Living off $4.90/day – Day 4: Alternatives to hamburger helper and the government

Like a Fat Kid Loves Cake

This is not an ode to 50 Cent, but the lyric jumped at me when I thought about posting this week. My apologies, fat children, I mean no harm. Childhood obesity is an epidemic. But I mean the line as a bit of irony, so forgive me. My firm, bless its soul, does this great birthday celebration each month. While this effort is great for morale, I had to endure the happy consumption of cake and ice cream. Greeeeat… It did give me a chance to tell a few more people the average adult receiving food stamps in California lives on $4.90/day, though I didn’t get a chance to let them know that most people receiving assistance are not entitled freeloaders. On to Day 4…

I got into a conversation yesterday about hamburger helper. Here’s a quick, homemade alternative (complete with photos) that skips the chemicals and, I have on good authority, includes marginal additional cook time. It is also comparable in price. More on that later. As an aside, the very existence of restaurants I used to frequent has created a whole new level of personal insanity this week. I think I cursed out loud as I passed The Pearl last night just remembering the deliciousness of my last meal there. Ack, this is rough.

Yesterday was especially rough because I was in a deposition most of the day and thus required to ignore my stomach so I could fend off the clever questioning of the attorney. Happy to say being forced to focus on something else worked–until we went “off the record” (i.e. took a break) when talk drifted to steak and pasta. Good news is I was able to tell 3 more people that many Californians eat on $4.90/ day & are hard working–not entitled freeloaders as some have recently suggested. But beating up on some (because not all have jaundiced view of needing help) conservatives isn’t as productive as working together, so let’s switch gears. I’ll write about my actual food misadventure on day 4 further down, but before I do, here’s a few things to consider.

One of the things I wanted to do during this challenge was write about food security alternatives outside using direct taxpayer/government subsidy. This is not some lark. Having spent quite a bit of time working for and with government AND in community, I see the value in non-governmental solutions. Also, while some people truly believe that another person’s hunger is their own problem, I think the vast majority of Americans really do believe we all have a role to play–we just disagree at times as to what that role is. So before I get to the particulars of today’s food, let’s take a quick look at some options.

Having spent part of my high school days in southeast Arizona, I spent some significant time around the Mormon faith and their food storage practices. They have a built-in ethos of storing food and caring for others in their church. Obviously they don’t have a monopoly on caring for members, but the system seems to be pretty efficient and this is a post about food after all. It’s hard to know what percentage of Mormon families experience hunger in any given community, and consequently not possible (for me, anyway) to evaluate whether there is enough charitable food sharing to meet that need. I’d love to know more, if any of you has a lead on someone in this field, please let me know. Anyway, one question is whether the model of faith-based organization addressing food shortage issues can work for a larger swath of society to replace things like food stamps. A 2012 report from Feeding America raises questions about this approach.

If we are to know whether alternatives could work, one foundational question is “Who are the hungry in the U.S.?” This is one important source of that information. But again, my hope today was to provide a few sources of creative, non-governmental problem solving–or solicit people to send me such information. Here are four things I found:

  1. Interesting site on creative solutions by Trickle Up (world hunger).
  2. And this site to try ways to eliminate hunger among children in the U.S.
  3. According to this site, at least one “greedy” bank does a great deal for hunger relief in the U.S.
  4. To the cheers of everyone who believes taxation is more problem than solution, there are these tax changes that helped with food donation levels.

My Day 4 Food Journey

As for my food on Day 4, I’ve never been so eager for variety. Finally tonight I get a new meal! Woo-hoo. I’d like to try this again with the aim of a different meal every other night. I was watching a movie about stopping violence called The Interrupters recently and the lead woman, Aminah, was telling a group of teens how when she was young she would wake up mad and just want to bite someone. It’s a great movie, which I recommend…I just want to say right now I can relate. So.freakin.tired.of being hungry. Seriously, I’m starting to see food where none exists.

I started off the day with a customary bowl of oatmeal and then left for work without my tasty split pea soup (see recipe in Day 1). What kept me going is the belief that tonight’s turkey burgers, sweet potatoes and sauteed cabbage will be better than any I’ve ever had. By the way, this meal will cost us $1.48! That’s gotta be a record. Take that, dollar menu! We didn’t have money in the budget for buns, but who needs the carbs, anyway (lemons, meet lemonade). I’m not sure yet what the per serving cost of dinner is, but I’ll get that soon and post. I did get into one other interesting conversation on Twitter. Someone bemoaned the existence of coke, Doritos and other junk in the cart of someone she believed to be a food stamp recipient. Putting aside how she was able to determine this (the USDA has made strides to modify the card so it looks like a bankcard and doesn’t scream “government aid”), there’s a larger point here. Should we as taxpayers have a role in what our food stamp dollars are spent on? What is involved in actually administering such a change to the system? Well, as luck would have it, the government has spent our money wisely for this one and done the research. This report explains some of the hurdles in constantly monitoring the 300,000 food products available in the U.S. to determine which are “junk” and which aren’t. The punchline is, like most things, it isn’t as simple as it seems. You can’t just say “no coke and no twinkies on food stamps.” Or, more accurately, you could say that, but there are tons of other similarly nutrient-deficient foods that don’t appear so unhealthy on the surface. Lots of other problems identified. But I’ll leave it at that.

Final point, there are two primary nutrition programs serving Californians:

Here is the list of eligible food items for food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

And here is the list of eligible food items for the Women Infant and Children nutrition program (known as WIC)

I provide these lists as information. I’d love to find a way only to pay for healthy food. And I’d love for people to make healthy choices when they accept government aid. But we need a responsible way to do so that doesn’t create a massive new, more costly buracracy to (potentially inadequately) deal with the problem. I’m not moved by the free will arguments. If I am taking your money, I think you should have a right to put some limits on what I do with that largesse. The problem, as noted, is figuring out those limits is very, very complicated. Thanks for reading, please leave me another inexpensive recipe to try.

2 thoughts on “Living off $4.90/day – Day 4: Alternatives to hamburger helper and the government

  1. Hmmm though questions! Food stamps/aid is for sustenance. So my thoughts are that they should go to that because Coke and Doritos aren’t nutritional according to their labels.

    • I dropped in the report the USDA did on this very issue in the post. It’s super expensive and complicated to suss out what is and is not nutritious when you are looking at 300,000 products that change on a regular basis. But I get your point and tend to agree, just not sure how to do it.

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