Friday, November 19, 2010

Where Food Stamps Fail

I just got back from the grocery store. I spent what I would consider an EXORBITANT amount of money filling our fridge and cupboards- anywhere from two weeks to a month worth of meat, fresh produce and supplies.

The meats will last two weeks. The supplies, like flour, vegetable oil, chocolate chips, diapers, and dish detergent will last a month or more. I have at least a weeks worth of produce, milk, and coffee. I'm on target to spend less than four hundred dollars for a family of five, including diapers for the month.

As I said, this a HUGE amount of money for us. There were some luxuries purchased. A fresh turkey, really a bargain at $1.29 a pound, heavy cream and real butter. Pomegranates and red peppers.  I really could have done the beginning of the month shopping for almost a third less if I really wanted to. I do like having the extra veggies and fruit on hand, and it's really good for the kids, and our bills are paid.

I will spend the next month baking bread, making homemade crackers, croissants, cakes, cookies, all of our meals and snacks. I'll pack a fresh meal each day for my husband to take to work, and we will eat really well.

For about four hundred dollars a month for five people.

The food stamp budget for a family of three maxes out at $406 dollars a month. And I've read articles all the time about how difficult it is to live on that. How moms are unable to feed their babies at the end of the month. How they are forced to go shopping at midnight so their babies can have breakfast.

I've spent a lot of time feeling really crappy about that. I can't help but picture my own babies when I hear about hungry little people. How they would cry.

My heart is breaking right now just thinking about it.

Which is why I looked into what the food stamp budget is. On the website, it says, "food stamps are not intended to be the entire source of grocery money."

And then the "supplement" maxes out at $406. For three people.

In a month where I am slightly less than frugal and buy heavy cream, and need everything under the sun, I don't spend that much on five people, including diapers, dish soap, toiletries, and everything else food stamps don't pay for.

I also spend a huge amount of time cooking. You know, producing food for consumption.

And this is where food stamps fail. America doesn't produce anymore. It consumes. Our culture is not accustomed to the production of much, rather we take, quite usually, the easy way out. Frozen dinners, drive through windows, pre-cut produce.

People who do attempt to cook will often turn to expensive and over complicated recipes that can cost almost as much as a restaurant meal to prepare, having watched the food network one too many times and glamorizing the entire cooking experience. Trust me, if it's got thirty ingredients, it's not cost effective, unless all thirty are things you normally keep on hand.

There is nothing wrong with cooking that way if you can afford it. It's fun, it's still better than eating out, and there's no real reason to deny yourself a good meal if your bank account is always happy.

However, for the rest of us, it's really necessary to learn to cook, whether or not we are partaking in a supplementary budget assistance program. And when I say cook, I mean, from the most basic ingredients. I mean, taking pride in being able to make it through to the end of the month on a limited  budget, with nice full bellies and happy babies. I mean, skipping the chips and soda when the budget doesn't work, and enjoying them as a treat when it does. I mean, planning out the entire month's budget, not just one week's budget, and then spending an entire week trying to figure out where dinner is coming from.

This is how our grandparents and our great grandparents survived. They knew how to make things stretch. They made broth out of bones and bread out of flour and bought things with cash. They didn't throw out huge amounts of food and restaurant meals were few and far between.

 They lived, quite simply, within their means.

And this, my friends, is where food stamps fail. It's a band aid on a growing cancer within our nations belly...meant to help people in a time of need, provide for their families, meant to keep little bellies full, and happy babies growing healthy.  Instead, it's just a mask on the real problem, the problem that Americans cannot adjust to a lifestyle any different from what they are used to. The proverbial tightening of the economic belt does not come easily nor naturally.

We don't take pride in making things work. Instead, we take sorrow in what we don't have. We purchase what we cannot afford at the beginning of the month, only to go hungry at the end.

What is the solution? As usual, it falls on education. Many people live this way because no one has taught them any differently. They simply do not know how to budget. I've seen at least a half a dozen people go through eviction proceedings that had a case of beer in the fridge.

If you don't have money for rent, you don't have money for beer.

I think a good temporary fix as far as the government goes would be to do the food stamp deposits once a week or every two weeks as opposed to once a  month, giving people a more realistic idea of what they have to work with. Also, I'd love to see a private charity (read: not government funded) do some classes on how to make do.

It used to be common sense.

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