$21: Food for a Week

More than 50 people who work for Houston-area hunger relief organizations are going on a food stamp challenge. Each person will attempt to buy a week's worth of food on a $21 budget, which is the equivalent of the average food stamp allotment. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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The Kroger on West Gray isn't the kind of place you'd expect to find someone shopping on a $21 budget. But that's what Brian Greene is doing. He's the president of the Houston Food Bank and his challenge is to buy enough food to keep him fed and healthy for a week. The first item on his list is a loaf of bread and it's already becoming clear this is going to be harder than he thought.

"Is it wheat? No, wheat is more expensive, we're going to have to go with white. Well we just saw our first compromise where normally I would eat the wheat bread and in this case I can't afford the wheat bread, we're going with white."

From wheat to white doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice, but this is just the beginning. Greene heads to the produce section, where he can only afford two apples, one medium onion, some carrots and cabbage. He also sprang for a bunch of bananas, at 39 cents a pound he figures he can manage the luxury. His list grows shorter, not because he's checking items off, but because he's eliminating things that won't fit in the budget.

"The reality is that people can't make it on $21 a week. You must be getting other sources and that's one of the things of the network that the Houston Food Bank supplies. And this is the part that people who lead regular lives don't necessarily see is the extent that low-income families, by definition, they don't have enough money. That's what the poverty level is meant to define -- it's insufficient income to meet the basic needs. You know they've got to get some other assistance."

The Houston Food Bank is one of 30 local organizations taking the Food Stamp Challenge. It's intended the Federal 2007 Farm Bill Reauthorization. This is the bill that sets out food stamp benefits, commodity programs and emergency food assistance. The minimum benefit for food stamps is $10 a month, an amount that hasn't changed since the late '70s. David Jobe is in charge of the 2-1-1 assistance line at the United Way. He says if someone is living off of a $21 food budget, there's not much more that local agencies can do.

"Most of the programs that we have would be considered safety net programs. I mean so they would step in when a person's other resources aren't available. But in terms of say ongoing assistance, most programs would not be able to provide ongoing assistance."

Back at Kroger, Greene is at the checkout counter waiting to see if he's going to squeak by on budget.

"I've got to dump something else that's worth a buck. That oatmeal is worth a buck -- I've got to have the oatmeal. What about the oil, what about dumping the oil? Well if you don't have the oil you don't have any flavor, you don't have anything for the dressing, to cook the rice with or the lentil soup. I say dump the oil. $20.81. There we go. And I get change, 19 cents."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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