A year ago, my colleague Mary Cashiola and I took the "Food Stamp Challenge" and tried to eat for one week on $22.47 worth of groceries, which was the average food-stamp benefit for a Tennessean.
What's happened one year later? Food prices have gone up, especially milk and meat, but not as much as you might think from listening to news reports. The federal government has raised the minimum benefit for an individual recipient from $10 to $14 per month. Enjoy that extra cup of coffee! There has been a 5 percent increase in the number of food-stamp recipients in Tennessee. And more than twice as many Memphians are visiting MIFA to pick up food vouchers that entitle them to get a five-day supply of groceries four times a year from one of MIFA's food pantries.
Mary and I did our little experiment in response to congressional consideration of legislation raising food-stamp benefits. Richard Dobbs, head of the food-stamp program in Tennessee for the Department of Human Services, said the average weekly benefit for an individual was raised last fall to $23.72 in response to the higher cost of living. The number of recipients in Tennessee is 407,000 households and 901,818 individuals.
"That number is continuing to creep up," particularly among the elderly, Dobbs said.
The food-stamp program is available to families and individuals with incomes up to 30 percent above the poverty rate. A family of four with up to $20,600 in annual income — about what a single wage-earner making $10 an hour would make — could qualify.
MIFA, which works with individuals, and the Memphis Food Bank, which supplies churches and organizations, provide emergency assistance. A person can get both food stamps and a MIFA voucher.
Ida Lang, food pantry coordinator for MIFA, said 1,487 families received assistance in March and April this year compared to 614 families in the same months last year.
"More people are out of work, and more people are coming here for assistance with rent and utilities," Lang said.
The Flyer's experiment, which we copied from members of Congress who took the Food Stamp Challenge, was an attempt to personalize a story that tends to dissolve in a mixture of statistics, government reports, and official sources. We had no illusions that eating for one week on $22.47 worth of groceries would give us and our readers more than the barest hint of what it is like to be poor and hungry.
We found ourselves pressed to make unhealthy choices about fatty cuts of meat and canned rather than fresh fruits and vegetables. We learned to shop on the bottom shelves in grocery stores, where the generic brands are. We stopped eating out, even at fast-food restaurants, because a sandwich and drink can bust the budget. We cadged free snacks when and where we could, gaining an appreciation for, on the one hand, freeloading, and, on the other hand, restaurants that are cutting back on free condiments. We lost a little weight. And we were glad when it was over.
My one-week supply last year actually cost $23.63, slightly more than the average benefit because I started with an empty pantry with no leftovers. This week, the same grocery list and the same brands cost $24.30, an increase of about 3 percent. While that might be hard to absorb year after year, it isn't the budget buster that is ruining transportation companies dealing with $120-a-barrel oil.
The increases in food prices were lower than I expected them to be after reading story after story about hoarding, shortages at Sam's Club, and "sky-high" prices. Squishy bread ($1.19 a loaf compared to $1.49 a loaf) and a one-pound bag of rice (69 cents compared to $1) were actually cheaper, as were canned beans and tomatoes. Milk was $3.62 a gallon compared to $3.33 a year ago, and two pounds of hamburger cost $5.56, up from $4.90. Eggs, supposedly a benchmark for food inflation, were 79 cents for a half-dozen a year ago and 99 cents for a package of eight this week.
The organic eggs were over $3 a dozen, but who, besides the hen, can tell the difference?