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Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget
Sarah Rich, 17 May 07
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There's a paradoxical tension between rising public interest in healthy, organic, local food and rising rates of obesity-related illness in the US. To put it simply (and perhaps to oversimplify), there's not a lot of overlap between populations that eat healthy, organic, local food, and those most afflicted by obesity and its consequences, because it's hard to be in the former category when you live on dollars a day.

Nutritional value and cost usually have an inverse relationship, the outcome of which is quite obvious. And although there's a growing number of farmer's markets that accept EBT cards, most food stamp recipients purchase cheap food in big grocery stores. Rebecca Blood has been thinking about this, and she decided to undertake a one-month challenge with her husband, during which they would buy food strictly within the USDA's food stamp budget. But it doesn't stop there -- that challenge was recently completed by the governor of Oregon -- they planned to eat according to the same food standards they normally keep. Their eating habits fairly well match those of the first population mentioned above, so this is where the real challenge lies. They would keep their CSA box coming, continue shopping at the same groceries, and prepare their meals from scratch at home as always.

They're blogging their experience (with beautiful food photos), and so far so good. We asked Rebecca about the experience yesterday, and about how her challenge differs from the governor's. Here's what she had to say:

The $21/week figure is pretty arbitrary. Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski ate on that amount for a week because it's the average amount Oregon food stamp recipients receive. Since then, all the other politicians have adopted that figure, but it's pretty meaningless - in reality, benefits range from $38.75/week per person (the maximum benefit), on down.
As I understand it, the amount anyone receives is based on their income. Everyone is expected to pay 1/3 of their income toward food costs. Of course, that's not always possible, so people do end up trying to live off their food stamp allotment - and to supplement it with Food Pantries and the like.
The number I'm using - $74/week for the two of us - is the amount alloted for 2 people under the USDA's "Thrifty Food Plan" for February (the most recent one available when I started).
It's the government's assumption of the cost for a "Thrifty" healthy diet. It's the number that food stamp allotments are based on - as I understand the system, the Food Stamps are supposed to bring you up to the "Thrifty" amount.
I figure it's a bare minimum, a good place to start thinking about 2 things: whether a healthy diet is within reach for a low-income American family; and whether the government is realistic about the costs associated with buying food. [Here are the figures if you'd like to take a look], and here are the allotment tables.]
I wanted to demonstrate that eating a healthy, organic diet doesn't mean you have to go bankrupt - the "Whole Paycheck" myth. I've gotten a great response from people who seem to be pretty well-to-do, but who say that they've gone organic and just resigned themselves to paying out the nose for their food.
I've been so successful that I've come under the Thrifty Food Budget ($74/week) and the maximum Food Stamp benefit ($71/week) both weeks. Importantly, I haven't changed the way we eat to do this. I'm using mostly organic food (can salt and baking soda even be organic?) and even allowing us one drink a night (something food stamps won't pay for).
Will I come under that arbitrary $21/week per person figure? No way. I'm cooking the way I usually do, and - though I'm not going to eat out or buy morels this month - the choices I'm making are about the same as the ones I would make in any other month.
Could others replicate what I'm doing? With a little planning, I believe they could. (In fact, one reading group has decided to make my blog their "book" for this month, and at the end of it, they're going to have a potluck and cook some of my recipes!)
Could I feed us on $21/week? That would be harder. Based on my experiment this month, it would take some considerable planning. And that's one of those situations where...well, given my resources, if I can't do it, nobody can.
There are questions of access that have come up in doing this, and I'll be writing about those issues in the days to come: access to fairly priced organic food, access to a CSA (one of my sources for organic produce), access to the time it takes to shop carefully, access to recipes, and access to time-saving equipment (bread making machines, slow cookers, and the like) for people who work outside the home. On a more basic level, it's access to containers to store those "planned leftovers". Access to a refrigerator that won't be pillaged by other people. Access to a stove.
Asking whether we're giving the people we help enough money for a healthy diet is important. That's what I think the congressmen and women are trying to find out. But the questions I'm coming to are just as important. Are the behavioral assumptions the Food Stamp program is based on realistic? One fundamental assumption for the Thrifty Food Plan is that all food will be prepared at home - something that's utterly foreign to many people. Should the government (or others) be doing more to give people the skills they need to actually prepare their own food from scratch? To shop effectively? To preserve and otherwise store the food they buy and prepare?
I don't know the answers. But I do know that people who are searching for "feeding a family on a tight food budget" and "How to live on a food stamp diet" and even "can i make refried beans from my cooked brown beans" are finding my site, and I'm thrilled. If I can help people facing food insecurity find ways to feed themselves cheaply and nutritiously, I've given them a tool they can use for the rest of their lives.
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Comments

On the subject of affordability of organic produce:
We have the most extraordinary organic vegetable stand here in South Florida. It's right on the beach and the owner makes a point of getting produced picked the day before, when possible. Despite the fact that it is more expensive than regular produce, when you factor in the fact that it is a good week fresher than anything else available, there is less spoilage and in the long run it is cheaper to buy there than even in the local health food supermarket, or conventional produce from the regular supermarket. Here in South Florida, at certain times of the year, a lot of our organic veggies come from California so freshness is a big factor. It's always a good idea to check with your food stores vegetable manager as to what day the bulk of the produce is delivered. Buy late on that day or early the next for longer shelf life and better nutrtional values!


Posted by: Joan Hasselbach on 18 May 07

I had been chronically ill and in severe pain since 1981, and on SS disability since 1986, until November 2006 when I switched to an all organic diet. Within two weeks all of the muscle and joint pain I had suffered with for 25 years was gone. I then got rid of all the chemical cleaners, removed all the carpets, magazines, etc. and now I am on my way to a full recovery.

I live on $800 a month and get $10 a month in food stamps. While eating an organic diet is more expensive, it had been balanced by the money I no longer spend on monthy doctor visits and prescriptions. I am getting my health back, and I believe I will be able to return to work within the next 6 months. I found out is that cheap food was a fake bargin.

I am now fighting with the managers of the mobile home park where I live to allow me to grow some of my own vegetables, as Food Stamps will pay for the seeds. This seemed to be a logical way for me to save money and still get the food I need. However, while I can grow as many flowers as I want, I have been threated with eviction if I plant any vegetables. It seems they believe that flowers are pretty and vegetables are ugly and don't fit in with the aesthetic vision they have.


Posted by: Sherwin Goodson on 18 May 07

I'm pro-organic for environmental reasons... but why does this article imply that the only way to eat healthily is to eat organic? Buying vegetables, fruits, grains that are not organic, then cooking them is surely more healthy and *cheaper* than buying processed foods?

People aren't obese because they can't afford organic. They're obese because they eat junk food.


Posted by: joanium on 18 May 07

While I applaud the push for organic, I'm disheartened when left-leaning folks jump on the silly 'obesity' bandwagon. The main reason more people are 'obese' today is that they lowered the threshhold, the weight at which one becomes 'obese.' Beyond this, yes, it is quite possible to eat well and be fat. One of the main reasons for fattening, to the small extent that America has increased in girth, is dieting (with its resulting *gain* in setpoint weight).

Someone wise once said that conservatives moralize about sex and liberals moralize about food. If we could stop the silly moralizing, let people be the sizes we are naturally, and find out which foods are *really* healthy (grains? probably not, but fat, yep, probably is), and then go from there. But no, we assume that the data shows that fat people eat differently (it doesn't) and that food fat is the culprit (try refined sugars followed closely by carbs of any stripe). We work from false premises, we demonize adiposity -- we tell lies about real people. Not exactly the basis from which one might hope to foment a real-food revolution.


Posted by: diana Mackin on 18 May 07

I appreciate the subject of this article as I am a college student so money is constantly an issue yet my boyfriend and I refuse to sacrifice the quality of our food in order to save a few bucks. I do want to point out though that another thing to think about is the whole organic versus local argument. Organic is great and will surely help people eat healthier, but if that produce is coming from South America how does the environmental impacts of transporting, storing, packaging, etc. compare with the environmental impacts of non-organic food from a local farm?


Posted by: Dee on 18 May 07

I have been fighting with my weight for a while, which I have to admit is due to the fact of portion size both personally and in restaurants, as well as how lousy most quality of food has gotten. It is heartening to know that it is possible to go Organic and manage to eat well without spending huge amounts of money. I am going to have to try this particular project.


Posted by: Heather O'Malley on 20 May 07

What a thoughtful, provocative story!


Posted by: Susan M. on 20 May 07


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Posted by: Stephen L. Tvedten on 22 May 07

I very much enjoyed this article. Thank you! It's a very challenging thought to most that you can eat healthy, even organic, on a very limited budget... without going into debt!

Thanks again!


Posted by: webby on 3 Jun 07



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