$35 week second thoughts – added costs of being poor

Here’s an issue related to the Food Stamp Challenge that, I’m ashamed to admit, didn’t occur to me until I was grocery shopping this morning. Poverty doesn’t just mean food stamps; it also tends to mean no car, or an unreliable car, as well as living where there are few or no supermarkets. (All the mom-and-pop corner grocers in my town went out of business decades ago, but next door to my town is Camden – one of the poorest cities in the country, and still full of corner stores. And the economics of running a corner grocery mean higher prices and smaller selections.)

I was able to get through the week under the $35 ceiling because I could drive to Wegman’s – the cheapest supermarket within 5 miles (8 km) of  my home – and use the car to lug back whatever I bought (instead of needing to carry it myself, while walking dangerously along the side of a high-speed road). Even depending on the supermarket that’s less than a mile from my house would have put me over the limit; their prices are that much higher. If I were really living like a poor person, I don’t think I could have finished the challenge successfully after all.

How many people on food stamps can’t be as thrifty as they need to be, because there’s no practical way for them to get to the stores with the best values?

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18 responses to “$35 week second thoughts – added costs of being poor

  1. beverleysmith36

    yes i agree with you, if all you have is £5 or $5 and it costs you half of that to get to the nearest supermarket and there is a corner shop which may be more expensive but then at least you can use all the money on shopping and not travel.

  2. You raise a real issue. In my work I am faced with helping the disparate population access healthcare. The barriers the poor among us face on a daily basis are overwhelming and often further complicated by employers that hold them hostage by threat of job loss further inhibiting them from seeking care.

  3. The answer to that question is worth millions! Awareness helps though. I applaud you for trying the food stamp budget on for this period of time.

  4. There’s been a push lately in Portland to subsidize the smaller neighborhood markets/mini-marts that are still in business and help them stock things like fruit and bulk grains, but from my experience living in one of these neighborhoods, I seem to be the only one buying these types of things. Most of my fellow less-well-to-do neighbors appear to live off soda, chips, cookies and lottery tickets; they have no interest in going to a “real” grocery store. This was very eye-opening for me.

    • ‘Tis a problem. (Let me be optimistic for a minute – could it be that they use the corner store to pick up a quick snack, and make occasional stock-up trips to a supermarket? I hope so.) Around here, there are news stories from time to time about school programs to encourage children, especially poor children, to sample vegetables. Generally at elementary school level, I guess on the theory that it’s easier to influence kids 6 – 12 than teenagers. On the other hand, Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia had a major debacle about a year ago, and the year before that, when he tried to get a tax on sugary drinks passed (after a study noticed that a lot of poor kids were chugging sodas from the corner grocer on the way home from school; besides, his other option was to raise property taxes). The soft drink industry screamed in agony; a number of people felt their pain and screamed at the very idea of paying more for the stuff; City Council voted against the idea. I assume the kids are still chugging sodas. A sad combo of poor individual choices and industry pressure triumphing.

  5. A definite Catch-22.

    Sadly, there are many families I have never seen at the grocery store, nor seen with bags from the grocery store, and believe me, I’ve been looking. The detritus often littering the sidewalk in front of our house (Donettes wrappers, Arby’s sandwiches) and the apparent constant lack of parental supervision further confirms my suspicions.

  6. You’ve certainly touched a nerve with this one. I cook from scratch, don’t eat out and eat quite healthily, with plenty of fruit and veg. I’m not sure of the exchange rate, but I spend about £35 pw on food for myself not counting treats (good orange juice, chocolate, etc) but could do it for less if I had to – as I did when a student. Trouble is, it takes skill and ingenuity to eat healthily on a tight budget, and as you’ve said, access to a decent shop is important. Plus, if you have cash flow problems you can’t benefit from savings on bulk buying or buy-one-get-one-free.

    • It’s really a challenging problem, isn’t it? The only firm conclusion I can come to is that the idea of decreasing benefits is unconscionable, whether people are using the “stamps” – actually debit cards these days – as well as possible or not.

      It’s also hard to figure out how 35 pounds compares to 35 dollars. Yes, it’s easy enough to check the exchange rate – but are prices equivalent? The last time I was in London – almost ten years ago now :( – I noticed that I had a sort of mental stutter about costs. I would look at a price, think “Oh, that’s about normal”, and then remember it was pounds not dollars. At the time one pound was worth about $1.65, I think – so London prices were more than 50% higher than for similar things here. I have no idea if that’s true of all of England, and I have no idea whether it’s still true or not.

  7. Good point – I think your exchange rate is about right. From here one tends to assume that food in the States is much cheaper, but maybe not. Quick comparison? 4 pints milk, about £1.30, large good brown loaf £1.25, 500g minced beef £3.50, small tin salmon £1, a cabbage or a bag of carrots or mushrooms or broccoli 65p to 90p each, 3 bananas 50p. All those would be decent quality – could do it for less if you bought bottom of the range.
    That doesn’t show what proportion of average income people have to spend on food, but does it give you an idea if £35 here buys the same/more as you can get for your $35 limit?

    • Sorry for the delay in replying, but this was more complicated to answer than it looks! First of all, today’s paper tells me that the exchange rate at the moment, subject to change without notice etc etc, is one pound = 1.622 dollars, 1 dollar = .6165 pounds. But the real complication is that food is apparently sold in different units in England and the US! Specifically, almost all produce here is sold by weight. So here goes:

      Extra lean ground beef and bananas are almost exactly the same price in the US (well, at least in New Jersey; it’s a big country and there are probably regional variations) as in England. Same with cabbage – the last head I bought cost £ .54 ($.87).

      Milk is more expensive here. Supermarkets don’t sell it by the pint, but 2 quarts would come to £ 2.01, and a half gallon (which is what I would normally buy) would be £ 1.63. I’m not sure how big your large brown loaf is, but a loaf of whole wheat bread here – about .75 kilo – would go for £ 2.46, so that’s probably more expensive too. Salmon appears to be a lot more expensive, depending on the size of your small tin; a small can here is 63g and comes in two grades, pink or red. 63g of pink salmon would be £ 1.60, and the fancy red stuff would be £ 3.38.

      Carrots, mushrooms, and broccoli are priced by the pound here. (Actually, so are bananas and cabbage, but I happened to have 3 bananas on hand, weighed them, and they came to just a pound – avoirdupois, not sterling; about 454 grams.) So, assuming I did the conversions from English to metric units and from dollars to pounds correctly, the best I can do is tell you that, last time I bought each, 500g of carrots was £ .85; 500g of broccoli was £ .68; and 500g of mushrooms was £ 2.26.

  8. Hmm – interesting. Fresh food is mostly sold by weight here as well (but in kilos now) – I was going by memory and ‘bag’ isn’t very helpful as a unit!

    From my last till receipt, carrots were about 45p per 500g and onions the same. The mushrooms would be a lot cheaper than yours, if I buy them on offer – £1 for 500g. Apples and tomatoes are over £1 for 500g. The really different thing would be the tinned fish – 63g sounds an awfully tiny tin – our small can would be about 125g I think (haven’t got one in the cupboard at the moment) and a 400g tin of pink salmon is about £2.50 – £3.50 I think, depending where you buy it, and tuna is cheaper again.

    These prices are small supermarket – they would be less in a big Tesco, probably, and considerably more in a corner shop. I could eat reasonably well on £23 – 25 pw but it would take a lot of thought and no frills, and like you I wouldn’t want to try to feed a growing teenage boy or someone doing physical labour on that.

    Well – I don’t think these comparisons are very scientific, but they are interesting and certainly correct the impression of very cheap food in the States. Thanks for doing sums. And good luck with your $35 challenge.

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