“I Have No Idea How You Are Going to Pull This Off”: Nutrition on A Minimum Wage Budget

“Here’s what my $29.96 bought me,” Rep. John Lesch (DFL-Saint Paul) says into the camera. He then turns the camera to his kitchen floor, where he has laid three meals a day for the entire week. Lesch is one of the Minnesota lawmakers participating in our Minimum Wage Challenge, which limits his weekly food budget at roughly $35.

In the homemade video posted on YouTube, Lesch runs over this meal plan: for breakfast, two eggs and one cup of fruit loops; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Ramen noodles for lunch; and depending on the day, repeating that same lunch for dinner. For a few dinners, he includes a Tostino’s Personal Party Pizza.

“Now keep in mind, this is for one person,” he says. “If you have to raise a family, if you have a child, two children on minimum wage, I have no idea how you are going to pull this off.”

We know that many low-wage workers in Minnesota and across the country do have to care for children. Out of more than 356,000 low-wage workers in the state, about 63,000 have at least one child.


As he goes over his meal plan, Lesch points out that he has tried to vary his meals day to day–a few tuna sandwiches mixed in with the PB&J, no mayo–but that it’s a pretty repetitive diet. There’s also no fruits or vegetables, save for a few cans of green beans and corn.

“I don’t know how sick of this I’ll get,” Lesch concludes, “or how fat I will get, eating all the MSGs and whatever else is in the Ramen…and all the fat in the pizza.”

The lack of nutrition available on a minimum wage budget struck Moorhead City Councilwoman Heidi Durand as well. “I can’t tolerate another can of condensed soup…I haven’t had fresh fruit or veggies since Wednesday,” she reported, “I know one thing: our minimum wage is not healthy!”

We’ve heard since we were children about the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. The calcium, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folic acid,  and other nutrients in fruits and vegetables are especially important for a child’s development, but also for adults to protect against osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, digestive problems, and even mental conditions like Alzheimer’s and depression.

Durand said she felt the emotional pressure even after just a few days. “[Living on minimum wage] is not emotionally healthy either. There were several moments where I felt completely dependent and helpless and the only thing that got me through was knowing it was temporary.”

The Minnesota legislative session will begin today, February 25. Tell the Minnesota Senate to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2015.

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Taking Food from the Mouths of Children

Raj Patel on why we shouldn’t cut food stamps to pay for school lunch programs as in the Senate’s version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, “in which an improved school meal program will be paid for by cutting back $2 billion in funding for food stamps in 2013”:

No one disputes that poor children need to be better fed, but government food stamp entitlements are the last tatters of a safety net for many millions of people. Evidence? Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that 50.2 million Americans were food insecure in 2009, a mere 1 million more than the year before. Although that’s still one in six people, the figure was a victory. Given the soaring rates of poverty and unemployment in 2009, there could have been considerably more food insecure people.

You’d think we’d be ashamed of those numbers.

We need to expand both SNAP and school lunch programs. That means rejecting the Sophie’s Choice between families and children. Behind the logic of paying for school lunches with food stamp funding is an assumption that, if poor families are sinking, “save women and children first.” The trouble is that cutting the food stamp program will hurt women more than men. Look at who goes hungry in the U.S.: over a third of all single-female-headed households who have children are food insecure. No other household demographic is as likely to be going hungry. So, cut SNAP and who gets hurt? America’s poorest women.

You’d think we’d be ashamed of that, too.

To put this all into perspective, we know from the OMB that the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts will be $5 trillion over the next ten years. American children are being hurt by hunger. Their families are too. The idea of choosing between them would be morally repugnant if, indeed, it were a choice—but what becomes increasingly clear when you look both at the economics and sociology of hunger is that you can’t save one group without saving the other. There is no Sophie’s Choice here—there are simply degrees of harm that we allow to be inflicted on the poor.

Our legislators are huffing and puffing to extend those tax cuts – while soberly shaking their heads and expressing their faux-sorrow that in these perilous economic times that we must all tighten our belts and accept some suffering. Will Congress really take food from the mouths of children so as not to inconvenience the rich?

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Don’t Get Too Comfortable

…with your big food stamp allotment, warns congressional candidate Nick Popaditch, from California’s 51st district:

Popaditch says he believes in a safety net, but he doesn’t want you to get “too comfortable down there.”

As MoJo points out, that Food Stamp “comfort” amounts to about $3.37 a day.

I’m afraid to learn what his idea of discomfort might be. Breadlines? Poor houses?

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How to Be Hardhearted

Two things that are going to remain shocking no matter how many times they play out: The fact that

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

And how some legislators respond to the existence of people living on nothing but a couple hundred dollars a month in food stamps:

“This is craziness,” said Representative John Linder, a Georgia Republican who is the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. “We’re at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government.”

We’ve seen this before, of course. Remember the Missouri legislator who said that “hunger can be a positive motivator” when opposing a summer lunch program for kids?

But it is still shocking and appalling that anyone would think—or pretend to think, for the purposes of scapegoating others—that people would be comfortable living off the type and amount of food you can get for maybe $200 a month, with no money for anything else. That people who worked hard at jobs from physical labor to real estate sales would enjoy selling their blood, denying their children decent meals or new clothes, scavenging for discarded furniture to sell.

There are two ways you think people are comfortable with this: Either you just don’t think about it. You don’t think about how little food you can get for that money, and how many things food stamps don’t buy. Or you deny the basic humanity of food stamp recipients and tell yourself it doesn’t matter if they suffer.

Why you’d want to do that is another matter.

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Food Insecurity on the Rise

Food Insecurity is defined by the USDA as: inadequate or unsure access to enough food for active, healthy living. The USDA has been doing a study each December since 1995. The latest USDA results are from 2008. From the study:

The number of food-insecure U.S. households rose from 13.0 million (11.1 percent of all households) in 2007 to 17.1 million (14.6 percent) in 2008. The additional food-insecure households were nearly evenly split between households with and without children, about 2 million in each group. However, the increase was proportionally larger for households with children. Among these households, the prevalence of food insecurity rose from 15.8 percent in 2007 to 21.0 percent in 2008. The corresponding increase for households without children was from 8.7 to 11.3 percent.

It seems reasonable to assume that food insecurity continued to increase in 2009, and that it is likely to worsen in 2010 as food prices continue to rise. From the NY Times:

The Agriculture Department is forecasting that food prices will increase 3.5 to 4.5 percent in 2009, compared with an estimated 5 to 6 percent increase by the end of this year.

Some economists project even steeper increases next year. For instance, Bill Lapp, principal at Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, said he expected food prices to jump 7 to 9 percent next year.

These price increases are tied to the high prices for commodities such as grain, wheat, and corn earlier in the year. The commodity prices are coming down, but food costs haven’t caught up yet. Meat and poultry producers say they will have to significantly increase their prices.

As a result, more people are using the available food safety nets than ever before. According to the NY Times more than 36 million people in the US are using food stamps.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

The program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) would like to do more:

“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.”

Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food.

“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” he said. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”

SNAP issues plastic cards – like debit cards. Mercifully the day of the big, fake, food stamp dollars, and the stigma that accompanied them is over.