Arriving Wednesday morning at Market Basket, Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan grabbed a shopping cart, armed with a specials flyer, a calculator, and $31.50 to spend on groceries for the week – the same amount a person living on food stamps receives.
She headed for the dairy aisle, first picking up a block of Monterey Jack cheese priced at two for $5. She puts it in the shopping cart, but takes it out a moment later when she finds cheese priced at two for $4. She puts one cheese in her cart.
Monahan and Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz are grocery shopping this week with the same amount of money as a person living on the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Both Polanowicz and Monahan hope the experiment will provide them with some perspective.
One in seven people in Massachusetts receive welfare benefits, with the majority of those receiving SNAP benefits. More than 800,000 low-income people in the state receive federal SNAP benefits, averaging $237 a month, according to DTA. The benefits supplement whatever other income recipients can devote to their food budgets.
Nationwide, 47.8 million people were receiving SNAP benefits as of December 2012, with an average benefit of $133 per month. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the SNAP program cost $81 billion in fiscal 2012, with caseloads increasing “significantly” since late 2007 but expected to fall with economic recovery.
Within a few minutes, Monahan deposits in her cart wheat dough to make pizza, a dozen eggs, and a loaf of Market Basket brand white bread for $1.19. Her total is $4.38. She created a shopping list beforehand, checking specials and planning meals, but now that she’s in the store, making decisions is much hard than she thought, she said.
She compares every price and agonizes over each item she puts in the cart to make sure she will have enough food for the week. She picks a can of Boston baked beans for 99 cents and waits at the deli counter for two hot dogs. She says she cannot afford to buy a whole pack of hot dogs.
“I am definitely being more conscious,” she said.
In the next aisle, she pauses to look at oatmeal, and then sighs and walks away, feeling she cannot get the oatmeal and still afford other items on her list. “I’m already at $12.45,” she said. “I feel like I need to pare back a little bit.”
In challenging themselves to live on food stamp amounts, Polanowicz and Monahan are joining other public officials and citizens around the country who have already taken on the challenge to highlight the difficulty of relying on limited government aid to bring food to the table.
Last December, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a vegetarian, lived on food stamps for a week. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Brady both did it for a week earlier this year, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also did it a few years ago.
Polanowicz decided to take the challenge after seeing the documentary “A Place at the Table,” which chronicles the lives of individuals trying to feed their families on food stamp benefits.
“To be clear, while Stacey and I will be doing this for a week, we understand that doing this for a week can’t come close to the struggles low-income families have week after week,” Polanowicz said.
Polanowicz, a Northborough resident, his wife and daughter will eat for the week with $94.50 – the allowance for a three-person household. He shopped Wednesday at a grocery store in Springfield.
Polanowicz said last Thursday he was “already a little nervous” about stretching less than $100 to feed his family, as well as his two Burmese mountain dogs.
While Congress debates cuts to the federal farm bill that will impact the SNAP program, Polanowicz thought it was an opportune time to look at the difficulties families living on food stamps face each week.
The House Agriculture Committee last week unveiled a proposal that would reduce the farm and food bill by $3.5 billion a year, with almost half the cuts coming from the food stamp program. The U.S. Senate on Monday passed a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that expands government subsidies for crop insurance, while making cuts to the food stamp program including funding to prevent trafficking in food stamps, strictures limiting lottery winners’ ability to receive aid, and limits on food stamps for college students. The legislation awaits action in the House.
Along with getting a first-hand education on using SNAP benefits, Polanowicz said it would allow him to discuss the potential federal cuts with the state’s Congressional delegation “with some degree of surety that it is either not enough or it is hard enough to live on it as it is.”
The timing also coincides with calls in the Legislature for welfare reform, and a backlash against the Department of Transitional Assistance after a recent state auditor’s report revealed dead people, or someone using a deceased person’s Social Security number, received state welfare benefits.
Some lawmakers want to stiffen policies for the electronic benefits transfer cards (EBT) which they see as fraught with potential for fraud and abuse. One proposal, passed by the House, would place photo IDs on the ATM-like cards that contain a welfare recipient’s federal and state benefits, including SNAP.
Monahan said she is looking forward to the welfare debate in the Legislature to give HHS officials the chance to assure lawmakers they are doing everything they can to ensure program integrity and restore public confidence.
“It is a really good and important program. Most members in the Legislature understand that,” Monahan said, referring to the SNAP program.
In Massachusetts, a person receiving SNAP benefits must be a state resident and a citizen of the United States or a legal alien. Their annual household income must not exceed $21,660 for a single person; $29,140 if two people live in the household; $36,620 if three people live in the household; and $44,100 if four people live in the household.
To be eligible, a person’s bank account balance must fall below $2,001 or a below $3,001 for those who share their household with an elderly person over 60 years old, or with a disabled person.
To live entirely on SNAP benefits for the week, Polanowicz and Monahan cannot eat at restaurants, where food stamps are not accepted. Individuals taking the challenge are choosing to avoid eating meals hosted by other family or friends, and skipping any breakfast and lunch buffets often served during functions at the State House. People living on SNAP, most likely, do not have access to free buffets.
Monahan, who said she does not cook much, plans to be more inventive than normal to make her meals. She plans to use lettuce from her garden for salad. She also asked a friend how to make homemade bread and hummus using a can of chickpeas in her basket. She worries about making the food last for the whole week.
“Looking at my cart, it seems a little lean for the whole week,” she said.
Just about finished with her shopping trip, she grabs two apples and two bananas and then decides to put back a jar of peanut butter she picked up. Her total is now $27.65. If she puts back the $2.29 peanut butter, she can buy one zucchini and some seltzer water.
She really wants to buy a bag of potato chips, but that will put her over budget. She opts for a 99-cent bag of sunflower seeds and heads to the register. The total comes to $31.47. She smiles and says “I feel relieved.”