your travels and buying enough food to last until you next have reason to pass by, and consequently not needing to use fuel to cook or labor to prepare, water to clean or gas to make a special trip to the store–will keep you under $25 a week, but it is also nutritionally not feasible. It will leave you hungry and salted. You might be able to eat like that for a week, but you could not eat like that for a decent life.

It’s also a moment to think about the food costs that we all spend but do not generally consider when preparing or budgeting–how much money we spent on the fuel to cook, to store, to preserve the food, the money we spend on the materials to obtain, clean and maintain the facility and tools used for this process, the transportation costs we spend to obtain raw materials for this process. And it’s also an opportunity to consider the cost of our labor in this process. Your time is worth money. If you were working at a second job, you would be getting paid.

All that boils down to this point: if you consider the amount of nutrition you get from a dollar menu meal plan versus what you should actually be getting to maintain health, you can see that a budget of $25 a week pays for less than half of the total food cost of the average nutritional need. That is, labor, food, storage, transport, and all the associated costs of producing a meal on your plate, _all combined_, means about $23 will buy you about 1/2 of your needed nutrition once all costs are factored in.*

The economy of scale used by McDonald’s versus the scale in your home probably skews that a bit, and you might have greater hidden costs in cooking at home, but you also have better food choices and more options for preparation, so we’ll call the differences a wash and run with the idea of about $25 providing about 1/2 your caloric needs and 1/3 your nutritional needs, presuming that you will make menu choices designed to balance food energy versus nutrition.

So, for every $25 you spend on food, you also spend another $25 in hidden costs if you chose to cook at home–and if you want *enough* to eat, you’ll *have* to. Some of that will be money, some of that will be time. This presumes that you are a single adult. If you are a family unit, the cost:hidden cost ratio is going to be worse, by any reasonable definition of _worse_.

The contrast here, between the obvious cost of one Thanksgiving feast versus the average amount of food share benefits, is significant. Now, I will make up for that cost by reducing what I buy from now until, probably, Christmas. I have a pretty decently stocked pantry and can go for a month without buying much more than fresh items along the way–milk, eggs, maybe butter, maybe cheese. It would probably be wise to just go ahead and pantry shop for a month to create the opportunity to rotate and refill my cabinets, so it works out for me.

That’s not so true for someone who _has_ to live on that $25-$44 a week in benefit.

Here is my thinking: much of the country has just spent several days in gluttony. No matter what your politics, it might be instructive to try, for one week, to take the food stamp challenge. Keep your direct food cost to $25 for an adult and/or $44 for a family if you live in Wisconsin. This isn’t about more benefits for people, it’s about practising gratitude. Remind yourself of how different your life could be as you go into the next holiday, whatever your holiday may be, by seeing what it is like to try to feed yourself enough on that kind of budget. All of us, myself included, need that reminder once in a while.


*If you use the remaining ~2 bucks a week to save for and eventually buy a bottle of multivitamins, you can improve the nutrition factor at a lower fat/sodium factor, but you’ll still be under your calories.

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