The mayor of Phoenix, AZ, Greg Stanton was challenged by an activist group to live on a food stamp budget. He was allotted $29 for one week of groceries, the amount of money that SNAP provides in assistance.
His experience was very enlightening. He kept a Facebook diary on his experience and by Day 4 he reported feeling tired and having difficulty concentrating.
When local activist groups challenged Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton to live on a food stamp budget for a week to mark Hunger Awareness Month, he took them up on the offer and found out just how hard it was. Stanton kept a diary on the challenge, which allotted him roughly $29 a week, the same amount 1.1 million Arizonans receive from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) each week.
Mayor Stanton was accompanied on his shopping trip where he tried to buy a week's worth of groceries on a $29 budget.
Facebook photos showed the mayor shopping. He bought chicken, pasta and Ramen noodles.
With a final bill of $28.30, he said he was barely able to meet his minimal nutritional needs.
He also had to give up things he was used to and enjoyed eating, such as sorbet, ice cream and potato chips. He said he had lost four pounds by the end of the experiment.
But an important part of the experiment was in demonstrating not just the budgetary limitations of the food stamp program but the conveniences that money allows and are taken for granted. With food stamps, a lot more planning and prepration is required to make sure you have food and access to it when you need it. There is no running to McDonald's on your way to work for an Egg McMuffin breakfast. (And you couldn't do the drive through from the bus anyway).
By day four, Stanton noted that he was “tired” and “it’s hard to focus” after leaving the house for work without time to scramble eggs or eat a decent breakfast:
OK- ran out the door today with no time to scramble eggs or even make a sandwich. So I’m surviving on an apple and handful of peanuts, and the coffee I took to the office until dinner. I’m tired, and it’s hard to focus. I can’t go buy a sandwich because that would be cheating- even the dollar menu at Taco Bell is cheating. You can’t use SNAP benefits at any restaurants, fast food or otherwise. I’m facing a long, hungry day and an even longer night getting dinner on the table, which requires making EVERYTHING from scratch on this budget. It’s only for a week, so I’ve got a decent attitude. If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant.
Some more enlightening observations from Mayor Stanton's FB diary:
I wonder how folks with health problems get by on SNAP. An individual with diabetes has got to stay away from too many simple carbs, and have protein at every meal to maintain level blood sugar. By far the cheapest food items are potatoes, noodles, tortillas and white bread. But these are empty calories that fill you up without really nourishing you. And they send your blood sugar spiraling if you don’t have something more substantial along with them, like meat, fish, eggs or peanut butter. A colleague taking this challenge cannot eat grains or dairy. She’s getting by, but it’s difficult since starches and milk are the bargains and fresh fruits and vegetables are the “splurge” items on this budget."
Identifying, in a concrete way, with struggling families is an important exercise for any leader. By walking in the shoes of those who depend on the SNAP program, I certainly feel like I’ve gained critical perspective as a policymaker. From a broader perspective, I’m starting to think about all the other challenges families on food stamps (SNAP) must face at the same time they are stretching their food benefit. The best “program” for any struggling family is a job that pays a living wage. That’s what I’m focusing on for every Phoenix family.
House Republicans have proposed
deep cuts to SNAP assistance while calling for cuts to the estate tax.
House Republicans recently proposed cuts to nutrition assistance that will kick 280,000 low-income children off automatic enrollment in the Free School Lunch and Breakfast Program. Those same kids and 1.5 million other people will also lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamp benefits) that help them afford food at home.
Ten years’ worth of these nutrition cuts could be prevented for the price of one year of tax cuts on 3,340 multimillion dollar estates that House Republicans are protecting in their budget.
Case in point: As part of the 2010 tax-cut compromise, House Republicans insisted on including a tax cut on multimillion dollar estates, adding an estimated $11.5 billion to the deficit this year alone. That’s the same amount they’re now claiming is necessary to cut from low-income families through these restrictions.
Having to put so much energy into simple tasks such as feeding your family on a limited budget leads to a phenomenon Ezra Klein talks
about called 'cognitive exhaustion'. He wrote the article in response to Mitt Romney's claims that the poor are not only dependent and lazy, but too irresponsible to help themselves - a claim that is easy to make from the entitled perch of wealth. He argues that, rather than being irresponsible, the poor are consumed with and overwhelmed with responsibility.
The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier.
That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.
The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.
This experiment is useful in challenging comfortable assumptions made by people like Romney wagging a finger at the poor for being irresonsible. Mayor Stanton concluded that it will help him in formulating better public policy. The next part of the experiment should be to have to take 3 connecting buses to work, and
try to fit a $29 weekly food budget into that.
Tue Oct 09, 2012 at 1:29 PM PT: Thank you to everyone for participating in this diary with recs and comments thus giving the subject wider exposure as well as very helpful suggestions for feeding self and family on a budget.
I had wanted to do a diary on Ezra Klein's 'cognitive exhaustion'' article shortly after he wrote it in response to Mitt Romney's 47% secret video comments, but thought it was somewhat dry and wouldn't get attention - then the personal experience of Phoenix's mayor came up, and it was the perfect personal story to bring the concept alive.