Category Food Stamp Diet

'Hunger' in the U.S.

The USDA released its annual report on Food Security (i.e. whether people can secure enough food to eat, not whether Chef Boyardee is an Al Qaeda mole) this week, and the media have temporarily stopped writing stories about the crisis of Obesity among the poor to write stories about how the real problem is that they’re starving.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith approaches his job of revising The Times to ensure that the government’s predictions always can be shown to have been accurate:

For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than 145 millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.

We seem to be living in a kind of strange mirror image of Oceania here, where everyone has a different pair of boots for every day of the week but where the newspapers are full of hand-wringing editorials about the boot shortage.

The New York Times reports on the USDA Food Security Report:

Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.

The important thing here is to note that the Times uses the common and easily understood word ‘hunger’ in the headline; but the lede backs off from this quite a bit, putting the actual thing being measured in quotes, and interjecting a ‘what it calls’. It seems to have occurred to someone at the Times that what is at an all-time high is not hunger, exactly.

A better headline, really, would be: Some People Too Stupid To Use Food Stamps because there’s absolutely no reason for anyone in the United States not to have enough to eat. If your income is $0, the government will feed you. If your income is greater than $0 but less than an amount that’s almost impossible to figure accurately, the government will partially feed you.

The Times again:

About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.

The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.

It falls to Tino to do the reporting that, for whatever reason, the New York Times won’t, and explain what these terms mean.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has four categories for ‘food security’:

  1. High Food Security
    Pretty much what it says. USDA says ‘no reported indications’ of food access problems.
  2. Marginal Food Security
    Basically: anxiety. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.’
  3. Low Food Security
    Poor. Buying store brands. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of reduced food intake.’
  4. Very Low Food Security
    USDA says: ‘Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.’

You are sorted into these categories based on your answers to the questions in this survey. The questions are like:

I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more: Often, sometimes, never

I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals: Often, sometimes, never

In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?

In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?

I relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed my child because I was running out of money to buy food: Yes, no

Basically, you get a point for each ‘Yes’, ‘Often’, or ‘Sometimes’ answer. So if you’ve worried, and eaten a small meal, and eaten what you think is an unbalanced meal, or relied on ‘only a few kinds of low-cost food’ to feed the kids at least once any time in the past year, you have ‘very low food security’. That might be a valid thing to measure, but it certainly is not ‘hunger’.

Incidentally, it’s notable that the people in the survey report markedly better ‘food security’ in the 30 days immediately prior to the survey than they do when asked the same questions about the past year. This strongly suggests that people are remembering things as worse than they really were. On top of the vagueness of the questions, this renders the survey almost totally pointless.

The official victim class (to which a lot of ‘food-insecure’ people certainly belong) would all be pretty skilled in being sure to always tell the government survey that everything’s terrible; this is, after all, the job of the professional victim.

In the United States, if you can’t afford food, the federal government will subsidize your eating, usually on the spot. When you apply for food stamps, unless something goes wrong you generally leave the office with your EBT card. In 2007, Nicole and I tried the food stamp diet to see whether it was possible to eat well on it, and the conclusion is that you need to know how to cook, but that other than that, it’s pretty damned easy.

What we actually did was the $21 per week diet. At the time, the average food stamp benefit came to $21 per person per week. You’re not actually meant to spend only $1 per meal; as your income rises, your benefit is cut. If you actually have no income at all, you got $155 a month, which is $38.75 a week. Given that it’s entirely possible to eat a healthy and tasty diet on $21 a week, $38.75 would be a piece of cake. Literally: on $21 you can only afford cookies.

The benefit has increased since then, and if you receive SNAP benefits (the actual name for the food-stamp program these days), any kids you might have are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school.

The Times story goes on, eventually leading here:

Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures.

Considering that the statistics don’t make sense and that even the New York Times feels a need to distance itself from the weird terminology involved, I’d say that ‘some conservatives’ might have a point.

Food Stamp Diet: Conclusion

Our final cost was $38.91 or $19.45 per person, well under $21.

Here’s what we used up completely: canned corn, canned peas, canned tomatoes, bananas, potatoes, spaghetti sauce, black beans, lentils, baby limas, 3 packages Mac & Cheese, 18 eggs, 3 packages of yeast, cheddar cheese, 8 tortillas, frozen collards, 5 lbs. flour (the amount remaining is not enough to make anything) and 2 lbs. of carrots.

We actually used more cheese than I bought, but we buy the store brand cheddar anyway, so I just used some I had previously purchased. The cost per ounce is the same. I bought more margarine, but at a lower cost of $0.89, and I didn’t average that in since I didn’t think it would matter. We have 1/4 lb. of that remaining, but we definitely used up the initial margarine.

What’s remaining: about 8 oz. vegetable oil, pancake syrup (almost none used — I never made pancakes), grape jelly (not a lot, but enough to make a sandwich or two), 8 oz. spaghetti, most of all of the spices, most of the salt, all the ramen, 1/2 an onion, 2 stalks of celery, 24 tea bags, 8 oz. pink beans, oatmeal, peanut butter (also not a lot, but enough to make a sandwich or maybe two), about 6 oz. of rice (3 c. dry), soy sauce, dry milk, corn meal, baking powder, sugar, frozen kale, frozen green beans and 1/4 lb. margarine.

The highest cost item was cheddar cheese at $3.85. After that, the 5 lbs. of potatoes at $2.99 then the eggs at $1.79 and then the yeast at $1.67. I think the best bargain was probably the three boxes of macaroni and cheese for $1.00.

While I certainly would not want to do this all the time, it is very much doable. It got a little old eating at home all the time — we usually eat out way too much. Certainly, virtually all the meals were tasty. The spaghetti sauce was awful and the corn fritters weren’t worth it based on the ingredients used. The dry milk was awful in stuff that wasn’t cooked. In mac & cheese, baked goods and oatmeal, it was fine. A small amount of fluid milk (for tea) would be nice. A pint would last the whole week. I was quite happy with everything else.

Here’s where the calories came from (on average) for the week:


The feds recommend 25-30g of fiber, so we’re doing well there. The Merck manual says that “Adults need to eat about 60 grams of protein per day (0.8 grams per kilogram of weight or 10 to 15% of total calories).”, so we’re in good shape there too. The general guidelines are 30% fat and 50% carbohydrate, so we are in range there as well.

Here’s the nutritional breakdown:

Picture 4

Except for B-12, we’re exceeding needs for B vitamins. There’s plenty of A and E as well as Iron, Calcium, Selenium, Phosphorus and Magnesium.

This diet is short on B-12, but this is a known issue with vegetarian diets. If we were going to continue to eat this way, I’d invest in a bag of nutritional yeast and add it to soups and stews. I actually already have that in the pantry, but we didn’t purchase it on the plan. Tino normally eats more cheese than we were eating this week, and I normally eat some meat, so ordinarily, we have it covered.

According to, it’s short on Zinc, but the Vegetarian Society claims the RDA has been changed to 7mg for women and 9.5mg for men, so we’re closer to 91% for Tino and we’re over for me.

It’s also short on Vitamin C, and if I had known that beforehand, I might have budgeted for some frozen orange juice from concentrate and left something else off.

If we’d eaten the other box of frozen greens we purchased, it would not be short on Vitamin K. Dark green vegetables have huge amounts of Vitamin K, so if they are consumed a few times a week, you are all set for K. this was not a matter of cost, in any case. I just didn’t work them in.

Vitamin D is synthesized from solar exposure, so a dietary shortage is not a big deal, especially in the non-winter seasons.

Almost all the food was prepared from scratch, so with the exception of the margarine, spaghetti sauce and mac & cheese mix, the ingredients are natural and free of additives. I suspect that this diet is much healthier than that eaten by the majority of Americans. I can’t help but think that the grocery lists of the elected officials taking the Food Stamp Challenge make them look like idiots.

What Do We Want To Subsidize?

There’s a letter in today’s Washington Post about the Food Stamp Diet. It’s from a Quaker who eats well on $3.57 a day. It concludes:

Let it be said that I completely agree with McGovern that “it’s immoral that in the U.S., the richest country in the world, people are hungry.” However, with all due respect to these elected officials, I would vigorously challenge the nutritional wisdom and fiscal prudence of their shopping lists.

Which is really at the heart of this, isn’t it? It’s perfectly possible to feed yourself a healthy diet on $21 a week (or $35 a week, which is what the food stamp program actually pays out if you have no other resources). On $21 a week, you can’t afford Twinkies, or eating out. But there’s no chance of going hungry if you know how to spend the money.

You do need to know how to spend the money wisely, though. You need to know how to cook: how to soak dried beans, and how to make inexpensive staples into something tasty. How to plan ahead. How to improvise. Most poor people by definition aren’t very good at planning ahead or at improvising: this is why they’re poor.

Should we take that into account, though? Should we demand absolutely no personal responsibility or contribution from poor people? Given that it’s perfectly possible to feed yourself on $21 a week, the Congressional Food Stamp Diet stunt would seem to be making that argument.

The trouble with that argument, though, is that it’s hard to know where to stop. Poor people don’t know how to elect decent school boards; they don’t know how to make repairs to their houses and to keep their neighborhoods safe and pleasant; they don’t know how to settle disputes amicably; they don’t know how to manage what little money they have; and so on.

Should we subsidize away the effects of all of their bad decisions? When I make a bad decision, I suffer the consequences. I don’t make many really bad decisions, though, so I’m not poor. I apparently contribute quite a bit to society, because I’ve been paid lots of money for my efforts. Should my success and my ability to make good choices mean that I’m forced to subsidize others’ bad decisions, and further to be forced to do so in a way that’s only going to tend to perpetuate their dependence on government largesse?

I don’t think that there’s any need for anyone to go hungry in a society as rich as ours. But I also don’t think that we should pretend that poor people are simply middle-class people without money. As this week’s experiment has shown, if anyone is going hungry on food stamps, it’s not because they’re not getting a big enough subsidy; it’s because they don’t have the knowledge and skills to apply that subsidy to maximum effect.

Food Stamp Diet Day 7

We had exactly the same breakfast as yesterday:

Breakfast – Breakfast Burrito, Home Fries and Oatmeal w/ a Pot of Tea

2 eggs
2 potatoes
2 tortillas
1 T. Margarine to cook eggs
3 T. oil for potatoes
pot of tea
1 1/4 c. milk for oatmeal and tea
1 c. dry oatmeal
4 T. sugar
1 oz. cheddar cheese

Total Cost: $1.505
Per Person: $.0752

For lunch, we repeated the Mac & Cheese and PB&J Meal:

Total Cost: $1.264 Per Person: $0.632

For dinner we had a new meal.

Bean Burrito & Red Rice


8 oz. pink beans
cumin, garlic powder, chili powder
2 oz cheddar cheese
2 tortillas
1 c. rice, dry
c. tomatoes

Total Cost: $1.543
Per Person: $0.772

I did not need to make tea. I also made a batch of cookies. Snickerdoodles have the advantage of not requiring any vanilla, which I did not purchase for the plan we’re following.

Snickerdoodles (3 dozen)


1/2 c. margarine
3/4 c. sugar
1 medium egg
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 2/3 c. flour
2 T. white sugar
1 1/2 t. cinnamon

Total Cost $0.729

This brings us to $5.04 for today or $2.52 per person, including cookies! The total so far based on unit costs is $33.66 for two of us, but I don’t really trust this method not to accumulate measurement errors. I will write a concluding entry settling up the final costs.

Food Stamp Diet Day 6

It’s taking me longer to mark up all the costs than to make the food! The components are generally repeats anyway, so I’m going to truncate today a bit. I had completely forgotten about the tortillas until today when I realized we didn’t have any bread.

Breakfast Burrito

Breakfast – Breakfast Burrito, Home Fries and Oatmeal w/ a Pot of Tea

2 eggs
2 potatoes
2 tortillas
1 T. Margarine to cook eggs
3 T. oil for potatoes
pot of tea
1 1/4 c. milk for oatmeal and tea
1 c. dry oatmeal
4 T. sugar
1 oz. cheddar cheese

Total Cost: $1.505
Per Person: $.0752

Lunch was leftovers from the Butter Bean meal, and we still have not finished all the beans. I’ll take all the cost on here anyway.

5 oz. frozen collards
1/2 batch corn fritters
1/2 batch butter beans
pitcher of tea
1 T. margarine for fritters
1 oz. syrup
1 T. jelly

Total Cost: $1.371
Per Serving: $0.685

Dinner was Lentil Chili, which we have had before. I made Quesadillas to go with it, and those were new. This time, we have a whole serving of lentil chili left, and I’m sure that will get eaten, but I’ll take the cost on here anyway. We still had tea from lunch.


Lentil Chili
2 tortillas
3 oz cheddar cheese

Total Cost: $1.888
Per Serving: $0.944

The cost for Day 6 was $4.541 for a per person cost of $2.38. I will make an accounting of what’s missing tomorrow to come up with the total cost for the week. I’m sure adding up all the bits will turn out to be off.

Food Stamp Diet Day 5

We repeated the egg breakfast and the vegetable fried rice today. I made a new recipe, which appears below.

Our total cost per person for today is $2.64. So far, we have used up $24.08 in food or $12.04 per person. The $21 a week plan allows for $15 so far per person or $30 total.

We’re pretty far under our goal, so I think I might make some cookies. We have ingredients for Snickerdoodles. Sadly, there are no chocolate chips, brown sugar or vanilla for chocolate chip cookies. The USDA Thrifty Plan for a family of four, which is designed to be done on the food stamp allotment, does include home made chocolate chip cookies.

Egg Breakfast
3 eggs $0.297
2 potatoes $0.398
2 slices toast $0.162
1.5 T. Margarine for eggs and toast $0.050
3 T. oil for potatoes $0.060
pot of tea $0.033
1/4 c. milk for tea $0.031
total cost $1.030
2 servings $0.515

Vegetable Fried Rice
2 c. dry rice, cooked and cold $0.272
3 T. oil $0.060
pepper to taste $0.013
1/4 onion $0.169
2 carrot $0.330
1/2 can peas $0.200
4 T. soy sauce $0.248
pitcher of tea $0.066
total cost $1.358
each of 2 servings $0.679

Potato Soup Meal

Potato Soup

Potato Soup, bread and cheese
Potato Soup $2.123
cheddar cheese $0.386
4 slices bread $0.324
1.5 T. margarine $0.050
total cost $2.883
each of 2 servings $1.441

Here’s the breakdown on the soup:

Potato Soup
1 c. milk $0.122
4 stalks celery $0.596
1 carrot $0.165
4 potatoes $0.796
2 T. margarine $0.066
2 T. oil $0.040
1/2 onion $0.338
total cost$2.123
each of 2 servings$1.062

There was actually more than two servings. It was probably about two and a half, but that half can’t really be the basis for a meal, so though I saved it, I’m charging it here anyway.

Food Stamp Diet Day 4

We had one new meal today and repeated breakfast and lunch. There were slight differences, so I’m posting the costs again.

Oatmeal Breakfast
1 c. oats, dry $0.184
2 banana $0.420
pot of tea $0.066
1 c. milk $0.122
2 T. sugar $0.024
1/2 t. cinnamon $0.008
2 slices toast $0.136
1 T. margarine $0.033
1/2 oz. cheddar cheese $0.097
Total Cost $1.090
per serving $0.545

We added toast and cheese to the breakfast, and I made the oatmeal with part milk, so we used much more milk than usual.

Mac & Cheese Lunch
Mac & Cheese $0.496
2 PB&J Sandwiches $0.702
pitcher of tea $0.066
Total Cost $1.264
per serving $0.632

I bumped up the cost of the sandwiches because the last loaf of bread was very soft and hard to cut. I only got 10 slices instead of 12 out of it, and this was the first meal we used it. Also, there wasn’t enough jelly on the sandwiches before, so we used more.

Beans Greens And Corn Fritters

Butter Beans, Corn Fritters and Collards
5 oz. frozen collards $0.525
1/2 batch corn fritters $0.377
1/2 batch butter beans $0.283
pitcher of tea $0.066
1 T. margarine for fritters $0.033
1 oz. syrup $0.054
1 T. jelly $0.033
Total Cost $1.371
per serving $0.685

These were Hillbilly Housewife recipes. The butter beans I make at least once a month anyway. I had never made the corn fritters before, and while they weren’t bad, we didn’t like them. I suspect they need to be fried in a high-temp fat like bacon grease to be really good. The bacon grease would, of course, add a new taste to them too.

I love all manner of greens, but there’s no savings in buying them frozen — they are better out of a can. This was too big for us, so we’ll have the leftovers at some point.

We ran out of margarine, and I bought more for $0.89, which is actually less than I paid for the stuff I’ve used up. We are light some margarine somewhere in these tallies, so I’m adding $0.297 to the total cost for today to pick that up. Without it, our total cost is $1.86. The missing margarine brings it to $2.16. The total for the whole day, per person is $1.08. Our grand total is $18.42 or $9.41 per person for 4 days. At $21 per week per person, our goal up to this point would be $12 per person or $24 total.

When we’re done with this, I’ll do a reckoning for anything else that’s used up and not accounted for here.

Food Stamp Diet Day 3: Lunch

Bean Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

We used up the rest of the soup, splitting one bowl into 2 cups of soup. The sandwiches were quite substantial (and really tasty), so that worked out fine. Here are the costs:

1/4 Black Bean Soup Recipe $0.703
4 slices bread $0.272
4 oz. cheddar cheese $0.772
1 T. margarine $0.033
pitcher of ice tea $0.066
total cost$1.846
each of 2 servings$0.923

Food Stamp Diet Day 3: Breakfast

Today’s breakfast is the same as Sunday’s except that I only used 3 eggs, and we didn’t use any jelly. The picture for Sunday will cover this. I only used 3 eggs because Tino really only eats one anyway, and I can live with fewer potatoes. Oh, and somehow, we used 1/3 c. of milk instead of a 1/4 c. in the tea. Anyway, the numbers are:

total cost$1.376
each of 2 servings$0.688

Food Stamp Diet Day 3: Dinner

Spaghetti with Red Sauce and Garlic Bread Sticks

Noodles With Red Sauce

I won’t dignify the sauce by calling it Marinara. It was not good. It smelled like it would be, but Tino thought it had too much garlic, and I thought it tasted like the can. I’m putting the whole cost of it on this meal because, while I kept the leftover sauce, I have no plans to use it for The Plan.

Garlic Bread Sticks $0.337
8 oz spaghetti $0.300
26 oz c. spaghetti sauce $1.000
total cost$1.637
each of 2 servings$0.818

We still had tea from lunch, so no pitcher of tea.

The costs for the Garlic Bread Sticks:

1 1/2 c. flour$0.102
3/4 t. salt$0.001
1 t. garlic powder$0.014
1 1/2 t. baking powder$0.027
1/2 c. milk$0.061
1/4 c. margarine$0.132
total cost$0.337
each of 2 servings$0.168

I made these earlier today because we had a complicated errand to run, and I would have to produce dinner in a very short time. They would have been much better if they had still been warm.

There was also a snack eaten:

banana $0.190
1 T. peanut butter $0.045
2 carrots $0.330
total for snack$0.565
split two ways to match everything else$0.283

This brings the total cost for Day 3 to $2.71. Our total for the experiment so far is $7.23 per person, and we had a goal of $9.

I ate one of the bananas on Saturday, pre-experiment. Tino ate one today, so I needed to replace them. We’ll be eating those tomorrow at breakfast. We bought these in Chantilly at Safeway, and they were $0.49 per pound (Highway robbery!) for a total of $0.42 for two bananas. So, they will be $0.21 instead of the $0.19 we’ve been using so far.