Friday, December 10, 2010

Can You Live on the USDA Food Budget?

On one of the blogs I read, the husband and wife are attempting to stay within the USDA food budget amount allotted to food stamp recipients for one whole month. That works out to be about $5-$6 per day, per person. I had no clue what amount food stamps provide, but I thought I'd look into the USDA budget.

Starting with December 1st, I started to track what I really spend for food, so I can compare that to what the USDA has to say about budget amounts. I know I have to be very frugal or I wouldn't eat the entire month, but I have no real clue what monies I actually need on average per month to feed myself. There are things I buy where the use or life of the goods may span several months... things like apples and winter squash by the bushel, or spices, condiments, bulk meats, and that makes a budget complicated. 

It will probably take a whole year of tracking for me to get a reasonably close figure of my true average cost. I do know that I don't believe it is possible to eat a healthy diet on the budget allowance the USDA suggests. Their budget suggestions are based on the Standard American Diet, or S.A.D., which is indeed sad. The SAD is very high in empty carbs (like white flour in cakes and pastries, bread, sugar, sodas), and very low in things like essential amino acids found only in saturated fats. However, that diet discussion is best left for another post...

The USDA food figures fall into four categories, and each category is further segmented by gender and then by age or family size: a single male; a single female; a family of 2, and a family of four. These are the category budgets and from what I can see, food stamps provide the lowest category, Thrifty.
and this USDA website has all the breakdown figures beginning with 1994.

I am in the category for a single female, age 51-70, and the monthly cost of food figures (June 2009-May 2010 averages) are these:

Thrifty: $147.60/month
Low-Cost: $183.10/month
Moderate-Cost: $ 227.50/month
Liberal: $ 235.60/month

To add insult, the USDA says my food cost average goes down when I turn from 70 to 71. HUH???

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the PDF's for 2000, 2005, and 2010, and made the chart above showing only my age category in the various spending ranges, just to see how the USDA thinks my costs have increased in just 10 years. In the "Thrifty" column, costs have increased almost 50%, and even in the "Liberal" column, costs have increased around 33%. 

For 8 of those 10 years, Social Security has been my only income, and Social Security income certainly has not had a COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) that reflects the kind of increases shown in the food costs. In fact, there has been no COLA since January 2008 and none expected for next year, 2011... or perhaps ever again.

At any rate, I eat... and plan to continue to eat, so it will be interesting to chart my extreme frugality against what the USDA says is is the norm. (I don't even want to think about charting other expenses like utilities, auto and homeowner's insurance, or gasoline.)

How do you stack up against the USDA figures?


  1. Sometimes I wonder how well I would have managed living on the rations of WWII. I've never tried, but just imagining it makes me very aware of food wastage.

  2. I hadn't thought about the WWII rationing in years. I remember for my 5th birthday (1945) my grandma was only able to get enough rationed eggs and flour to make my birthday cake in a 1 pound coffee can, and the cake was only about 3" tall at that.

    The statistics for food waste by Americans is somewhere over 27%. We end up trashing a full third of our oils and fats. Likewise the researchers calculated we waste 32 percent of our fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, liquid milk, dairy and grain products.

    And while you may not want to count those eggs before they hatch, you can count on 31 percent of them ending up in the garbage (almost four out of every dozen).

  3. I find this fascinating information. I appreciate the research you did to make this available to us. I was a child during WWII and remember rationing and victory gardens and dishes such as slumgullion. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  4. Sheesh, we can spend $150 for the two of us in one weekly grocery trip! We buy a blend of organic & conventional, tilted towards organic.

    What I find so misleading is the gov't saying there's not been significant inflation, but they can only say that after they subtract the rise in gasoline & food. Other than books (my addiction) that's all I buy, so that's a line of BS that just blows my mind. Talk about spin! That's about to reach escape velocity.

    I am once again glad we are working towards producing more of our own food here... better tasting, cheaper, & keeps me fit. =0D

    This will be an interesting project... I think I might take it up a bit. Now sure how, I'll have to discuss it w/the SO. But not only is it a good reality check, it also keeps us in tune w/how much of a struggle it is for the impoverished in this country to eat healthily.

  5. I agree... Tracking my grocery expenditures for the first 10 days of December is already quite an eye opener, not to mention being over the USDA monthly budget.

  6. Could you post the link to the blog of the family trying to stay within the budget? I'd like to follow their adventure.

  7. Sure...

  8. Thanks. After following a few links, I found the current max. SNAP allowance here:

    If I understand it correctly, you get another $50 bucks to spend per month. (Ques. 25)
    What's really stunning is the number of people receiving assistance.

  9. That's interesting, thanks for the link. I don't qualify for SNAP but I get Medicare Payment Assistance since my income falls below the Federal Poverty Line.

    Virginia's SNAP also limits foods to store brands only, unless there aren't any available.

    I find it curious that SNAP will provide food but not soap to wash the dishes. Is that healthy? Or, maybe they think impoverished folks eat with their fingers?


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