By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Christina Hall's weekly grocery shopping ritual begins Thursday night in the kitchen of her cramped mobile home in Fairfax County, with the low hum of the refrigerator and the steady drip of the faucet in the background.
"Shredded cheese, bagels, milk . . . Maybe we can do two gallons this week," she says hopefully, scribbling the grocery list on a sheet of notebook paper. She goes through a cabinet, looks in the freezer, checks a shelf behind the linoleum-covered table. "Yogurt, crackers, bananas." She jots down a dozen or so more items: salad dressing, frozen vegetables . . . "That should keep me at about $50 for the week."
A divorced mother of two, Hall receives $219 a month in food stamps; the fastidious inspection of her cupboards and the dollar-by-dollar addition she does in her head are the only way she can make the allotment last through a month.
At a time when food prices are soaring, a growing number of Americans are struggling financially and local social service agencies are seeing record numbers of applicants, advocates are concerned that the purchasing power of food stamps has shrunk since 1996, when Congress recalculated benefit levels. The result slowed the value of food stamps relative to inflation. If benefits had kept pace with inflation over 12 years, a family with one working parent and two children would be receiving an additional $37 a month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.
To qualify for food stamps, recipients must have an income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $22,880 for a family of three.
"An extra $37 a month," Hall said, chuckling. "That would be nice. Might be able to splurge every now and again."
Hall, 38, who lives in a scruffy, tree-lined cul-de-sac of mobile homes in Hybla Valley, one of the poorest sections of one of the country's richest counties, knows that the monthly payment doled out on a blue plastic debit card is meant only to supplement her food budget. The federal government's guidelines make that clear.
But her $8.75-an-hour home health aide job -- about $1,200 after taxes during a good month -- stretches only so far, with rent ($550), utilities ($100, sometimes much more), gas ($180, even in her fuel-efficient Honda Civic), a car payment ($288) and car insurance ($163). That doesn't include other expenses that come with raising a 13-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. The stamps are the family's entire food budget. Skyrocketing food prices and the declining value of the government benefit has made feeding the family a daily struggle for Hall, a first-time food stamp recipient.
Hall wrestled with the challenge the next day as she tried to manage the family's weekly food needs and squeeze in a few extra items for her daughter's birthday party that weekend. Her son had lost his school meal card, which allows him to eat a free breakfast at school every day, so she has to make him breakfast at home until the end of the month, adding an unexpected expense.
"Okay, we can get one package of potato chips and one package of popcorn, okay?" Hall said to her daughter, Rosita, who was having a tough time containing her excitement about the party.
Hall shops at the Aldi on Route 1, a discount supermarket along the frayed commercial strip, where many shoppers go to save money on store brand items that can be as much as 50 percent cheaper than other chains'. The week's dinner plan called for spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, sloppy Joes, tacos and chicken nuggets, plus mixed vegetables with each meal. As she shopped earlier this month, though, she was feeling lucky. Her mother had given her some ground beef and pork earlier in the week. And her son, Richard, was going on a Scout trip, so she wouldn't need as much food over the weekend. (As it turned out, Richard came home a day early, so she had to "wing it for Sunday dinner," she said later.)
Hall made her way through the store using her shopping list as a guide: two gallons of milk, $3.08 each; one package of macaroni and cheese, 59 cents; two quarts of yogurt for her lunch, $1.29. She picked out a box of yellow cake mix and chocolate frosting for Rosita's birthday cake, only to put them back later. Her mother would buy them. Into the cart went vegetables, frozen orange juice and hoagie buns. Bacon and ground turkey, initially on the list, would have to wait. "This! This!" Rosita squealed, pointing to a stack of bagel pizzas at $5.99 apiece.
"No, Grandma's going to order pizza tomorrow for the party," Hall answered, checking the price on a package of frozen french fries before throwing them back. Looking over the shopping cart, which included a package of Fruit Roll-Ups and a few other items that Rosita requested, Hall said, "we're almost at $50, anyway."
Later, in the comfort of her small trailer, festooned with Barbie-themed birthday decorations from Wal-Mart, she looked over the receipt -- $48.06. She looked satisfied .
"Well, this allows me to get away with spending $55 for next week," she said.
For the working poor of the Washington region, stretching the monthly food budget in a sagging economy is particularly difficult, because food prices in the area are consistently higher than the national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, an Arlington County-based group that tracks the cost of living in hundreds of places across the country.
During the first part of this year, the group said, the region's food prices were 8 percent higher than the national average. For instance, a pound of ground beef averaged $3.33 for a Washington area shopper, compared with $2.64 nationally. That's a difference of 26 percent. A dozen eggs were 10 percent higher, while a 10-pound bag of potatoes cost 40 percent more.
The consumer price index for food has increased faster than in two decades, and it is especially grim news for people who rely on government subsidies.
"Food stamps aren't meant to supply all of a family's food, but for many people, it's become a way of life. . . . It's a struggle to make them last," said Reuben Gist, director of advocacy and outreach for the Capital Area Food Bank. He cited a 2006 study by America's Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization, that found that only 16 percent of food stamp recipients said the allotment lasted them an entire month. "People on food stamps are calling us saying they have no idea what they are going to do."
Food stamp benefits, which average about $1 per person per meal, are based on a plan set by the federal government designed to represent a very low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet. For a family of four, the cost of the diet, known as the Thrifty Food Plan, was $567 a month in April. But, under the benefit rate set in October, which was based on June 2007 food prices, a family of four receives about $542 in benefits.
Last week, Congress overrode President Bush's veto of the $300 billion farm bill, which includes $200 billion for nutrition programs such as food stamps, school lunches and emergency food assistance. The legislation will help bring food stamp benefits in line with inflation and stop the erosion, according to national experts. But the new regulations won't kick in until October and will only make up, on average, $5 of the $37 gap.
"Next year will be the first year in the modern history of the food stamp program when food stamp value is the same as the year before," said Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Hall said she has had to adjust her expectations. "I think I first noticed when I bought what I usually buy -- eggs, milk, you know, the basic stuff -- and it cost me over $60 for a week. I thought there was a mistake," she said.
It wasn't always like this for Hall. For several years, she had a job as a receptionist, making $15 an hour. The difficult times started when she was laid off and took the home health aide job soon afterward for nearly half the wage.
She has employed a few tricks to save here and there: picking up food from food pantries, grilling meat and vegetables on the porch to keep the gas bill down; rationing the medication that manages her Crohn's disease by only periodically taking pills that she is supposed to take daily. She and her ex-husband agreed, through a mediator, that he would pay for Rosita's after-school care, clothes and other essentials for the children.
"Our life has changed. . . . My kids notice the changes, there's no doubt about it," she said, sitting on her porch. "There are things I can't buy anymore, little things like desserts, or if I say we have to be careful how much we eat. It's not just them; we all feel it. We all notice."