Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Do the Math

A few people who left comments on the last post failed the math portion of the quiz, big time. I posted Russ' comment since he was the least offensive of the group, but even he really needs to brush up on the reading comprehension. He said he lives on $20K a year (which is not very much) and spends no more than $50/week on groceries. He gives examples of what he purchases, which sounds a lot like what I buy every week. He then claims how this is because he cares about nutrition, not stuffing himself ("The difference is that I do not view a meal as an occaision to fill my belly. I am more concerned about nutrition, fat content and calories.").

Let's do some math, m'kay?

Here is a table of the household income and expenses mapped out by Red Queen in her post, How about you economists do some fucking math instead. I've adjusted a few numbers to make the splits work more evenly, but it's within a couple dollars of her estimates. I use a simplified balance ledger style to show how the money amounts rise and fall through the month:

Paycheck #1$917$0$917
Payroll Taxes$0$56$861
Groceries - 15 Days$0$15.25/
Paycheck 2$917$0$917
Payroll Taxes$0$56$861
Utilities - Phone, water,
power, trash
Household - TP, clothes,
medicine, lightbulbs, gas
Groceries - 15 Days$0$21.50/

I assume all extra cash goes to food, and that non-food household expenses besides utilities average $75/month. That works out ot $36.75 per person, per month for groceries, which is misleading because that it does not take account of cash flow problems. Maybe one month they don't have much household expenses and they have a whopping $40 per person per month. That windfall breaks out to:

  • $10/week
  • $1.33/day
  • $0.44/meal

For comparison, I spend @ $240/month per person:

  • $60/week
  • $8.57/day
  • $2.86/meal

I'm only spending $10 more per week than Russ. I have six times the buying power compared to an individual in a poverty level family of four. What does that get me? I've totaled up a day's worth of food so you can see how the money is divvied up:


  • Cereal - $0.50
  • Milk - $0.22
  • Sugar - $0.03
  • Total: $0.75

Not too bad. If I had really gone for the belt tightening, I could have had oatmeal for @ 20 cents a serving, but then I would have to factor in the time and gas to cook it.

Lunch (Yes, I really, honestly eat this every day for lunch):

  • Bell Pepper - $1.00
  • Carrots - $0.15
  • Celery - $0.34
  • Cauliflower - $0.36
  • Snow Peas - $0.44
  • Radishes - $0.20
  • Hard boiled egg - $0.12
  • Total - $2.61

This is looking good and virtuous! Except that my virtually all vegetable lunch just cost nearly two days worth of meals in Red Queen's budget.

Dinner - Cost out a pot of home made vegetarian chili and divide by four servings:

  • Pinto beans, 1 cup, dry (no cans for me!) - $0.30
  • A bell pepper - $1.00 (I used it so it wouldn't go bad)
  • An onion - $0.17
  • A 1/4 package small tomatoes - $0.75
  • Small can of tomato sauce, off brand - $0.63
  • Half head of garlic - $0.13
  • Entire tub of Trader Joe Salsa - $2.99 (Purchased for a party, frugally used to avoid waste)
  • A few chipotles - $0.41
  • Oil to brown the vegetables - $0.23
  • Total - $6.61 or $1.65 for four servings

Let's round out that meal with $0.10 of cooked rice and $0.30 for half a sour dough mini baguette from Costco for a grand meal total of $2.05. My meals for the day came to $5.41, lower than average because my weekend dinners tend to be more elaborate and because I haven't factored in my two cups of coffee and one can of Diet Coke that I also consume each day, nor the $0.10 worth of pretzels that's my mid afternoon snack. (Yes, I buy pretzels in bulk and take a serving to work in a ziplock bag.) My consumption for one day was more than half of the weekly food budget in a poverty level household, and I was eating what would be considered frugal, cost-conscious meals.

My ovo-vegetarian, gluten free, ultra healthy meal cost the most, delivered a lot of nutrients and a decent amount of calories (@300), but I have to consume nearly 1 lb of raw vegatables in a single sitting. I end up eating my lunch over several hours, which I can do since I work at a desk and don't get hassled by a supervisor.

I'm sure I could reduce the cost of what I ate even more if I really, really tried, but cutting down more on that menu takes time and effort. I could get cheaper salsa, cook oatmeal instead of eating cold cereal, go without the bell peppers (2/5 of my food budget for the day, right there) and eat more carrots and celery.

But we're talking nickles and dimes at this point and not addressing the high cost of housing, child care, and transportation that is putting the food budget into a bind. Groceries are minor compared to these intractable costs. They end up being bargaining chips because a lot of food is cheap and a few days of going hungry is not precisely starving. You can gorge at a later meal, or scarf down somebody's leftover birthday cake in the break room.

I showed you a healthy, inexpensive day's meal plan that is still far too expensive for a poor household to manage. The food cannot be viewed in isolation from the other demonds on the budget, as well as the less obvious demands on time and the way in which low-paying work does not support the leisurely eating habits that go with consuming lots of roughage.

Obesity is endemic throughout American society. I work with a lot of fat people, myself included, and we're a pretty well-paid bunch. What we are seeing is the transformation of instances of obesity into pathology when the individual is from a socio-economic class we disdain. Hence the arrogance of Ezra Klein presuming to tell Red Queen that if she is fat (or, rather, that she *is* fat because of her socio-ecnomic markers) it is because she has a psychological problem related to her poor self-image/esteem/deep rooted desire for sweets/ etc. rather than saying that the food industry and low-wage employment creates a situation where people have only a little money to spend on a wide range of poor quality but easily obtained and easily consumed foods.

Pathologizing a condition like obesity privatizes it, making it a condition of personal rectitude that is my own weak-willed fault, and obscures the social structures that make this condition so prevalent, particularly among the poor.

Let's get the big ticket items like health care and child care figured out before worrying about the breadth of anyone's ass



Anonymous said...

It seems to me that one factor missing from this discussion is "time."

Prepping and cooking fresh food takes longer than eating prepared food. Many people come home exhausted and just want to eat and rest.

Elise said...

Thank you. I was just starting to wonder about those figures. I looked at Russ' comment and figured he spends $200 a month on food for himself. The Red Queen's family has $320 to buy food for a family of four ($80 per person) if and only if they never spend a penny on anything other than rent and child care - no utilities, transportation, clothing; no television or radio; no aspirin or Band-Aids; no gifts for the kids for birthdays or Christmas; nothing.

It is simply insane that a family like this does not qualify for food stamps. I don't see how anyone from either political party can think it's a good idea for people who are holding down jobs and raising a family to be denied a little help that could make a huge difference.

Nath said...

Since I cannot really comment much on details of US food buying (both availability and cost of items), I'll just say that looking at that budget, the main factor that makes it unworkable (and remarkable) in my eyes, is the extreme cost of housing.

Here, a family at that rate of income (even if I cheat and do 1 dollar is 1 euro for practical purposes), would be living in social/subsidised/non-commercial housing which means the rent would be about half that, and the budget becomes doable; they might also qualify for tax rebates on either housing or health insurance or both.

Anne said...

Excellent point myiq2xu . In the interest of time,I see people eating on the bus going from one job to the next... the bus seat doesn't come equipped with a hot plate.

Also many Moms who ,as you say, who do not have the time to make the evening meal everyone expects them to come up with at the end of their working day...They are just getting home at dinner time.

Koshem Bos said...

Anyone who has experience "running" a family (2 plus 2 or 3) knows that most monthly expenses aren't food. Rent/mortgage, utilities, health and car(s) are very large in Urban areas. None of these expenses is flexible or stretchable. If you've difficulty with these, money for food is getting quite short.

Cooking for most people is difficult and you don't get any better watch Rachel Ray. It is possible to stretch food but I don't believe more than 1 in 20 knows how to do it. Furthermore, the history of many ethnic kitchens is the history of making more out of less. This knowledge is disappearing fast in particular because now a days father and mother work and very hard.

Is it so difficult to comprehend hunger?

Kyria said...

Also, in my experience, the "fresh food" available in a poor neighborhood is often dramatically nastier than that in a middle-class neighborhood. But no cheaper.

cgeye said...

The WSJ, pre-Murdoch, published a "DUH!" article a few years back, about how expensive it was for people to get wholesome food in their neighborhoods.

I couldn't find that article, but dig this one from 1992:
"The revolution dovetailed with wider social changes as well, and eventually mirrored the disparity between the rich and the poor that the 80's economy amplified. The more that health concerns shaped the country's most expensive cuisine in restaurants and the higher the price rose on "healthful" designer vegetables, olive oils, pasta, fish and fat-reduced food products, the more the ingredients for healthful eating were beyond the reach of poor people.

Analyzing household food expenditures from 1980 to 1988, the Agriculture Department found that the average weekly grocery budget rose slightly or remained constant in middle- and upper-income households, said James T. Blaylock, an analyst of food spending with the department's Economic Research Service. At the same time, he said, food spending fell 13.1 percent in the nation's poorest households.

While the gap between the high and low ends of the national food chain widened, the types of food that people bought completed a reversal, said Dr. Nan A. Rothschild, an anthropology professor at Barnard College and the author of "New York City Neighborhoods" (Academic Press, 1990), a sociological study of 18th-century New York based on excavations.

"At that time," she said, "wealthy areas could be identified by the remains of heavy meat bones. There were few food remains in poorer neighborhoods, where people ate cheap vegetables and fish."

By 1984, when Dr. Rothschild was commissioned by the City of New York to study trash in various neighborhoods, the remains showed that eating patterns had reversed.

"The poorest neighborhoods had the heaviest meat remains by far," she said. Households in blocks of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn discarded as many take-out containers as those on Park Avenue, she said, though the former were typically from Kentucky Fried Chicken and the latter from Maxim's de Paris. In poor neighborhoods, she found cans that had contained regular soda; on wealthier blocks, diet-soda cans. Poor areas threw out bags that had contained high-fat and high-salt chips; the privileged discarded cans that had contained low-salt peanuts.

The change in food remains reflected the social correctness that the food revolution assigned to light, fresh eating. "The lighter the food, the higher the status." said William Woys Weaver, the author of "America Eats" (Harper & Row, 1989). And Clark Wolf, a consultant to the food industry, observed, "At the very best restaurants, the biggest growth area in both selection and price is in salads and vegetables.""

So through those old friends of supply-and-demand, quality food was priced out of the poor's range -- and the rich felt no guilt in blaming them for taking what was left -- HFCS and potatoes.

cgeye said...

Oh, and this one:

"The W.I.C. families are not particularly sensitive to shelf prices because their vouchers buy a specific food package, regardless of the amount charged to state agencies, which administer the program with federal money.

State officials say the prices at W.I.C. specialty stores are typically 10 percent to 20 percent higher than those at supermarkets and other retail grocers.

Linnea E. Sallack, director of the W.I.C. program in the California Department of Health Services, said: 'We consistently find that prices charged in W.I.C.-only stores are higher, on average, than in other stores. If food prices are high, for whatever reason, it means that our federal grant cannot go as far and cannot serve as many people.'"

Anonymous said...

Also, in my experience, the "fresh food" available in a poor neighborhood is often dramatically nastier than that in a middle-class neighborhood.

Produce usually gets sorted at a packing facility. The premium fresh produce (ideal size, appearance etc.) typically goes to the supermarket chains.

Produce that is undersized and/or has cosmetic defects gets routed to independent outlets, most of which are located in lower-income neighborhoods.

Lowest grades (but still considered edible) end up in processed foods.

Contracts between growers and buyers are contingent on how the product turns out - buyers, agents etc. are out inspecting crops as they grow.

Most independent growers utilize co-ops so they can bargain collectively for the best price - but if their crop is lower quality they get the price for that grade.

"Mom & Pop" small farms are pretty much a thing of the past - it's "agribusiness" now. Small independents are either part-timers (like almonds and pistachios) or they grow specialty crops. Lots of small farmers contract out all the "farming" and have regular jobs in town. There are some nice tax breaks and you get to live like a country squire.

BTW - I live in the heart of tomato-growing country. The tomatoes that are picked for canning are completely green and are artificially colored and flavored.

Most are rendered into a red paste that is stored in plastic lined crates during canning season. Canning season goes 24/7 for about 1-2 months.

The remainder of the year as orders come in the paste is turned into tomato sauce, paste, catsup, ketchup, pizza sauce, tomato juice, etc.

A single cannery may produce tomato products for several different brands - often the only difference is the label.

lori said...

the poverty level was established in the early sixties when food made up the largest portion of a poor family's income and so the poverty level is a multiple of how much food for a given sized family would cost. But times have changed. In the early sixties, poor families typically spent around a quarter of their income on housing. They now spend 50% or more of their income on housing and that leaves very little left to buy food.

YAB said...

WADR, that's a healthy day's diet? I don't know how many calories are in that can of beans, but you seem to be living on under 1000 calories/day, and I have no idea where you're getting the 40-50 grams of protein you should get.

As for the dollar costs of food, I spend way more than you do because I depend on vegetarian microwave meals - but during the summer months, when I buy a lot of fruits & vegetables, those groceries alone run me about $20-25/week and wouldn't provide enough calories for a normal person for more than one day.

The method for calculating a "poverty level" is decades out of date and completely ignores the different costs of living in this country.

On top of that, we have this weird agricultural subsidy system in which processed foods are, calorie for calorie, a lot cheaper than fresh fruits & vegetables.

Anglachel said...


Not a can of beans, a cup of dried beans so about 2 1/2 cans of beans. There's protein in the milk on the cereal, in the hardboiled egg, and in the pinto beans.

Calorie wise, it's about 1400 - 1600 calories a day when the occasional snacks at work are figured in, plus a glass of wine or a bottle of beer as I cook, and so forth. Fact is, I spend most of my day sitting on my ass in front of a computer and I don't burn that many calories. That's the single biggest reason I'm fat.

But the gist of the post is that poverty level income for a family of four barely covers basic caloric needs, let alone something that would meet the "healthy lifestyle" obsessives. I'm not poor, I eat a very healthy diet, but I'm still fat. It's not "junk food" or innattention to diet that is causing this.


YAB said...

Re food and fat: when I became a vegetarian, I gained about 30 pounds.

I absolutely loathe beans and can't eat milk products of any kind (including yogurt and cheese), and while I use the vegetarian microwave meals as a substitute for chicken & turkey & beef, they're too expensive to use as total replacements. Soooo, of course, my primary non-vegetarian foods are carbs and, as you pointed out, bad carbs cost a lot less than good carbs.

I think most of these insulting arguments also ignore just how difficult it is to lose weight once it is gained. Most people fail, repeatedly. Indeed, gaining weight is a mistake that can be almost impossible to rectify. Gain pounds one time and, with a few exceptions, you're pretty much condemned to a life of, at best, yo-yo dieting.

I saw an Oprah some time back in which some of the biggest losers from some reality show appeared. In spite of the body-builder bodies they had had, they'd gained back almost all of the weight they had lost.