FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Local politicians struggle with a week on a Food Stamps budget

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AURORA | Before they’d even made it through the produce section, the Holen family’s food budget was dwindling.

The basket had just a handful of items — including some leeks, a whole roaster chicken, kielbasa, pork, potatoes and carrots — and they’d already spent almost $25. That left the married local politicians (Debi Hunter-Holen is a city council member, Bill Holen is an Arapahoe County Commissioner) less than $60 for the rest of their food.

“You have to be very, very prudent in how you spend your money,” Holen said. “And there are no luxuries.”

The two lawmakers spent last week living on $170, the amount of government assistance an impoverished family of two with no dependents would typically qualify for. Holen said that includes $80 for food from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and another $90 in assistance to cover other costs.

Hunter-Holen said that while city council doesn’t have much say in food assistance programs, it’s still important for lawmakers to try to understand how government policy can impact people’s lives every day.

“I think we will have a much better sense of what people are going through,” she said.

And having tried to live on a food-stamp budget for a week, Hunter-Holen said she better understands how close to being completely broke many families must feel.

“I’m not saying that I’ve never had to budget before or anything like that, but this is a dramatic change,” she said.

For breakfast, the couple ate cereal — Holen found a battered box of bran flakes in the day-old section for just 99 cents — and an apple. Lunch was peanut butter sandwiches or leftovers. And for dinner, Hunter-Holen threw together a few homemade meals, including green chile one night and kielbasa and leeks stew another.

A coupon for a free box of cake mix meant dessert one night, but there wasn’t enough cash to cover frosting, so Hunter-Holen made one out of peanut butter and powdered sugar.

By the end of the week, Hunter-Holen said there were plenty of foods she missed, from blueberries to avocados to a glass of wine. For Holen, it was steak and French fries.

Holen said he wanted to try to live off a food-stamp budget in part to raise awareness about food stamps at a time when lawmakers have trimmed the federal program’s budget.

While food stamp use is often associated with urban communities and minorities, federal data says something different. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food stamp use in Colorado is actually more common in the state’s rural congressional districts than it is in Aurora.

The USDA data, released in July 2013, looks at information from 2011. At that time, Aurora was split across two congressional districts, the seventh, represented by Democrat Ed Perlmutter, and the sixth, represented by Republican Mike Coffman. The district lines have since been redrawn and Aurora is now solely in the sixth.

According to the data, the Sixth Congressional District — which at the time included the bulk of Aurora — had the lowest percentage of people on food stamps in the state with fewer than 3 percent, 8,760 people, of the population receiving the benefits. The seventh had 8 percent, or 23,290 people, of the population receiving food stamps, the third-highest figure among the state’s seven congressional districts.

The Third District, which includes the western slope and some of southern Colorado, including Pueblo, had the highest percentage of people on food stamps with more than 10 percent.

The data also show that most of the people on food stamps were white, and most of the households receiving the benefits had children under the age of 18.

Families with children typically get more in benefits than couples without children. A family of four, for example, gets about $160 per week from the SNAP program.

But Hunter-Holen said that while she and Holen don’t have any children that would qualify as dependents, her son lives with them and shares the food. That means there were really three people eating off of a budget designed for just two, something she said likely happens in a lot of households.

According to USDA, while about 20 percent of the households receiving food stamps hadn’t worked in at least 12 months, many had at least one person in the home working. In the Sixth Congressional District, more than 80 percent of the households receiving benefits had at least one person working during the year before they received benefits, and the households earned on average about $30,000 annually. That’s compared to more than $86,000 a year for the households that didn’t receive benefits. In the seventh congressional, households receiving benefits earned about $21,000 a year, compared to $54,000 for households that didn’t receive benefits.

According to other USDA data, the number of Colorado households receiving benefits has climbed from 138,000 in 2009 to 231,000 in 2013. That 67 percent increase outpaces the growth of food stamp use nationally, which climbed 51 percent during the same stretch.

The amount each household receives has gone largely unchanged during that stretch. In 2009, the average Colorado family receiving SNAP benefits received $302 a month. Last year, they received $296. Nationally, the average family received $275 in 2009 and just a few cents less last year.

All of that is before the recent cuts negotiated as part of massive farm bill this month. Those cuts are expected to trim about $800 million a year from the federal program, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much of a cut individuals and families will receive.

Hunter-Holen said that even if the cut is just a few dollars, it would sting a family living on such a tight budget.

Toward the end of last week, the Holens still had $3 and some change from their original $80, but they needed that money to buy more milk after using all of the milk they bought early in the week on homemade meals.

“We wouldn’t have been able to buy meat or something else,” she said.

With so much talk about cutting the food stamp program in recent months, several lawmakers have done similar experiments in recent months, living on about $4.50 cents a day for food.

The experiments have met criticism from supporters of food-stamp reform who argue the benefits are meant to supplement other income and aren’t designed to cover an entire food budget.

According to the USDA, that’s true for most people on food stamps, but about 20 percent of recipients are unemployed and many don’t have other income sources.

Others reform advocates have argued that if food stamp recipients just budget well, they should be able to easily cover their food budget with the benefit.

The Holens said their experience proves it isn’t that simple.

Hunter-Holen said in her family’s case, they were lucky that she was able to eke out time to prepare their food from scratch, something that helped make that $80 go a long way. Other families probably don’t have schedules that would allow them to spent an hour preparing dinner in the evening, she said, and they might not know how to cook.

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John
John
8 years ago

A political stunt. Food stamp programs should be severally limited. Welfare encourages economic dependance and government control. To quote the mother of Lisa Fritsch ”I’d rather starve than go down the path of victimization where you might never have dignity in your life again.”

Raleigh
Raleigh
8 years ago
Reply to  John

Whoever Lisa Fritsch is needs to eat some humble pie – what an idiotic statement. I believe all deserve a right to be fed and that hard times are a fine line away for most everyone. Compassion is good.

John
John
8 years ago
Reply to  Raleigh

Then you feed them or encourage your church to do so. That is not the role of the government. Teach a man to fish seems appropriate here.

gouko787
gouko787
8 years ago
Reply to  John

But if the man starves before you can teach him, everyone has lost.

John
John
8 years ago
Reply to  gouko787

Starve, are you serious? There are countless options to get food without starving in this country. How many have starved to death in the US recently that did not have access to food? The US has one of the lowest starvation rates in the world.

gouko787
gouko787
8 years ago
Reply to  John

Nutrition is more than basic calories and I am sure the food stamp program has nothing to do with our low starvation rate….right?

Kathy
Kathy
8 years ago

Thank you for a report on an experiment to gain insight. Too often, the news stories are focused on the abuses of the program, not the reality of life for those who are really trying to get by. Its nice to know there are at least some representatives who are willing to have a degree of 1st-hand knowledge.

MrColorado
MrColorado
8 years ago
Reply to  Kathy

Don’t fall for their politics Kathy. Yes we should feel for the less fortunate, but we need to give them a leg up not raise entitlements to a level that will take away the motivation for many to raise their station in life.

Xeraider
Xeraider
8 years ago

This country has added $7 trillion in debt and yet still can’t feed the helpless?
Will any amount ever be enough?

MrColorado
MrColorado
8 years ago

Talk about a one side article (yes, I know typical Aurora Sentinel politics). John is exactly right this is nothing more than a political stunt to pander to voters. While we should help the less fortunate, $170 a week is enough to get by on. Moreover, Food stamps were always intended to supplement, not a replacement for a person’s income. If nobody in the family is unable to work, disability for example, there are other programs to deal with that. If we raise the food stamp entitlement it will remove all motivation continuing the cycle of poverty.

reader
reader
8 years ago

Among the nation’s food stamp recipients, almost a million are military veterans, and thousands of active duty military too. Yeah, let’s teach them to catch fish.

John
John
8 years ago
Reply to  reader

There is little financial education in the military, trust me, I served 6 years as a submariner. Your argument holds no water Dave.

tom sanders
tom sanders
8 years ago

Just another sob story by uneducated baboons that voted for the criminals that put them in economic crisis and then printed by a corrupt and biased Aurora sentinel that endorses these same people….they vote for these criminals and then we all got to hear the sob stories of these failed policies…and then they got the nerve to blame it on someone else….suck it up you stupid cow and get down on your knees and take your government handout you poverty pimp.