Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the End

When I started my food/frugality blog, It's Not Cheap, It's Garde Manger, I was immediately questioned by a number of people close to me with inquiries ranging from "so you're writing about being cheap eh?" to "What are you up to?" And truthfully, I was up to something. First, a little background.

This winter, we had a two hour delay for our kids' schools. When I went out to try to drive them to school, our driveway and street were still covered in ice. My complaints to the Superintendent were not answered but the reason for opening school when some student's roads were unsafe was later made clear in a quote from Rita Bishop (superintendent) in the newspaper. She expressed her desire to keep school open because the students needed and were dependant on school breakfast and lunches. She detailed a heart wrenching call during which a student begged her to open the school that day because he was so hungry.

I smelled BS.

First, I spend a fair bit of time at the kids' schools and, regardless of income level, I don't see ANY starvation. Quite simply, there appears to be rampant childhood obesity.

My next question to Tim was, if these families are so poor and hungry, shouldn't they qualify for food stamps? This led us to a multitude of google searches and some downright fascinating information. A family of five can receive a maximum of $793 per month in SNAP benefits (seems "food stamps" is an outdated moniker.) So we started to think about our own food budget. Did we spend more than that? It seemed like more than enough to keep a family of five from being so very hungry that they had to beg for the schools to be open in order to eat.

It can be done, we thought. Easily. But being one not very fond of failing, I thought we would give it a try before calling our shot. And, as I noted, there were those suspicious.

We started tracking our purchases. By and large, we did not significantly change the way we shopped. We paid more attention to cost but were not overly restrictive (see steak, fresh veggies and fruit, goat cheese, and large amounts of pork.) We ate well. Certainly, we were not eating Kraft mac and cheese and canned tuna every night.

So we tracked and posted. We ate awesome meals. When we got to the end of the month, I totalled it all up. Some things we had on hand but I gave it a fair estimate, generally rounding up. Do you want to know what we spent?


And let's not forget that total includes items that would carry over to the next month. We have tons of flour left. The sugar and brown sugar are unopened. We have lots of salsa, ketchup, olive oil, goat cheese, and Parmesan. There were still granola bars and Cheerios left. We have a full, unopened jar of nuts and tons of raisins. We have two pounds of frozen taco meat, three pounds of bolognese sauce, and several pounds of chicken in the freezer.

Then there is what we ate. I am constantly reading about how the poor cannot afford fresh fruits or vegetables. We bought tons of both. We ate lots of protein. We even had lots of splurge items like M&Ms. Not to mention, any family qualifying for the maximum amount in food stamps would also be eligible for free lunch and breakfast at school for their kids. For a family of five, that is six meals a day, all of which we provided in our food budget.

So tell me again how people are starving.

Don't get me wrong, I am not necessarily calling for a wholesale revocation of such benefits. But I am looking for some critical analysis of how well they are working. Just last week I received a flyer from school asking me to send in snacks for the "snack cupboard" to feed the (seemingly) starving kids. And I chaffed a bit. My family and I are living on the equivalent of what they receive from the government, (read: us, our tax dollars,) why can't they? How is it that my family is eating fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, and meat on a budget that is below that which other families, described as starving and underprivileged, receive?

It leads to some pretty hard questions, the type that are not very popular when asked. At exactly what point are we going to realize that the problem is not the amount given? When will we decide that it isn't additional money needed? That the problem might lie with the receiver. When are we going to say, you know what, I can live on less, far less, than you get for free. I don't have to give anymore. You need to take some, just the itty bitty tiniest bit of responsibility for your life. Your children have no reason AT ALL to call the school superintendent and say they are starving. That is, unless you are mismanaging the funds given to you to ensure they are not starving.

It is not a politically correct thing to point out, but mismanagement of food stamp money is widespread. Maybe we need to recognize that these benefits are sometimes squandered - sold for pennies on the dollar in order to buy non SNAP approved items. And as heartbreaking as it may be, maybe we need to realize that until these parents care enough about their children to sacrifice, nothing we do and no amount we give will matter.

So, you might be thinking, while I really do enjoy your ramblings Katie, what's your point?

As you can imagine, and if you were lucky enough to be my husband, you would get to hear all the time, I have lots of points. But what I am driving at here is that as a society, we need to engage in more critical thinking when it comes to governmentally backed charity/redistribution of wealth. When Government Program A fails to achieve its goal of eliminating hunger, maybe the best response IS NOT to rush into setting up Government Program B to address the same issue while increasing the funding to failed Program A.

And just maybe, we need to question the premise a bit. How can a nation that has a downright alarming rate of morbid obesity be starving at the same time? You have to admit, it doesn't make much sense.

As for our family, we'll continue to live quasi-frugally. (We love steak just a bit too much to be wholly frugal.) We will also continue to give charitably. But when I read about the plight of those on food stamps, I'll remember their food budget exceeds my own.


  1. Well said!! You should send that to your local paper & it should be put on the front page. I would be intrested in doing that same experiment here in AZ with our family of 3. I always feel that it's never JUST the amount of $$ but what gets done with the money. People cry poor so 'someone' says 'oh, they need more money' instead of 'let's take a look, maybe they need a money management class'. I could go on and on but will spare you. :)

    Great post!

  2. Katie, this is fascinating and well done. I look forward to a conversation. Under what circumstances does the family of 5 qualify for $793, versus some lesser amount? (I'm too lazy to search the info.)

    Off the top of my head, and not to in any way diminish your points, two thoughts from the Devil's Advocate page: Shopping at Sam's requires not only a membership (not a covered benefit) but the capacity to transport bulk purchases - difficult at best if one is reliant on public transportation.

    And I wonder about the difficulty of cooking meals from scratch every day if both parents (or a single one, with four children?) work full-time. Not impossible, but certainly a challenge it's hard to factor in to your experiment.

    Those things said, I respect and really admire that you undertook this to make your point(s) -- you made them well, and it's significant food for thought. Nicely done!

  3. I know this will shock you, since you always think of me as somewhat left-wing, but I totally agree with you.

    I would have mentioned Amy's excellent points for the same reason she does, but it doesn't take away from the fact that simply throwing more and more money at poverty without any corresponding responsibilities doesn't work, and in fact makes the situation worse by providing a standard of living high enough to create more impoverished individuals. (hello reverse-darwinism!)

    I don't have any problem with school meals - makes sure that kids, who don't have the abilty to provide for themselves won't starve to death. I can't see a kid pocketing 5 milks to trade for a pack of Kools later.

    The parents, however, (and I include the fathers as well as the mothers) have to be responsible, though - there has to be a price to pay. (as I said on FB earlier today on Sara's post) I don't think it's unreasonable to force people taking assistance to give up their reproductive freedom. I don't have a problem making them pick up government cheese, instead of discrete SNAP card. It SHOULD be at least slightly embarrasing to be taking a hand out. One should feel some measure of shame for being unable to provide for oneself and one's family. What else is going to motivate a person to stop taking assistance? Maybe that's the heart of the problem - as a society, we've traded pride for (undeserved, self-important) self-esteem.