“Let them eat cake” – Marie Antoinette.
There is an exciting new diet that is sweeping the country, where you limit your calories by the simple expedient of not having any money. It’s called the Food Stamp Diet. You know I’m always game for a new diet, so I was pretty amped to try it out.
Like most science bloggers, I make an embarrassing amount of money, so I would never need Food Stamp assistance myself. In fact, my accountant tells me that I have put aside enough retirement money to enjoy an entire day at Starbucks, including free Wi-Fi, so I’m not worried.
But I have friends who qualify for food stamps, and you probably do too. According to Mark Rank of Washington University, half of American kids have received food stamps at some point in their lives. That’s a lot of lucky kids.
The government offers a generous stipend of about $4.30 per day in the form of food stamps. I’ve heard people say this is not enough money to buy groceries, but I’m pretty sure those people are just whiners. I’m a smart shopper, so I figured this should be a snap. I set out to show the doubters how easy it is to eat like a prince, if not a king, on less than $5 a day.
The Food Stamp Diet
Without looking at prices, I went shopping and made sure to stick to small servings. I hit the sales and avoided anything exotic. As I learned in college, it’s amazing what you can make with half a can of left-over beer, a little mustard and some sofa Cheetos. Unfortunately “amazing” is not the same as “delicious”, but you get my drift. People just aren’t creative enough!
Here’s the menu I came up with:
It’s a good, healthy menu and I felt pretty smug until I looked at the totals. The dinner alone had busted my budget. Put it all together, and I was up to $10.10 a day! Okay, this is not an extravagant menu, but it’s expensive because it’s overly healthy, with salmon, whole grain bread, dark vegetables and unprocessed meat (okay, I put bacon in there and I know it’s wrong and I feel just terrible).
So, let’s try some cheaper fish. How about cod? Nope, that only saves a buck. Unfortunately, a single quarter-pound serving of pretty much any kind of fish totally blows our whole daily food stamp allotment, so finned food is off the menu. We’ll stay on land with a ground beef patty. Asparagus is also too expensive, so we’ll substitute potatoes. Instead of roast beef, we’ll go with bologna. For wheat bread, we’ll substitute white bread. Here’s the revamped menu:
That all comes to $4.57, which is slightly over our budget, but let’s not quibble. I can just skip the apple tomorrow.
So, the whiners were wrong! We put together a pretty folksy menu with stuff that people like. Of course, it doesn’t include what the government says is healthy, but who doesn’t love bologna, white bread and potatoes? The best deal is potatoes. Fruits and green veggies are expensive compared with potatoes. In fact, everything is expensive compared with potatoes. Even potting soil. That’s right, potatoes are cheaper than dirt.
I found it easy, but boring, to eat like this all week. I switched it up a bit, tossing in some beans and rice on occasion. I ate a lot of potatoes. I would have liked some sour cream and crumbled bacon on them, but who do I think I am, a member of Congress? I was often hungry, but my Mom always told me that deprivation builds character. And even though I now have a lot of character, I would have killed for a snack. This was a pretty bare-bones menu. Like I said, food for a prince, not a king. But I was pretty sure I was losing weight, especially since I was hungry all the time. That’s the sign of a good diet, right? No pain, no gain? Okay, that’s totally the wrong slogan for a diet, but you know what I mean.
After a week I was ready for my weigh-in. Incredibly, I had put on five pounds! This is just my personal experience, of course. Your mileage may vary, but personally I count this as a very bad diet. Even though I was getting a minimal number of calories, and even though I was often hungry, I still gained weight. Worse yet, I went a week without beer, and I’ll never get that back.
In addition, I felt funky. I know, that’s not a very scientific term. Maybe it was because I was heavier, but I felt sluggish. As I usually do, I went to the Internet after it was far too late. There I found some research that helps to explain my weird results.
Wherein Everything is Explained
The official USDA Food Plan website says that the average monthly cost to feed a 15-year old is $300, or $10 a day. Right off the bat, we can see that food stamps don’t cover even half the cost of a real-world diet. You may have to skip some meals. In my case, that’s probably a good idea. But if you are a kid, your caloric needs are greater because your body and mind are growing like kudzu. Doctors say this is exactly the wrong time to skimp. Those doctors, by the way, are the same killjoys who tell me to quit eating like a teenager. Why must the world be so unfair?
It also turns out that eating potatoes, white bread and bologna every day is not necessarily good for you either. Who knew? Okay, I seem to recall Michelle Obama mentioning something like this, but who can keep track? While potatoes may fill you up, they have very few nutrients. Here’s a hint: eat the skin and toss the insides (no toss, no loss?). The downside is that then you’ll be hungry again. This is a hard game to win.
Meanwhile white bread gives you sugar spikes that can jack up your energy levels only to crash you into nap-time. And bologna? The name says it all. Weirdly enough, according to nutritionists, it’s possible to gain weight – even become obese – and still be malnourished. That might explain why so many poor people look so well-endowed while still being hungry and sickly. Ultimately, that will cost the country a bundle in healthcare. Fortunately, the bill won’t come due until after the current crop of politicians are comfortably retired, so it’s nothing to worry about.
The Food Stamp diet seems well-designed to promote weight gain while still enabling hunger (a terrific motivator). That was a difficult trick to pull off, but we put the best minds in Washington on it and they came through for us, big-time.
A Few Niggling Problems
So, the program works and kids put on weight, even though they still end up hungry on occasion. What’s wrong with that? Well, according to the worrywarts at the NEA, hungry children have lower math scores. They are more likely to repeat grades and miss school altogether. Research done at Baylor College of Medicine showed that hungry children are more likely to be depressed, anxious and irritable. Their growth can be stunted. They have a harder time concentrating and thinking clearly and find themselves in the nurse’s office more often.
That sounds bad, but remember that if we ever need smart kids, we can always import some Europeans or Asians, who have about half of the hunger issues we do here (mollycoddlers!). That’s partly why those countries score so much higher than us on standardized testing. And there, in a nutshell, you see the brilliance of American politicians: why spend money on our own hungry kids (which just demotivates them), when we can reach out to other countries and take advantage of their largess? Globalization is a wonderful thing.
Outside of foreign imports, what else can we do? Well, these vagrants could just get a job. How hard can it be? You don’t see people going hungry on Wall Street, do you? Bankers apparently have the right work ethic, unlike, say, a rubber or steel worker. It’s unfortunate that the Bankers destroyed the world economy, but it was just an accident, and they have paid for it by not increasing their bonuses as much as they might have. But did they mope? Hell no! They jumped right back in their Herman Miller recliners and started to deal derivatives again, almost as if nothing had happened. What troopers!
Contrast that with wastrel blue-collar workers who all decided to get axed at the same time. Where was the fire in their belly (except as a tedious sign of hunger)? Here they still are, luxuriating on free government giveaways, while the bankers work their ascots off.
In fact, the financial wizards who run the country may no longer actually need people at all. They have figured out how to live on almost pure capital; labor is basically passé. It’s far past time for unemployed workers to realize that they can’t go on coasting like this. I think I speak for most economists when I say that the answer is clear: we must all become bankers.
Until then, if you are a hungry kid on Food Stamps, kick yourself, because you chose the wrong parents. If you had been born to a member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires), you wouldn’t be hungry now, would you? Let that be a lesson.
Oh, yeah, to further urge you to quit slacking, Congress just cut the Food Program by 5%. There’s no need to thank them, they already know how proud we are. You now have $4.10 a day to spend creatively.
I suggest potatoes.
Weinreb, Linda, Cheryl Wehler, Jennifer Perloff, Richard Scott, David Hosmer, Linda Sagor, and Craig Gundersen. “Hunger: Its Impact on Children’s Health and Mental Health.” Pediatrics 110, no. 4 (October 2002): e41.
“Average Monthly Food Stamp Benefits Per Person.” Accessed November 6, 2013. http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/avg-monthly-food-stamp-benefits/.
“Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. City Average and Midwest Region.” Accessed November 6, 2013. http://www.bls.gov/ro3/apmw.htm.
Facts About Child Nutrition, National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/home/39282.htm
Hunger hinders school performance, Baylor College of Medicine. https://www.bcm.edu/research/centers/childrens-nutrition-research-center/consumer/archives/breakfast-fuel.htm
Effects of Childhood Hunger Last for Decades, Time Health & Family. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2008240,00.html