Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Food spending, from $21 a week on up

One of my friends asked recently about food budgets: How much do you spend in an average week?

We're not frugal about food. I buy breakfast (yogurt, hummus, bagels, things along those lines) and lunch at the office most days, partially because going out to get food dislodges me from my desk. It'd be cheaper to bring food, but I'd miss the chance to munch at local places and get outdoors. I tend to actually eat at my desk, save the occasional sit-down lunch or voyage to the park. Lunchtime is good blogging time!

Anyway, buying food at the office tends to eat $40 or so a week (Manhattan pricing), and I'll usually spend another $120 or so each week on takeout or dinner out. Even cooking rarely "saves" me much; if I cook fish, I can easily drop $20 on it. For me, though, it's something I've consciously decided to spend a big chunk of my budget on. (I suspect I spend way less than most people in other areas, like on clothes -- most years, my clothing expenditure is probably in the three-digit range, an expense easily eclipsed by what I spend on food, books and travel.)

There are certainly ways to spend a lot less on food. There were times when we had to. When David first moved to the States, we spent a month or two with only my just-out-of-college salary. With a monthly take-home income of $1,652 (the number is seared in my brain), we had to cover $950 in monthly rent (a steal in Manhattan, but still daunting on an entry-level income) and several hundred more each month on bills and debt payments. It was one of the only times in my life I really had to confront issues of "we have $10 and three days till payday; what can we afford to eat?" (In college, where I had even less money, you could always reliably scrounge meals somewhere.) Hint: Rice with soy sauce and honey is cheap and filling!

This bubbled up to top of mind for me today because I came across a story about the Congressional "Food Stamp Challenge": Four Representatives agreed to try to live for the week with a $21 food budget, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives.

Now, $21 is probably less than most actual food-stamp recipients spend; my impression is that the program is designed to be an assist, not a sole nutritional support. I see debunkers have already blasted away at the $21 constraint as an artificially low one.

Still, this exercise is a great way to draw attention to the bind those with low wages often find themselves in, as they try to stretch paltry paychecks in impossible ways to cover the costs of modern necessities. Sure, it's a stunt, but I think politicians can use more exposure to the realities their constituents live with. If trying to live on a low budget drives the difficulty home in a way stacks of policy briefing books can't, I'm for it.

So how has life on a shoestring been treating the Representatives?

"No organic foods, no fresh vegetables, we were looking for the cheapest of everything," [Jim] McGovern [a Democrat from Massachusetts] said. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat -- the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet."

Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, aborted the challenge a day early and four pounds lighter.

Last Friday night, in New Hampshire to deliver a commencement speech, Ryan succumbed to a pork chop in the hotel restaurant because he feared he would otherwise be too weak to give the address.

Several participants blogged about their experiences. As Jim McGovern's wife Lisa posted:

For years before I had kids and especially when I was pregnant, people told me how hard it is and how tired you are. Everyone sort of says that and "knows" that -- it's just a no-brainier -- conventional wisdom -- common sense. And I thought I understood that too. Having kids is hard and tiring. Then I had kids. And those first few months gave me a whole new understanding of those words I had heard so many times. None of those words had adequately described it. And I don't have the words still. (Of course there is also the flip-side of love and joy which was unlike anything I had experienced either.) My point is, I learn things by experiencing them in a whole different way than I do by reading about or hearing them.