Families’ food budget woes

The government claims that you can feed a family of five on a low-cost plan for around $300 a week. Yes, a week, and that’s the lowest cost plan. That’s the government’s own estimate nationally (published in July 2022 by the USDA, called Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Three Levels, U.S. Average) and an explanation of their findings says this: The Food Plans represent a nutritious diet at three different cost levels. In addition to cost, differences among plans are in specific foods and quantities of foods.

Another basis of the Food Plans is that all meals and snacks are prepared at home. Assuming both parents work at or around minimum wage for 40 hours a week each, that means they make $7.25 x 40 hours x 2 = $580. So, the food bill cost, even at the lowest estimate from the government, means that that family of five will only have $280 a week for rent, electricity, other utilities, transportation, clothing, communication (connectivity for school for example), and, oh, health. Let’s just throw out a number here: a family of five living in a least-expensive borough of New York City (using Bedford Park in the Bronx here) is $2,400 a month for a crowded three- bedroom apartment under affordable housing subsidies — that’s $600 a week, already more than the minimum wage. Even with the New York minimum wage of $15/hr., that family of five would make $1,200 a week before taxes, subtract rent at $600, leaves $600 for everything else. But food in the NYC area is 45% higher than the national average. Their food bill went up to $435 a week.

How the heck can anyone afford to even feed, clothe, educate, or look after their family? Many area communities have realized that the food crisis linked with terrible wage levels and wage disparity with the higher-ups needs to be solved, and quickly as winter is coming when good people and charities will be taxed to breaking point.

When we lived in Amenia in the ‘90s, we started a grow-our-own food program at St. Thomas’, transforming lawn area to create raised beds where neighbors could come and plant food and share it with anyone in need. In the intervening years, food pantries, food sharing groups, have sprung up across the country. Not the least of which are the school backpack programs to quietly give kids in need a backpack of food to take home (this is based on teachers knowing perfectly well which kids are going hungry at home).

All these food outreach programs have become institutionalized. Supermarkets waste less “expired” food, quickly passing it to charities for distribution and tax deductibles. Buildings have been bought to house and distribute donated food. Trucks have been leased, charity groups across the country work untold hours on paperwork and raising funds. Food charity has become a business. A fast-growing business. A deadly business, sapping resources — human and financial.

People on the ultra-right scream about the threat of socialism, while they protest raising the living wage and deride people who don’t have a proper work ethic to work harder to become self-sufficient. And yet, those same pundits never criticize the growth of the institutionalized business of charities, which are exactly the socialist model they claim to hate: free work for the benefit of others.

I am not saying charities are to blame. Good people doing good are never to blame. However, the rapid expansion of good people devoting themselves to the tidal wave of impoverished need, the now dramatic increase of the infrastructure of charitable endeavors, such as costly warehouses, vehicles, office space, computer record-keeping, and hiring staff, is worrying for the general economy and, at the same time, an obfuscation of the real issue: In a capitalist society people should be paid a living wage for work so they can look after themselves.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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