Is Feeding a Family on Food Stamps Feasible?

Several members of Congress and the governor of Oregon are making an attempt to feed themselves this week on a typical food-stamp budget: $21. Nutritionist Marion Nestle examines the prospects of eating well on $3 a day.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

Coming up: remembering a pioneering female war correspondent. But first, several members of Congress are taking part in a little experiment this week. They want to see if they can spend just $21 a week on food. That's the average amount per person that 26 million Americans who received food stamps get for a week's worth of groceries. That works out to about $3 a day or a dollar per meal.

We here at WEEKEND EDITION wanted to know how healthfully one could eat on $3 a day. For the answer, we turned to New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle. She's also the author of "What to Eat?" Marion Nestle joins us from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

Professor MARION NESTLE (Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University; Author of "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating."): I'm glad to be here.

YDSTIE: First of all, how feasible is it to buy nutritious food…

Prof. NESTLE: Well, for some…

YDSTIE: …for $21 a week?

Prof. NESTLE: I don't think it would be possible to eat a healthful diet on that amount of money, unless you are a really good cook. You would have to cook your food, you'd have to buy rice and beans, potatoes, small amounts of meat, small amounts of dairy and various kinds of low-cost fruits and vegetables, and those do exist, and kind of put together a diet that's relatively highly starch-based, and in which those other kinds of fruits are used as condiments, very much like the Chinese diet.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm, and I guess, the question is how feasible is it for a food stamp recipient who - who might have children, who might work all day, who might live far from a grocery store, how feasible is it to shop and cook for a family?

Prof. NESTLE: Well, I'd say it was impossible, and it's a very low priority item. It's much easier to buy fast foods, particularly in low-income neighborhoods that we nutritionists refer to as food deserts, which are places where you just cannot buy healthful and fresh foods. You can buy foods in packages. There are liquor stores, but there aren't grocery stores in a lot of low-income neighborhoods in America, and so the transportation issues become enormous.

And the cooking takes a very, very low priority - many people don't know how to cook. A lot of what the federal agencies do when they're really doing their job well in low-income neighborhoods is to teach people how to cook, and how to deal with the foods that aren't very expensive, so they can feed their families well.

YDSTIE: The governor of Oregon is also trying to live on $21 a week. And he says he spent his allotment on foods that he likes like yogurt, Zucchini and fruit, but he says, he went to bed hungry and tired.

Prof. NESTLE: Well, he went to bed hungry and tired - maybe his choices weren't good enough, but the exhaustion of trying to figure out how to feed a family on that tiny amount of money must be just enormous. It's one thing to do it as intellectual exercise or as an experiential exercise. It's quite another matter to be confronted with it on a day-to-day basis.

YDSTIE: The other thing that poor families have to contend with also is the aggressive marketing of fast foods and junk foods as opposed to these more nutritious foods.

Prof. NESTLE: Well, yes, and fast food companies target low-income areas for advertising and marketing and also for positioning of their stores. So often, those are the only places to buy food, and families are grateful for having cooked food that the kids like; that fills them up; readily available at not very high cost. When you start putting it together that $21 wouldn't go very far.

And so that families who are poor and are dependent on food stamps must find other sources, like food pantries and places where foods are given away. And that sort of thing - it's a full-time job just to try to round up enough food to keep your family fed.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much.

Prof. NESTLE: My pleasure.

YDSTIE: Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating."

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