Playing Hunger Games (originally published March 18, 2017)

In a stunning turn of events this week, the President released his first proposed budget. Newly-elected Presidents generally propose what is called a “skinny” budget, which is to say it has broad brushstrokes of what the President wants to accomplish with his budget, but lacks the finer details of how those things will be accomplished. In his skinny budget, the President has increased military spending at the expense of some social safety net programs, such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children provides food vouchers and wellness programs for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under the age of 5), Meals on Wheels (providing a hot meal and human contact once daily to Seniors in need) and other assistance to those with low income, such as Fuel Assistance programs.

I must say, the President has put the “skinny” in this skinny budget.  Other food programs, such as Free and reduced school lunch and breakfast programs, are also up for the ax. Republicans have been after these programs since their inception, crying that taxing the rich to help the poor is useless, and has no return on investment. I feel that as an American citizen, it is part of my dues to help those less fortunate than I.

The reason for this post is because of something that happened at work yesterday. One of my (rather entitled) male co-workers started riffing on people who get food stamps (SNAP benefits) and the ubiquitous Welfare Queen raised its ugly head. He complained about people buying lobster and crab with their EBT cards.

I’ve been on food stamps, both as a child of a divorced mother and as the divorced mother feeding her child. My mother and I both did the same thing; we went back to school to improve our chances of getting a better job that could provide more income so that we wouldn’t need to be on those benefits for long.

So I was understandably enraged to hear this person who probably never had to think about what to do when the money ran out at the end of the month and all you have in the house is a couple of pounds of rice and a gallon of milk and you have four kids to feed. It was in this frame of mind I started to look at what a person receiving SNAP benefits could eat every day to make their benefits last.

Man, let me tell you what a damn depressing menu it was.

Here are the assumptions I had to work with:

  • Average SNAP benefits are $126 a month, or about $1.40 per meal per person.
  • The recipient is working. 60% of all SNAP recipients are working at least 20 hours per week. (If you are single with no dependents and are not disabled or elderly, it’s a requirement to keep receiving benefits)
  • The recipient has a stove, refrigerator, basic cooking equipment, and a microwave. I did not add a coffee maker, and I will explain why later.
  • The recipient also has proper storage containers for leftovers and has a microwave and refrigerator available for use at work in the break room. (and no one steals their lunch, ever.)
  • The recipient has basic cooking skills and can read and follow a recipe. With the demise of the Home Economics class and more parents working longer hours, fewer people are learning how to cook.  More people rely on package directions than a cookbook.
  • The recipient uses measuring cups to strictly portion out the food so that it is evenly divided.
  • You bought the bananas on sale for .49/lb. and got enough for a week for $2.00. The milk was $4 a gallon, the bread was $3 a loaf, and the cheese was $4 a pound. Chicken leg quarters were on sale for .49/lb., and you had a freezer to store the remainder in.

Now, given those assumptions, this is the daily menu I came up with for a single person, working 30 hours a week, and receiving $126 in SNAP benefits.

  • Breakfast
    • 1 cup of plain cooked Old Fashioned Rolled Oats (25 cents)
    • 1 cup milk (25 cents)
    • 1/2 banana (14 cents)
  • Lunch
    • 1 cup rice and beans (50 cents)
    • 1/2 cup canned green or wax beans or other cheap canned vegetables. (20 cents)
    • 1 baked chicken leg quarter. (50 cents)
    • bottle of water that you brought from home (it’s tap water)
  • Dinner
    • 10 ounces canned tomato soup (50 cents)
    • 1 tuna melt (2 slices of bread, 2 slices of cheese, 2.5 ounces of tuna salad made with mayonnaise, and mayonnaise instead of butter to grill the bread) (75 cents)
    • 1 cup milk (25 cents)
    • 1/2 banana (14 cents)

This menu works out to about $3.48 a day, leaving you a whopping 72 cents a day to save up to buy something special, like a couple of bottles of cheap herbs and spices to make the bland chicken and tuna salads taste better. You would have roughly $21.82 a month to do a tiny little stock up, such as hitting a sale on chicken or canned tuna fish, or you could buy some seeds or plants to grow some fresh vegetables (Yes, you can use SNAP benefits to buy food plants and seeds, which I did not know until recently.) You might choose to buy some tea or coffee (notice there isn’t any on the menu? That’s why I didn’t say coffee maker. Remember, unless you have a french press or use instant coffee, you will also need to buy filters for the coffee maker. Notice there is also no sugar or sweetener?) to have something other than tap water to drink. (And I hope you don’t live in a place with bad tap water, or downright dangerous tap water, such as Flint, Michigan.)

Now, imagine that this is your menu every day for the foreseeable future if you are being careful with your benefits. Some months, such as February, you can stretch your benefits a bit since you still get $126 but you only have 28 days to contend with. (You’d have a whopping $4.50 a day instead of $4.20 – go wild with that extra 30 cents a day! Have a cookie!) You might be tempted to splurge during February, and I know some people who were on food stamps who did that. Smarter people use that extra money to stock up on non-perishables or spices to make the endless meals containing rice or pasta a little less drab.

This is the average benefit – some people get less, and some people get more. The least amount of benefits is $16 a month per person.

One last fact about SNAP benefits – the ROI is actually quite good. For every $1 the government gives in SNAP benefits, the community sees $1.70 in economic growth. Wouldn’t you like to see your bank give you a 70% return on every dollar you put into it? Keeping people fed allows them to pay attention to work and in school. Keeping seniors fed allows them to remain healthier and cost less in medical benefits, as well as having a person deliver a meal every day. Sometimes that’s the only contact some seniors get with the outside world, and it’s also a wellness check.

Now off the soapbox.

(Edited because I forgot to mention it’s single with no dependents that have the work requirement. If you are a non-custodial parent, you have no dependents and so must work.)

(First posted March 18, 2017 – I’m consolidating my blogs)

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