What is a Food Stamp Budget?

Every once in a while some group or other challenges its members to eat on a food stamp budget for a time to raise awareness of food security issues.  How much money is in a food stamp budget, and how do we evaluate if it is the right amount?

Let's turn to the USDA's FAQ for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Scroll down to the bottom of the FAQ.  A person whose net income is at or below the poverty line ($903/month for a single person) gets $200/month worth of benefits, which is about $6.67 per day.  Each additional person in the household increases the poverty threshold by about $312/month, and results in an another $150-167/month in benefits, depending on how many people there are in total.  The decrease in benefits per additional person makes sense because of economies of scale.  I happily feed two of us for less than twice the cost of feeding just myself.  A family of four gets about $5.56 per person per day.

My immediate reaction is not only to say that it is easy to live at the poverty level of income, but also that SNAP benefits are extremely generous.  I spent years supporting myself below the poverty line, and I still spend less on food for my household of two than SNAP would allot.  Besides my experiences, let's look at some statistics from the USDA.  A two-parent and two-child family earning less than $56,870 (average $36,380) in 2008 spent an average of $9000/year/kid.  I would love to see the standard deviation for that, and the average for families earning less than $13,000, or even $13,000 to the top of the bottom overall national quintile if none of the study participants were in poverty.  A family with $56,000 inflates these averages with its discretionary spending, so we don't know what amounts of money are actually necessary.  An average of 18% of the $9000 went to food, which comes to $1620/year/kid, or $135/month/kid.  So, the amount of SNAP benefit for each additional kid in a family is roughly 11-23% more than many families spend on average.

A single parent spends about 2/3 as much on the kids per year, which probably gives us a much better approximation of what amount of spending is actually necessary, but we don't see in the report what percent of this smaller amount of money goes to food.  If a kid costs $6000/year, or $500/month, a family in poverty will see progressively larger problems with more kids, since the poverty line only gets bumped up by $312/month/person.  Except that the $6000/year figure includes a bunch of assumptions that fit the USDA model for families who are not in poverty.  About $2000 of that would be housing, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for housing assistance such as Section 8.  Health care might be about another $500, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for Medicaid, and children for SCHIP.  There are pieces of information missing from the puzzle, but overall I can find few complaints with the poverty cut-offs and SNAP benefits allotments.

The complaint about SNAP benefits is of course that they are too high on average.  And there is evidence that people with more SNAP funds than they need may use them to buy more unhealthy food that damages their health and unnecessarily burdens our health care system and country.

My other complaints are that the system seems too rigid, and does not obviously take into consideration differences in cost of living by geography.  As seen in the USDA report, rural areas are cheaper to live in than urban areas, and the urban south is cheaper than the urban northeast.  Perhaps the SNAP benefits are high because they have to be able to feed people who live in expensive areas, and people who live in cheap areas just get a big windfall of steaks and whatnot.  The USDA does say that "Eligibility levels are slightly higher for Alaska and Hawaii" because food costs more in those states due to transportation.  I am only looking at the federal maximum allotment levels, and different states may have different policies that better reflect their costs of living by area.  In the future, I will look into the policies of my state and select other states.


Potatoes Anna

This five-ingredient potato dish turned out quite well.  I got it from What Einstein Told His Cook, but I had to change a couple things.

First, clarify some butter.  I did this the day before.  I only clarified a half pound.  Just toss some butter sticks in a pot on the lowest possible stove setting.  When it is all melted, spoon off the top foam (and keep it as a flavorer for popcorn or potatoes), then pour the center clarified butter into a storage container.  On the bottom will be some white milk solids, and I don't know what they're good for.  It may be easier to separate the layers if they are cooled and solidified, but I didn't do that.  The reason to clarify butter is that it raises the smoking point by about a hundred degrees F, so you can cook things in butter at higher temperatures without burning it.  It also removes a lot of lactose, which you care about if you're lactose-intolerant.

2 lbs white potatoes (Yukon golds, whatever)- ~$1.20
4 Tbsp melted clarified butter - ~$0.35
salt, pepper, garlic powder - $0.05

Slice the potatoes into 1/8" slices (just eyeball it or use a machine).  Preheat your oven to 450 F. Use about a third of the butter to coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet. Put down potato slices in concentric rings or a spiral in the skillet, slightly overlapping or not.  Brush with butter, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  Repeat layers of potato/butter/seasoning until you are out of potato.  Pour on any remaining butter.

Turn a stove burner up to medium.  When you hear sizzling, turn off the burner and put the skillet in the oven.  Cooking time will vary.  Mine took about 70 minutes.  The potatoes will be golden on top, and make sure to use a spatula to check that the bottom later is crispy and brown.
Ideally, you're supposed to be able to flip the whole thing onto a plate.  I don't have a plate that big, and it was not a big deal to cut into slices, spatula out, and flip the slices over onto plates.

This is a great side dish for six for about $1.60 and 1000 calories, or about $0.27 and 170 calories per person.  Very tasty.  Do NOT put ketchup on this.  It's great how it is, which is covered in butter.

The original recipe called for 4 medium potatoes in an 8" skillet for 30-35 minutes, but I used 4 enormous potatoes in a 12" skillet, and mine took twice as long.  The original also said to have the lid on, but this trapped so much steam from the potatoes that dripped back down that they were getting a little mushy instead of crispy, so I took the lid off.


Homemade Yogurt

I've mentioned that I eat Dannon Light & Fit yogurt pretty often, and I buy it only when it's on sale at $0.50/6oz. I came across instructions for making yogurt in a slow-cooker (one of my favorite appliances) and figured I'd try my hand at it.  It was remarkably easy.  I used a three-ply aluminum core stainless steel pot to speed things up, but you'll want something that holds on to heat well, not a cheap thin pot.  I found other information online (Wikipedia) to corroborate and refine the technique.  You will need a decent thermometer.

1 qt of milk at ~$4/gal = ~$1
1 Tbsp yogurt

Heat the milk to 180 F and maintain that temperature for 10-30 minutes.  A longer time should result in a thicker yogurt as the heating process makes the proteins play nicely with each other.  Let the milk cool to about 115 F, then whisk in 1 Tbsp of yogurt. The goal is to integrate the yogurt "starter" at 113 F, but adding it in will reduce the overall temperature of the mixture.  So, if you're adding cold yogurt, maybe do it when the milk is at 117 F, but room-temperature yogurt can be added at 115 F.  I don't remember enough from physics to figure it out exactly.  There are 64 Tbsps in a qt.  Ideally, you will hold the temperature at 100-110 F for the next four hours.  I just put the lid on my pot, wrapped it in a towel and put it in my oven.  Every couple hours I turned the oven on low (170 F) for twenty seconds.  Since I wasn't maintaining the right temperature, I left the pot in for six hours, and some people leave it for 8-10 hours.  Then I moved the pot to the fridge.

The yogurt was quite tasty.  I had a bowl for breakfast with Grape Nuts cereal and honey.  The yogurt will be thicker at the top, and will be much thinner and less sweet than grocery store yogurt overall because most American commercial yogurts add starches, sugars, and gelatin that thicken, preserve and sweeten it.  This picture was taken after half the yogurt was eaten.  You may see the difference in thickness between the glob of top-yogurt and the surrounding bottom-yogurt.

There are many things you can do with yogurt besides stirring in some honey or fruit jam.  It can be used in dips, sauces, and in some drinks and entrees.  I will try to find some good dishes to make.

Save a bit of the yogurt you make to be the starter for your next batch.  You can make as much as you want in a batch, but keep the 1:64 ratio of starter to milk.  The milk turns to yogurt as the bacteria from the starter eat lactose and poop lactic acid, which brings the milk proteins together.  The acidity helps protect the yogurt from unwanted bacteria.  The yogurt should keep well in your fridge for about 10 days.

Depending on what yogurt and milk you buy and what your price thresholds are, making your own could cut your yogurt expenditures to 1/2-1/6.


Food Stamp Nudges

Back when food stamps actually were stamps (they may still be in some places, but there has been a change to magnetic strip cards), I had an idea for a possible nudge.  I had read that there was a problem with people using too much of their allotment at the beginning of each month, then running short of food at the end of each month.  I thought that if the stamps were printed in four different colors, people would be subtly encouraged to spend them proportionally by week, with more stamps of one color for the extra days at the end of months over 28 days.  Of course, this wouldn't be applicable to cards.

Another problem with buying most groceries at the beginning of the month is that fresh produce and meats would spoil before the later part of the month.  The food stamp program, as implemented, encouraged people to buy processed foods that would last longer.  This is nutritionally sub-optimal, contributing to health problems that already plague the American poor.

Now, Western Massachusetts is doing an experiment to see if offering a 30% discount on fresh produce will encourage food stamp users to buy more healthy food.  That may be a substantial incentive, but it does not overcome the challenges of impulsivity and spoilage.  This plan may also have negative unintended consequences, as we already have evidence that making healthy food cheaper just encourages food stamp users to use the savings to buy more junk food, increasing caloric intake and not improving nutrition.  If this experiment reproduces the earlier findings that cheaper healthy food worsens obesity or health outcomes for food stamp users, we will have to consider other options, such as making unhealthy food more expensive.

Also, of course, there is the more effective paternalistic approach, which would be to only allow food stamps to be used for healthy foods.  Food stamps can be seen as an investment that taxpayers are making into the overall health and well-being of citizens, and indirectly into productivity.  If food stamps are being used in such a way that increases health care consumption, such as treatments for diabetes, heart disease, etc..., also on the taxpayer dime through CMS and state-reimbursed uncompensated care as well as increasing health care costs for everyone as hospitals shift costs to other payers, then we are all seeing a smaller and smaller return on the investment.  If food stamps were used to help people be healthy, and minimize health care consumption, we are all getting a better return on the investment, and the people using food stamps will have better lives, even if they complain about not being able to buy the junk food they want.