Ash Wednesday--the day we're going to start our Lenten Experiment of eating on a food-stamp budget--is less than two weeks away, and every trip to a grocery store has become a consciousness-raising experience.
If I really had only $12 a day to spend on food for two adults, would I have spent $3.49 on four small avocados? $2.99 for a box of blackberries? $2.49 for a bag of wild arugula? $3.49 for two organic zucchini?
Well, maybe. It would probably depend on what else was on the menu. The large russet potato for $1.17 wasn't bad. The $0.30 sweet potato was a steal. The pound of dried lentils cost only $1.15, and it lasted much longer than I expected--or even wanted.
Wine, however--even cheap(ish) wine--suddenly looks like a major budgetary commitment. A bottle of wine contains about five servings, so let's say our frugal couple is following AMA guidelines and making a bottle last two days. Total food budget for two people for two days: $24. Cost of La Loggia Barbera d'Alba at Trader Joe's (quite nice), $6.99: 29% of food budget. Oh dear.
Food stamps can't be used for alcohol, of course, so our frugal couple would have to buy wine out of the rest of their income. So let's see how much income they'd be able to spend if they qualified for the full food-stamp benefit in Illinois--which, by the way, is only $323 a month, or $11 a day, not the generous $12 a day we're allowing for this experiment (because the USDA thinks the frugal couple actually need more than $323 a month to eat healthfully).
Using this calculator, I described the pair as elderly (which, according to the government, means 60 or older--never mind that this hypothetical couple is still too young for Medicare), with a monthly rent of $500, taxes and insurance of $100, and medical expenses of $50.
In order to receive the full $323 benefit, the most our frugal couple can earn is $698 a month. Before taxes.
Do the math: after the listed expenses, the frugal couple has $48 to spend on transportation, clothing, utilities not included in the rent, telephone, household furnishings, supplementary food...
Looks like there's no three-buck Chuck for them. Not even on Valentine's Day.
I'm glad it isn't Ash Wednesday yet for us. I'm sad to think that it's always Ash Wednesday for so many people.
World Hunger Map (U.N. World Food Programme)
Hunger in the United States (Bread for the World)