Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Dinner on a Budget: The Daily Struggle to Make Something out of Nothing

Photo by Flickr user elitatt

Years of working as a waitress in college and beyond taught me how creative some people can get with food. I was always fascinated at the complex and exciting dishes that chefs could prepare from some of the most unlikely combinations. Horseradish and mascarpone? Delicious! Ancho chile and cinnamon? Perfection!

Even still, I’m far more impressed by the creativity displayed by those who can’t afford exotic ingredients  and still manage to put together a meal for their families. Anybody can make something delicious with a kitchen stocked with fresh ingredients and an extensive spice rack. But it’s much more difficult to put together something when you have practically nothing to start with — like tens of millions of U.S. households today.

A new study from the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC) revealed that food spending has fallen dramatically in the past decade, particularly from 2000 to 2002 and 2006 to 2010 -- periods when the economy was struggling the most. Rising food and housing costs, combined with falling wages and inflation, caused millions to tighten their belts to unhealthy levels.

In the study, spending for the median household was measured against the Thrifty Food Plan, the absolute “barebones” food budget necessary for families to get by in emergencies, established by the U.S. government.  

The results of the latest study by the FRAC showed that spending on food for the median household fell from 1.36 times the Thrifty Food Plan level in 2000 to 1.19 times that level in 2010.

Considering the starkness of the Thrifty Food Plan, these numbers are devastating. Originally developed to help families in the Depression Era, the budget was called “The Economy Plan,” and was designed to be used only for a short, restricted period of time. And while this was considered basic survival, the standard for “reasonable measure of basic needs” for a healthy, sustainable diet was measured to be more than 25 percent higher than that of the Economy plan.

Successfully following the Thrifty Food Plan also requires several things that low-income families often do not have these days — easy access to inexpensive transportation and bulk food stores or supermarkets, facilities for food storage, knowledge of food preparation techniques and nutrition, and time to prepare meals from scratch (about 3.5 hours a day).

What does that mean? For most low-income families these days, successfully following the plan wouldn’t just require creativity — it would require a miracle.  

Emily-WarnerEmily Warne is media relations intern at Bread for the World.



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I am a disabled senior citizen living on $13,331 a year Social Security disability benefits. I get $16 a month in Food Stamps. I can't pay my utility bill and it is December winter temperature. SMUD told me they would not accept a payment plan and refused to accept a payment plan for the past due utility bill by making it into 3 payments. Instead, SMUD told me they would mail me a $150.00 Security Deposit letter and if I didn't pay it - they would turn off my utilities.

When I tried to explain if I cannot pay a past due $43.00 utility bill, how could I pay a $150.00 Security Deposit, the response from SMUD was informing me "that is your problem - either pay the $150 Security Deposit or we turn off your power". Well, Merry Christmas in the dead of winter - worse than Ebenezer Scrooge. If I freeze from hypothermia, and wind up in the Emergency Room needing medical treatment - Medicare will get a huge bill for my hypothermia medical treatment requiring hospitalizaiton.

Today, I had a choice of either having my power turned off if I didn't pay the $43.00 which is past due - money I needed to buy food since there was nothing to eat in my house. I went to a Food Bank today for the first time in my life, and it was humiliating.

Although I was relieved to get 2 bags of groceries, when I got home and began eating two of the food items given to me, I realized they were both 17 days past the expiration date. I spent the evening with a severe case of diahrrea and a stomach ache as a result of swallowing my pride and going to a Food Bank.

I would actually prefer to go without having a nice Christmas dinner than go back to that Food Bank which gives spoiiled food 17 days past the expiration date!

I am now seriously contemplating going to Occupy Wall Street in Sacramento downtown park on Christmas night and getting arrested by not leaving the park by 11:00 pm - at least that way I could get a meal in the city jail with adequate protein, more than one vegetable - a meal which actually meets some semblance of a proper amount of protein, carbs, vegetables, fruit, micronutrients and macronutrients.

Even in an election year - not one of the Presidential candidates, nor Obama has ever spoken up for increasing Food Stamp benefits. 18 million Americans are unemployed, Congress has the all time lowest approval rating in the entire history of America and Obama's approval rating has dropped to 50% - yet nobody running for President has ever mentioned how totally inadequate Food Stamp funding is.

Although today, December 16th is the official end of the 9 year war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan rages on with no timetable set to ever leave. The new military budget is approved for $685 billion - yet our government has no interest in revising the USDA guidelines for Food Stamps beyond a dismal maximum of $200 a month.

I would like every presidentical candidate, senator and congressperson to actually spend one month eating a food budget I receive of $16 a month and try to prepare a meal on 17 cents - 3 times a day. OK, cut them some slack and give the politicians the princely sum of $2.22 per meal at $200 a month Food Stamp benefit.

A few days ago Congress voted to cut 30% in HEAP utility assistance funding - despite this being the dead of winter and Christmas is coming next week. I spent 10 days calling every agency in existence trying to find help to pay my past due utility bill and reached a dead end. I never had the PG&E utilities ever connected in my tiny studio apartment because I tried to save money by only heating my apt with one space heater - it is the SMUD bill I struggle to pay every month.

Even for people who receive the highest allowance of $200 a month in Food Stamps - that works out to $2.22 per meal based on 3 meals a day for 30 days. Even on a vegan diet without animal protein it is impossible to create a diet with adequate protein, vitamins, minerals on a $2.22 per meal budget.

My Food Stamp allowance of $16 a month gives me a budget of 17 cents per meal. My typical daily diet is 2 eggs for breakfast, slice of whole wheat toast, green tea and 1 piece of fruit. Lunch is brown rice & beans with 1 vegetable. Sometimes I vary the grain and prepare millet, oats, whole grain barley, etc. Dinner is a tin of sardines/herring, beans, salad and 1 vegetable. I cook 100% from scratch and rarely buy frozen, canned food because it is too expensive. Even purchasing 90% of my groceries from the Farmers Market and bulk bins, it is still impossible to create the recommended "Five a Day" of fruits and vegetables. The only place I shop for dry goods is Grocery Outlet which is the "close out" deep discount retailer for all time lowest price food in America.

I have zero budget for purchasing clothing or entertainment. I diconnected basic cable and in my city it is impossible to get TV reception without basic cable. I disconnected internet a long time ago because I considered it less important than having food. Although tap water in my city has high levels of MTBE, fluoride and my plumbing is 50 years old and the tap water tastes ghastly - I quit having Alhambra Water deliver 5 gallon jugs because it is $6.00 a jug.

The government and some media treats Occupy Wall Street as wing-nuts or professional troublemakers which is an indicator how profoundly disengaged and out-of-touch our government is.

I was disabled when I was rear ended at 60 mph by a 10 ton UPS truck going 60 mph in a 30 mph zone, tail gaiting on my car. I got $4,750 in the insurance settlement from Liberty Mutual who insures UPS. I lost my teaching job, my car was totaled and am permanently disabled. I completed 10 years of college, three degrees and $57,000 worth of student loan debt I doubt I will ever be able to pay back. If I was able to work, there are no jobs in my field - since I was an ESL instructor and Literacy Worker, After School Intervention Worker with inner city at risk youngsters. After Wall Street crashed all the funding for these type of programs was scorched.

I see no way out of this mess and am totally disgusted with the USDA, Congress, Senate and White House who don't give a damn about ever raising Food Stamp benefits. It is so annoying every study I've ever read just addresses the issue of not enrolling eligible people for Food Stamps - NOWHERE do I see any non-profit or govt agency address the fact that $200 a month maximum food stamp benefit is completely inadequate to properly feed one person for a month.

Hi, I AM SHUKRI AQUIL MUHAMMAD ABDUR-RAHMAN.The information this blog is very helpful even more the comment posted by the young lady.Thank you Madam Emily Warne and Madam Colleen Whalen.

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