Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Life on $21 a Week

A handful of Congressional representatives are trying to live on food stamps. (See “Lawmakers Find $21 a Week Doesn't Buy a Lot of Groceries” in The Washington Post, 5/16/2007).

Okay, not really, but these lawmakers are trying to consume only the food they can buy if they purchased their groceries using food stamps. For a month, they are challenged to spend $21 a week, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance.

What can be purchased at the grocery for $21 here in Fairfax? Well, to see how I stack up, I checked a receipt from a recent trip to the grocery, and that’s what I spent on vegetables alone in one trip: a bag of cauliflower florets, a bag of fresh green beans, a bag of sugar snap peas and a bag of mixed vegetables. Granted, I took the lazy woman’s approach to vegetables — pre-packaged and pre-washed — but on the same receipt was for apples for $1.89 a pound. (Again, the nagging economist reminds me that a 5-pound bag of apples would have cost less per pound, but if I couldn’t afford that bag, it doesn’t matter how cheap it was by weight.)

The challenged lawmakers lament that the first thing that goes from the grocery list is the fresh fruit and vegetables. Organic? Ha! And don’t even think about sugar-free juices and jams. Whole grain or whole wheat bread is $3 a loaf, bagels the same.

Looking around my kitchen, I see all of the things I would not have on this restricted budget: whole grain bread, bagels, free range organic eggs ($3.79 a dozen), organic yogurt without kosher gelatin and high fructose corn syrup ($1 for a 6 ounce container — on sale).

Lately I’ve tried to reduce the amount of high fructose corn syrup I consume, and I’m startled at how prevalent it is. I also am startled to see how cheap it is. It is screwy logic: the less expensive the food, it appears, the greater the number of additives. You would think it would be more expensive to cram more in a jar, but the reality is this: peanuts, oil and salt cost more than the same thing full of emulsifiers, sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup or the dreaded high fructose corn syrup) and other additives. The cheaper the food, often, the cheaper the food. With the lip service the federal government gives to the fight against “epidemics” of obesity and the related illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, etc.), one would think the government would want its dependents to have better food. Alas, this is a government of surplus cheese, not surplus apples.

We all have lived with limited funding, whether as students, young workers on a “starter” paycheck, parents with a growing family, retirees. We all have re-assessed our spending for various reasons and “adjusted our belts.” However, even when I economize, there still are carrots in the veggie bin, Progresso soup in the cupboard and, in the fridge, cranberry juice (sugar free, 100 percent juice). I don’t go hungry, that’s for certain, and I don’t find myself having to choose quantity over quality. However, if I had to feed someone else on my $21, I wonder how different my choices might be.

I am going to the grocery store tomorrow. I will pay a lot closer attention to what goes into my cart, and I’ll see how far $21 goes in my house. How do you think you'd do?

P.S. In the article referenced above, Rep. Jim McGovern stated he wasn’t including his children in the challenge because he’s “lucky when they eat anything.” Ill chosen words, indeed. I know what he meant, but I doubt children who don’t have enough to eat would choose to skip a meal because they didn’t like what was on the menu. I appreciate what he's doing, but his words are as important as his actions, and caution and forethought are important in a campaign like this.

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