November 28, 2008

Thoroughly Debunked ‘Food Stamp Challenge’ Just Won’t Go Away

FoodStampMontageHere we go again.

It has been 19 months since Mona Charen and yours truly obliterated the legitimacy of the basic premise of the “Food Stamp Challenges” that began popping in various parts of the USA last year. The false premise is that the USDA’s calculated benefit for recipients is all they have to buy food.

It has been over a year since Colorado couple Ari and Jennifer Armstrong proved they could live even on the artificially low “Challenge” amount (which at the time was $21 per person per week).

Nonetheless, Maggie Thurber at Thurber’s Thoughts tells us that the bogus “Challenge” is back in Ohio’s Lucas County, home of Toledo.

Maggie notes that this time the “Challengers” are throwing in a new wrinkle (second bold is mine):

The idea is to ‘challenge’ various elected officials and media to live (i.e., buy food — Ed.) on $23 during a one-week period of time. The $23 is the average supplemental support that families on food stamps get – per person.

….. When this bogus challenge was issued last year, bloggers and media rightly debunked it (predominantly bloggers — Ed.), showed it as a lobbying effort disguised as outreach and demonstrated how it was possible to live on this amount, even though no one – repeat NO ONE – has to live on this dollar amount a week when they are on food stamps.

So what’s a group to do in light of these facts? They add a twist. In light of the undeniable facts, they say you can live on this amount of money, but not healthily.

Maggie’s link is to a column by Toledo Blade reporter Kate Giammarise, who chronicled her attempt to buy food on $23 a week. As you will see, that is much lower (43%) than the program’s actual benefit levels for those who have no other resources.

In hopes of feeding the info-undernourished “Challengers” some facts, I’ll add a “twist” to my presentation.

From the USDA’s site, these are the much higher Maximum Monthly Allotments (i.e., benefits) for varying household sizes, effective October 1, 2008, followed on the right by the weekly costs per persons of various ages of what the USDA calls its Thrifty Meal Plan:


How totally unsurprising that the two sets of numbers line up so well, in fact erring a bit on the side of generosity (especially considering economies that can be achieved when buying for multiple household members).

I should also note that the Allotment amounts listed above are an average of 8.5% higher than the previous year. That’s because their increases are pegged to an index that measure inflation in food costs, not overall inflation.

As has been explained frequently, the $23 per person per week the “Challenges” are using is less than the amounts in the Maximum Monthly Allotment table because the program is means tested, as the USDA also clearly states on the page containing the allotments table (bold is mine):

The net monthly income of the household is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size to find the household’s allotment. This is because food stamp households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food.

As to nutrition — If you go to the USDA’s “Cost of Food at Home” page and click on the PDF for October, the most recent month available, you’ll see that the table’s first footnote says the following (bold is mine):

The Food Plans represent a nutritious diet at four different cost levels.

What about that sentence is so hard for the “Challengers” to understand?

What I said back in March, with minor updating, still holds:

Those who have a problem with benefit levels need to tell us what, if anything, is wrong with the formulas that reduce Maximum Allotments, and work with federal legislators to change them. But instead of doing that constructive work, politicians and advocates have spent over a year taking part in media-grandstanding “Food Stamp Challenges” and other silly exercises, all based on the bogus assumption, without providing any proof, that the net benefit is “all that participants have for food.” By insisting on (excuse the expression) feeding us this garbage, they’ve squandered their credibility. If they really believe that Food Stamp recipients are being shortchanged, they have, by posturing on a false premise, helped to perpetuate that situation, and have done nothing to alleviate it.

I’ve just set up “Food Stamp Challenge” as a Google News Alert.  Despite the thorough debunking, it’s obvious that new “Challenges” are going to continue to periodically pop up, annoy, and deceive. It’s also obvious that many media members will continue to swallow their disinformation.

Cross-posted at



  1. No offense, but this is a poorly written story. After reading it twice, I’m still not sure what it is that you are complaining about. What is the Food Challenge, and what is the bogus assumption that you are upset about? The article is written for those that already know what it is that you are speaking of, but for those who don’t, I truly don’t have a clue about the issue you are trying to highlight. People spent $21 or $23 dollars a week for food and this is related to food stamps and a bogus assumption. That’s about all I got out of it. I first saw this on Newsbusters, but couldn’t post a comment because I guess I have to wait for approval. Unfortunately, while I enjoy Newsbusters, many articles are written in this manner, where you should have a working knowledge of the issue to begin with, otherwise, it is very hard to understand what is being discussed. This article was the worst in that regard. With most Newsbusters articles I can eventually piece what they are saying together after reading it once or twice. Not, however, in this case.

    Comment by Bryan Karlan — November 28, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  2. Very few working average families (of 4) spend as much as the family of 4 receive in food stamps. That’s a fact. Of course working people cook and welfare riders eat out of a box or the microwave.

    Comment by Scrapiron — November 28, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  3. No offense, but if you hang in until Maggie Thurber’s first excerpted paragraph, it seems pretty clear:

    The idea is to ‘challenge’ various elected officials and media to live (i.e., buy food — Ed.) on $23 during a one-week period of time. The $23 is the average supplemental support that families on food stamps get – per person.

    I added “i.e., “buy food’ — ed.” for additional clarity. Esp after the edit, I don’t see what is unclear about that.

    I guess you need to know that an entitlement program such as Food Stamps exist, and that USDA stands for US Department of Agriculture. If those things are too much to assume, I’ll just have to say that there are only so many hours in a day, and you have to assume a basic reader literacy level, and make sure you don’t lose the ones who already understand it with unnecessary verbiage.

    Back to the post. I then show that the bennies are higher:

    From the USDA’s site, these are the much higher Maximum Monthly Allotments (i.e., benefits) for varying household sizes, effective October 1, 2008, followed on the right by the weekly costs per persons of various ages of what the USDA calls its Thrifty Meal Plan:

    In reaction to your clarity concerns, you will see that I have now added the words “much higher” to that sentence.

    I explained why the bennies, according to USDA, are enough to provide adequate nutrition, and then explain why the bennies are reduced.

    I would also add that you could have followed the links in the first two paragraphs to catch up on the history and details.

    Perhaps you can “piece things together” now.

    I appreciate constructive feedback. What beyond the two changes you suggested would you do to clarify the piece?

    Comment by TBlumer — November 28, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  4. Hard to believe you could react like that to constructive criticism. I still don’t understand what the article is about and your clarifications don’t help. And yes, I know what the USDA is.

    Comment by Bryan Karlan — November 28, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  5. What do you mean, “react like that”? What about “I appreciate your constructive feedback” and reacting to it with some clarifications, don’t you understand? Nothing I said in my comment is unreasonable or hostile, unless you want it to be.

    Follow me:
    1. The average net food stamp benefit people a person receives is $23.
    2. That is, on average, less than recipients are expected to actually pay for their food because the people administering the program have determined that many of them have resources of their own to fill in the gap between reasonable actual costs ($30.44 – $40.51 per person per week depending on family size) and their net benefit.
    3. The “Food Stamp Challenge” people are trying to pretend that Point #2 doesn’t exist, and that millions of recipients are on an average having to get by on only $23 worth of food per person.
    4. The “Food Stamp Challenge” people are wrong, and have been shown to be wrong on multiple occasions spread over 1-1/2 years. Yet they continue to pretend that the net benefit is all people have with which to buy food.

    What is not clear about this? And if you’re going to respond, please be constructive and specific, as I have been, and don’t just repeat “I don’t get it.”

    18 or so commenters at NewsBusters, many of whom I would presumably haven’t read previous posts, could follow it enough to comment coherently. They would also be the first to tell me if I’m being unclear. So I am at a loss why you cannot follow this.

    Comment by TBlumer — November 28, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

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