Tomorrow we’ll know who this country’s next president will be and what the next Congress will look like. Economic stimulus will be at the top of their priority list, so I hope they’ll all take a look at a handy chart from the Economic Policy Institute, which tallies the economic benefit of each dollar spent on various forms of stimulus. Food stamps tops the list, with each dollar generating $1.73 in economic activity – because people who get the food stamps will spend them in grocery stores, and not simply use them to rebuild savings or pay off credit card debt.
That’s the economic reason, but there’s also the health argument: People who rely on food stamps struggle to feed themselves. I’ve written before about the difficulty of getting by on the $1-per-day limit of many food stamp programs, and Tara Parker-Pope at the NYT Well blog has just provided more evidence of how hard it is to eat nutritiously on that budget.
Parker-Pope writes about an Encinitas, CA couple – both high-school teachers and vegetarians – who decided to eat for $1 per day for an entire month. Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, chronicled their experiment on their blog, One Dollar Diet Project, and asked readers for donations to the Community Resources Center. (To read the whole saga from start to finish, go to Day One and then use the links to the next post at the top of each day’s entry.) Here’s Parker-Pope’s summary:
The couple … bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t an option. Ms. Leonard’s mother was so worried about scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, that they made room in their budget for Tang orange drink mix. (They don’t eat meat — not that they could have afforded it.)
Breakfast consisted of oatmeal; lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Dinner often consisted of beans, rice and homemade tortillas. Homemade pancakes were affordable, but syrup was not; a local restaurant gave them a few free syrup packets.
A few times they found a bag of carrots or lettuce that was within their budget, but produce was usually too expensive. They foraged for lemons on the trees in their neighborhood to squeeze juice into their water.
Ms. Leonard said that after the 30-day experiment, one of the first foods she ate was a strawberry. “I almost cried,” she said.
They both acknowledged that it was a luxury for them to be able to do the experiment, since most people don’t have a choice about spending just $1 per day. They also emphasized that sticking to the diet required spending a lot of time on preparation (rolling out tortillas and cooking dried beans, for instance, rather than buying pre-made or canned versions), and lots of people don’t have that.
Many of the blog posts describe having low energy levels and constant feelings of hunger. Kerri reports that she lost 5.5 pounds, and Christopher 13-14 – even though it doesn’t appear that either of them was at all overweight to begin with. On Day Sixteen, Christopher wrote:
In addition to all the foods I wish to eat, I also miss working out. I really need to go running. I need to swim. I need to do something physical. Right now Kerri is at a yoga class, and I worry that she’s burning her already scarce amount of food fuel. I don’t have the calories to burn, and worry that I might pass out if I start my regular exercise routine. Plus, I lost another pound yesterday, and all I did besides teach was play MarioKart.
I don’t know how undernourished people manage to get by with such little food and still expend themselves doing hard labor. The other day at the library when I moved from a low shelf to a high shelf I could feel a rush to the head; it was a little disconcerting.
Kerri reflected that knowing she’d have three meals a day was a luxury, even if she was tired of eating peanut butter and jelly:
I do, of course, realize that I have the time and resources to worry about this issue. In all reality, even though we are eating on a dollar, I know that I am going to have three meals everyday. I also know exactly what is in each meal (unless we have a day where we need to eat the ramen). I know that if one of us had a health related issue we have the option to change what we are eating. Not everyone is as fortunate.
A friend of mine is an elementary school teacher. Lately when we talk we discuss this project, but also other related issues. I learned today that in her second week of school she has already had two or three of her students telling her that they don’t have food at home. From one of the students she got the impression that many times school lunch as the only meal of the day.
This experiment involved two adults cooking for themselves. I can only imagine how much harder it is for working parents to juggle this kind of challenge with jobs and the work of caring for their kids (who have enormous appetites when they’re growing). Parker-Pope explains how these kinds of hurdles can translate into unhealthy eating:
Researchers say the experiment reflects many of the challenges that poor people actually face. When food stamps and income checks run low toward the end of the month, they often do scrape by on a dollar a day or less. But many people don’t know how to prepare foods from scratch, or lack the time.
“You have to know how to cook beans and rice, how to make tortillas, how to soak lentils,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. “Many people don’t have the knowledge or the time if they’re working two jobs.”
Last year, Dr. Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that “energy dense” junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent.
The next administration and Congress should work on improving access to affordable, nutritious food. For the short term, they should use increased food stamp benefits to both stimulate the economy and ease some of the stress and hunger among those who need help feeding their families.