Saturday, February 28, 2009

A diet of "thrifty" meals

More than 31 million people in the U.S. currently receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which until last October was known as the Food Stamp Program. The number represents roughly one out of every ten Americans. The SNAP caseload has jumped by 15 percent in just the last year and looks to soar even higher as the economy deteriorates.

The SNAP is a means-tested program, which means that eligibility and benefits depend on people's incomes and some other resources. For households with little or no income, the maximum benefit is set to "meet" a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food cost plan, called the Thrifty Food Plan. For households with somewhat higher incomes, the maximum benefit is reduced either 24 cents for each dollar of earnings and 30 cents for each dollar of unearned income. The reduction reflects an expectation that these households will contribute some of their own resources to meet the food cost target.

The Thifty Food Plan is the least expensive of several low-cost food plans that the USDA prices out each month. SNAP benefits are adjusted each October based on the food plan for the preceding June. The figures for June 2008 put the weekly cost of meals for a household with two adults and two preadolescent school children at $135.80 per week, or $588 per month. $588 is also the maximum monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four.

Because food costs usually rise, SNAP benefits almost always lag behind these minimum standards. For instance, by December the USDA estimated that food costs for the same family of four had risen to $601. While the SNAP formula adjusts for the number of household members, it does not adjust for the ages of the members. Households with infants and very young children benefit from this, while households with teenagers or only adults lose out.

SNAP households will get a small break, starting this April. A provision in the recently enacted stimulus package will temporarily boost benefits by 13.6%, putting all of these households slightly above the low-end food cost plan.

Is the Thrifty Food Plan a realistic expectation for families? There are arguments to suggest it's not. For example, while the documentation of the plans state that they account for preparation time, the models that are used to calculate them do not incorporate any time use data. Also, in the most recent update of the plans in 2003, researchers kept the costs constant while adjusting meals and diets, rather than working things out the other way around.

To help SNAP families and other families plan their meals, the USDA has published a guide based on its food plan called Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals. The guide provides an alternative way to test USDA assumptions, and that's what we're going to do.

For the next two weeks, the Ribars--mom, dad, and two teenage boys--are going to prepare and eat foods that follow the guide as closely as we can. We spotted some immediate adjustments that had to be made. For one thing, we needed to rearrange the timing of some meals to meet our work schedules and the boys' activity schedules (a three-hour pot roast works for us on a weekend but not on a weeknight). Along the same lines, we're sticking with our regular bag lunches on weekdays; we can't stay home to cook and eat lunches as the guide mandates. We're also picking and choosing among breakfast menus because of time constraints in the morning. In addition, we will have to adjust portion sizes to reflect the boys' ages (the guide assumes that the children are younger). For some people, these caveats might already answer the "reasonableness" question.

Below is the menu that we've set for the upcoming week. You can judge whether this comes close enough to the guidebook.

Menu for week 1
Breakfast Lunch Dinner
orange juice; cereal; English muffins; milk
cold cut sandwiches; apples; sugar cookies; carrots
turkey cabbage casserole; orange slices; white bread; chickpea dip; milk
orange juice; cereal; English muffins; milk
cold cut sandwiches; apples; sugar cookies; carrots
beef noodle casserole; black beans; banana orange salad; milk
orange juice; cereal; bagels; milk
cold cut sandwiches; apples; store cookies; carrots
saucy beef pasta; white bread; canned pears; orange juice; milk
orange juice; cereal; bagels; milk
cold cut sandwiches; apples; store cookies; carrots
turkey stir fry; steamed rice; white bread; peach-apple crisp; milk
orange juice; cereal; toast; milk
peanut butter & jelly sandwiches; apples; store cookies; carrots
baked cod w/ cheese; scalloped potatoes; spinach; orange slices; milk
orange juice; baked French toast; milk
potato soup; crackers; tuna pasta salad; orange slices; oatmeal cookies; milk
baked chicken; mashed potatoes; green beans; white bread; peach cake; milk
orange juice; scrambled eggs; hash browns; milk
potato soup; crackers; apple orange slices; oatmeal cookies; milk
beef pot roast; noodles; peas & carrots; orange slices; peach cake; milk

Our goals here are very limited. We are mainly looking at whether the recipes are at all realistic. Are they really inexpensive? Can they be prepared in a reasonable amount of time? Can we get the kids to eat them?

We also know that our experience isn't going to be anything close to what a SNAP household would face. First of all, we're keeping to a menu rather than a specific budget. Second, following any type of restricted plan for two weeks is much different than following a plan for months or years. Third, we start with a fully functioning kitchen, a pantry full of spices and other basic ingredients, and cabinets full of pots, pans, and appliances.

Wish us luck, especially with the turkey cabbage casserole tomorrow night.