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A giant bag of crispy rice, coupons and other lessons learned from day one of the Food Stamp Challenge


One day into this food stamp challenge, and I've already learned two things: I'm a culinary genius, but not a coupon genius.

First, a reminder of what I'm talking about: My wife, myself and our two kids, ages 10 and 7, have agreed to take part in the Food Stamp Challenge being put together by the Lawrence food bank Just Food. The idea is that people will try to meet their food needs by spending no more than the amount of money an average family receives in food stamp assistance. I do want to be clear: I'm not portraying this exercise of mine as a simulation of what it would be like to actually be on food stamps. There are a whole host of issues with being poor that this exercise won't replicate. I'm also not doing this to get caught up in some political debate about the merits of the food stamp program or how it should or shouldn't be used. But I do think it will be interesting to think about food, how much it costs and how much of it we need to live a healthy life.

And that's where $63.36 comes in. That's the amount of money, based on an average food stamp payment for a Kansas family of four, that I will have for the four days that we are participating in the project.

For this exercise, I've taken over the shopping duties from my wife, Kristine, although she did provide me a meticulous list. Bottom line: I spent $52.47 of our $63.36 for the week. Hopefully, though, I got most of what we need for the week. We'll see. (Most interesting discovery while at Checkers: You can save 1 cent by buying "fancy" cut green beans instead of regular cut green beans. If they are fancy, why are they cheaper?)

I'll write more about what I bought and how we tried to control our costs a bit later. Or actually, my wife may blog about that. Yes, my wife is going to blog. For those of you have read my Town Talk column — where I very occasionally make a good-natured joke about my lovely, lovely wife — you may think I'm nervous about the prospect of her blogging. Well, you couldn't be more . . . correct. (It may work out though. My nervous stomach may stop me from eating much this week.)

Anyway, keep an eye out for that this week. My 10-year-old son, Colby, also likely will blog. He always has something to say, although there is only about a 10 percent chance it actually will be on topic.

But back to my two lessons. It was while watching the Food Network over lunch today that I realized I was a culinary genius. I had eaten my ham sandwich and a small portion of my Always Save BBQ chips, but I needed a little dessert to top it off. I didn't spend any money buying candy last night. But I did buy, approximately, three bushels of crispy rice cereal. (You know, the kind that comes in those huge plastic bags instead of a box.) But I didn't buy any sugar to put on them. Crispy rice without sugar? Yeah, I might as well go graze on the pasture next to my home.

But I did buy Always Save peanut butter. Here's where the genius struck: I put a tablespoon of peanut butter in the microwave (yes, I used a bowl, I think), and melted it. Then I poured some crispy rice on it, and suddenly I had a very tasty, sweet and cheap dessert. I'm sure it will show up on the Food Network at any moment.

As for my lack of genius in the coupon department, let me say I don't think that was all my fault. My wife is not an extreme couponer (don't worry, she's extreme in other ways), but she does take her couponing pretty seriously. As a result, she sent me to the store with coupons sticking out of places I didn't even know I had. I'm going through the aisles looking like a man preparing for an IRS audit. I've got papers spread everywhere and a calculator in one hand. I had some very strict instructions to buy a specific brand of soup. I knew I had a coupon for the soup. What I didn't know was that I had two, and that I could have structured my purchase in such a way to use both coupons. When my wife looked at the receipt, I soon found that out.

I cost us 25 cents on that one. Who knows, it may make all the difference this week.


Jean Robart 4 years, 4 months ago

Chad--Checkers is a great place to shop, but you could have done better elsewhere.

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

Chad, as I have outlined on other threads about this topic the exercise you are participating in is not a fair characterization of SNAP. As you are well aware SNAP is a supplemental benefit program. It was never intended to be the sole source of funding for the family food budget. The fact that the avg benefit for a family of four is $63.36 for four days is less than the maximum benefit of $83.11 for four days indicates the avg family has income from other sources. SNAP expects a portion of family income from work or gov't subsidies to be used for food in addition to the SNAP benefits. So to try to feed a family of four for four days solely on the $63.36 SNAP avg supplement is a disingenuous experiment. If you are not going to use any outside income which is a requirement of the SNAP program, then at the least use the maximum amount of SNAP benefit allowed for a family of four. That amount is $632 per month which works out to $83.11 for your four day experiment.

USDA data reports the cost of feeding a family of four with school age children a "thrift" level food plan is $147.20 per week. This works out to $84.11 for four days to feed the four family members three home prepared nutritious meals including fresh fruits and vegetables plus snack per person per day. As you can see the cost for the four day experiment is $1 more than the max allowance which is what the family would receive if it had essentially no employment income. The $1 deficit is explained by the monthly max allowance being set apparently once per FY and there has been a slight increase in food cost. So as a supplement it essentially covers the total food cost for a family at the "thrifty" level which is a significant supplement. Just to remind, SNAP was never intended to be the sole source of the family food budget.

I am not saying the SNAP funds are exorbitant, but the "experiment" (that does not allow any outside funds to be used) is set up in a manner inconsistent with the SNAP program (which is intended to have the recipients provide at least a small portion of the food budget). This inconsistency prevents the experiment from being a true characterization of the SNAP program. In short this is not an apples to apples comparison.

Andrew Dufour 4 years, 4 months ago

John, as I pointed out on another post the problem is in your first paragraph, SNAP is meant to be supplemental but it's simply not. It's based on where you fall on the Federal Poverty Line and you're net take home must be 100% or less of the FPL. If you're right at 100% of the FPL then you're going to receive less than the maximum SNAP allocation. the FPL for a family of four is just over $23,000 per year or less than $2k per month. Once you subtract rent, child care, heating, electricity, water/trash, healthcare, clothing, transportation, etc there is likely very little left for food. SNAP is supposed to be supplemental but the fact is for many it's their sole source of food income.

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

The fact that is what the fact is. SNAP is not has was not designed to be the sole source of funding. The USDA has a formula for determining amount of benefits that takes into account amount of income, cost of housing, utilities, care for elderly/disabled, child support, dependent care costs, property taxes and insurance. So the program allows multiple deductions from the salary limit before the benefit is calculated. If you want to complain about the formula you can do that with the USDA. But to complain that SNAP doesn't fund the full food budget is unfair as that was never the mission of SNAP.

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

What you are not grasping is the program is a supplement. You expect it to be the sole source of money to provide for food for the recipients. That is not the case. It never was the case and is not the case now. You may not like the way SNAP works but it works as it was designed. It is you that needs to understand reality of SNAP v your expectations.

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

The tone of your response is completely inappropriate. Most people that qualify for SNAP are going to qualify for other subsidies as well that will help with housing, utilities, child care, healthcare, etc. The gov't has people way more expert on this than you or me that has determined the benefits and the guidelines. You may not like it but that is reality. To simply open the checkbook to give a blank check is not reasonable. They evaluate costs of living and then base benefits on income. Fine you don't think the current benefit is enough. How much do you recommend and what is your factual basis for that number? If you don't like the gov't formula which is based on real data then you need to provide a better formula based on facts not just your opinions. The crayon is in your hand.

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

You chose to start a personal attack directed at me then complain about my response? Nice

John Graham 4 years, 4 months ago

And yes "tone" may be used to describe a piece of writing.

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