Food stamp grocery budgets have been getting a lot of attention in recent years as this or that celebrity or public official tries out “the food stamp budget” of about $28 a week.

The celebrity who is taking on the challenge this week is Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., who is discussing his effort via Twitter hashtag #SNAPChallenge. A sampling of the national headlines:

This isn’t a new idea. I first heard about it in fall 2008, when Voices for Action Network announced a Take the Michigan Food Stamp Challenge. The campaign called for community leaders and volunteers to live on food stamp budgets for one week. The goals were:

  • Increase public awareness of the challenges and perceptions of participants in the food stamp program.
  • Increase monetary and food donations to Michigan food banks.
  • Increase the number of volunteers for Michigan soup kitchens.
  • Obtain a first-hand experience of eating at a soup kitchen and hearing the challenges of Michigan citizens.

I didn’t join the food stamp budget campaign, and here’s why: The lessons that are imparted are effective when experienced and explained by someone who is used to a fairly generous grocery budget. But my family’s grocery budget always been at or slightly below “thrifty” USDA’s Cost of Food Study when I’ve been able to compile actual bookkeeping records to compare to that chart.

In fall 2008, I was actually hitting 80 percent of thrifty.

How do you calculate your grocery bill?

The Cost of Food study is based on the food your family eats. You subtract actual or at least a reasonable guess on percentage for the cost of paper products and non-food items from your grocery receipts, then add back in the cost of whatever you ate at a restaurant, fast food or someone else’s house.

I also teach the monthly range as the number to work with for comparisons rather than a weekly range, as sales and coupons do vary from week to week and an expensive week can be balanced out by a frugal one.

The numbers for thrifty range in October 2012 work out to be this:

  • Single female age 19-50: $160.80 a month. That’s my daughter’s demographic bracket. When she first moved into her own apartment, her grocery bills were a little bit above thrifty as there was a learning curve even for someone who knew how to cook. But it’s about that amount now.
  • Two adults age 19-50: $375.80 a month. That’s the demographic for my husband and I. The last time I did a serious analysis of our grocery bills, we came right in at “thrifty.” It has been calculated at 90 percent and as low as 80 percent in recent years.
  • Two adults and two small children: $546.80 a month. While that seems like a lot, I remember a presentation I gave in Monroe to a mother’s club when a mom was surprised at what I taught as a grocery budget. She explained she was spending twice that amount.

Now about this “food stamp budget.”

I don’t know how $28 a week, or even $30 a week, came to be the calculations for these projects. Based on what I’ve been told, the amount of food stamps allocated per person can vary quite a bit, with the intention it covers part of your grocery expenses to covering all of your groceries. It might even provide even a little more than you were spending previously.

Keep in mind that $28 a week would be $117.60, for example, for single woman when the “thrifty” food budget I teach calls for $160.80.

But let’s talk about how you take the equivalent of a food stamp budget and make it work at the grocery store. And this discussion does need an update, as some of the money-saving tricks that I discussed four year ago as options in Monroe County, Mich., are no longer possible; while new ones have come along.

What stores take food stamps?

Assuming you ended up on food stamps rather than WIC, which is for a specific demographic and has its own complexities, the first thing I want you to do is go to the SNAP Retailer Locator and type in your zip code. This database will provide a list all the stores in your area that will accept food stamps for eligible purchases.

It may be no surprise to see convenience stores listed – as people do notice the signs in many of those stores in regards to “EBT accepted.” But did you also notice the supermarkets, bread stores, farmers’ markets and the health food stores?

If you want a detailed rundown of which stores in Monroe County, Mich., area are food-stamp friendly, I built a grocery database in summer 2010 that includes that key detail.

Another key component in my grocery database involves the coupon policies, shopper card policies and sales flier schedules for those stores. This isn’t “secret” information, nor did it require my press credentials to collect. It just took time to track down. I poked around as many of the retailers’ web sites as I could find and link up; and added in what I knew from watching their newspaper and mail ads. Therefore, if you live outside of Monroe County and want to collect this amount of detail for your city or town’s supermarkets and stores, you now know how I built my database. You can build your own.

For example, the Double Up Food Bucks program, of which Monroe and Dundee Farmers’ Markets are among the participants, allows food stamp clients to get twice the produce for their “money.”

Make a grocery plan.

There are two directions you can choose from when you decide how and where to shop:

You can become an expert in the pricing and sales cycles at one particular store. This the theory that The Grocery Game web site works with. My sister-in-law also has become an expert price-watcher at her favorite Giant Eagle store in Ohio. You will shop the sales, and then create your menus based on what is on sale this week or what you stocked up on at previous weeks.

Or you can become a trend watcher and keep more than one supermarket or store on your radar screen. That’s what I do, and here’s why: I break up what other families consider to be “weekly” shopping into two smaller grocery trips during the week. While I did this for reasons that include the fact my husband drinks a lot of milk, the side effect is I shop the sales at two different stores during one weekly grocery cycle.

And did you sign up for all the shopper cards and discount programs that apply to those stores? Again, for my local readers: that information is in my grocery database.

What about coupons?

Some people dismiss grocery coupons as being useful for really tight budgets because the least expensive pantry and grocery basics are not necessarily coupon-friendly. That is a fair argument.

That being said, I think the typical family is happier with the mix of groceries that coupon savings can provide for the same amount of money as compared to relying only on store brands or basic foods.

And yes, you can use coupons if you are on food stamps.

If you live in Monroe County, Mich., you don’t need a newspaper subscription to get your hands on newspaper coupons. Most of the library branches, and also some churches and other locations, have community coupon swap boxes. Area residents are asked to drop off coupons still in date that they won’t use, but another family might find helpful; and then look for coupons they might find useful for their families.

These coupon boxes are FREE to use; and I know the box at Dorsch library is both well fed (I contribute to it) and well used. Look here for the list of where those boxes can be found.

Yes, I have heard people dig into recycling bins or steal newspapers for coupon books. I don’t encourage either tactic. We have coupon boxes at the libraries in Monroe County. Use them. If you live somewhere else, find out if your day care, school or library is willing to host a coupon box and offer to keep it fed and expired coupons cleared out.

What about recipes or a menu plan?

As I mentioned in my newspaper column this week, there are efforts to help families make the most of food stamp budgets or equivalent at the grocery store.

For example, the Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters classes, a national program offered by Share Our Strength, are available in the Monroe County area to teach budget-friendly shopping tactics, menu ideas and recipes.

I also recommend either attending a program by, or reading an article I wrote two years ago about, Darla Jaros of Michigan. She has taken her experience menu planning as a single mom and developed it into a how-to pantry program and cookbook.

Sign up for other assistance programs.

If you are on a food stamp income, the chances are very good you are income-eligible for other programs and resources. Sign up and use them to stretch your money as much as possible.

I’ve said this many times: If your budget is short $100 a month, it really doesn’t matter where that $100 comes from.

Southeast Michigan residents can look through a huge database at Julie’s List to find out what exists and what might be applicable to a given set of circumstances.

The Monroe on a Budget archives also include any public service announcements that run in The Monroe Evening News that are appropriate to families on a budget in the Monroe County area.

If you live elsewhere, call the United Way or 211 hotline in your area to get referrals, web sites and phone numbers of where to start.

Update: I’ve since found a chart that lists maximum food stamp allotments for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Go here to see that chart and the related discussion.


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