By Paula Wethington / Monroe on a Budget

An idea called the food stamp challenge, or eating on a food stamp budget, is intended to draw attention to the plight of those living in poverty.

In a typical scenario, a well-known personality or politician takes on the project for a day or a week, with reports in the news media or social media about the experience.

This is not a new idea, as it has been happening off and on in recent years. But it has been picking quite a bit of attention lately under the hashtag #SNAPchallenge.

I wish this concept was more of an opportunity to help those who are struggling financially, especially those who are newly poor, figure HOW to get by on a tight grocery budget instead of lamenting on how it CAN’T be done. There are lots of programs and resources available such as Double Up Food Bucks, Shopping Matters and Cooking Matters on just that theme. The lessons that the coupon columnists and bloggers give also are applicable, as they teach consumers how to use sales and promotions.

But the other concern I have is that some of the challenge projects do not use the math that supposed to be the food budget, rather than the food stamp allotment. And yes, there is a difference.

The point is this: food stamp allotments in many cases are not intended to cover a family’s entire monthly grocery bill. Many clients, specifically the working poor, are issued allotments lower than the expected grocery budget for their family size. The reason is a formula that counts some of the money they earn as food money.

Because of that, I would say the amounts of $4.50 a day or $31.50 a week that is the working figure for the current wave of “food stamp budget” challenges is not really fair or accurate. Based on how I read the charts that this entire concept relies on, the #snapchallenge should be set closer to $5.40 a day or $37.80 a week for an adult.

The actual food budget would still rattle people whose normal diets are closer to $10.71 a day or $75 a week – and yes, those people do exist. But it would be in all honesty, more realistic.

First, let’s talk about the grocery budget itself.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been publishing monthly studies for almost 20 years on the cost of food in four different diet / price brackets. The research studies and food plans the study relies on can be researched at the USDA Web site. The study is also updated every month to reflect actual food prices, and the formula acknowledges a teenage boy eats a lot more than his younger sister.

The Food Research and Action Center has a pretty good explanation:

What is the Thrifty Food Plan?

The Thrifty Food Plan is USDA’s estimate of what it costs to purchase a minimally adequate diet. The Thrifty Food Plan is the least expensive market basket of food the government prices – and recommends for short-term use. It serves as the government’s basis for Food Stamp allotments.

Look up your own family’s expenses on the chart. Keep in mind that is the cost of all food eaten, whether in the home or out of the home. It does not include paper goods or personal care products.

As a result, you may need to do some math by subtracting non-food items you purchase at the grocery store and adding back in the cost of restaurant food.

CostofFoodApr2013So now you know the methodology and where I’m getting my numbers. And yes, thrifty is very do-able. My family has been at or slightly below thrifty every time I’ve done a detailed analysis. (Discussion from January 2013).

Why are the allocation numbers different?

A “food stamp grocery budget” isn’t necessarily what a client will receive in food stamps. I discussed the formula in detail in January, but here’s the explanation and a screen shot from the USDA Web site.


Yes, you start with a chart in which the maximum allotment that is close to, and in some cases is slightly higher, than USDA “thrifty” for that family size.

But food stamp clients are expected to spend 30 percent of their household financial resources on food. The net income is multiplied by .30, and that amount is subtracted out. The example showed that a family of four making $13,772 a year would therefore end up with $324 in food stamps as their grocery budget was expected to be supplemented by $344 of their earned money each month.

So now the question becomes: why can’t the clients make up the difference when the formula says they are technically responsible for some of their food costs?

Given the income and asset requirements for food stamps, and the range of everyday household needs that the traditional safety net isn’t equipped to handle (gas money, diapers and laundry service among them), anyone who is actually eligible for food stamps is probably having trouble keeping up with other expenses.

Therefore, while the math that many food stamp challenges are using is skewed too low in my opinion, it is fair to say that the other financial resources in those households are probably already tapped out.

Yes, one possible solution is to adjust the food stamp formula so that the average allotment is higher. Maybe a 20 percent or 10 percent income write-off for those who are working poor makes more sense than 30 percent.

But there may be other solutions that deal with the overall financial picture. Do remember that if someone’s monthly budget is short by $100 or $200, it really doesn’t matter where that help comes from, or what expense it is meant to cover.

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