Food prices wreak havoc on low-income budgets


Betty Ryder is grateful for food stamps and understanding of the strictures that limit the government’s ability to help. No doubt there are people who will cheat, she said last week, and the rules have to be tight.

But dramatically increasing food prices mean that Ryder and other food stamp recipients are able to buy less food and are often forced to make much less healthy choices to stretch their budgets further.

Ryders situation exemplifies many of the program’s shortcomings and highlights the most glaring among them.

“They do everything they can, but there’s no accounting for individual circumstances” in the program, she said.

It would help if there were.

Food stamps are meant to supplement a food budget, not comprise it in totality. Sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry.

Ryder feeds her family her husband, a construction worker who is feeling the pull of the industry’s meltdown, and four children, including a toddler and twin babies, all in diapers almost solely on the $450 a month she gets from the food stamp program.

That’s up from the $260 a month the family got before the twins were born. “I was really hungry the whole time I was pregnant,” Ryder said. The now-healthy twins were born prematurely, perhaps, Ryder muses, a consequence of her tight food budget and the compromised diet it afforded.

But the increased stipend after their arrival has done little to ease any of the challenges. According to government calculations, a family of four needs a minimum of $576 a month to eat nutritional meals.

“They had to have a special formula for a reflux problem,” Ryder said of the twins, “and starting when they were a month old we had to mix a rice cereal in to thicken it. That cereal costs $3.50 a day.”

Enough for a tank of gas each week, she noted ruefully on a morning when her husband was off on another job search in Northern Virginia.

While most of us are more mildly aggravated than extremely compromised by the higher price of this year’s July 4 cookouts, escalating food costs are beginning to take a serious toll on low-income families.

Food stamp advocates claim that, typically, aid recipients (two adults, two children) have been coming up $37 short of being able to sustain a decent diet each month. Every price hike at the grocery store expands the gap.

The Ryder family’s food stamp struggle is closer to being the rule, not the exception, at the midway point of 2008.

Food prices were up about four percent across the board in 2007, up more than seven percent in the last 12 months, according to federal government calculations.

Food stamp allocation guidelines are set each October, and recipients nationwide are feeling the pinch as their buying power dwindles, months ahead of the October recalibration.

The more distressing part is the seeming correlation between a food’s nutritional attributes and its cost; the healthier the food, the more expensive it has grown.

Eggs, for example, are up almost 30 percent in the last 12 months. Milk is up more than 15 percent “and we go through about a gallon of milk a day,” Ryder said.

Healthy grains and field crops have gone stratospheric, lentils up 147 percent as the most glaring example. Fresh fruits and vegetables are matching pace.

When your food budget is that tight, “you lose control,” Ryder said. “I’d like to feed my children foods that didn’t have so many preservatives, so much sodium, feed them organic food, but that’s out of the question. We no longer have favorite brands of foods; we have to buy what’s on sale. We buy frozen instead of fresh vegetables and a lot of ground beef and chicken, which you can make some varied meals with. Ramen [noodles] only goes so far,” she said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services estimates that nearly 12,000 Greater Alexandria residents are eligible to receive food stamps, a staggering number that represents about six percent of the population. 

Economists look at the food stamp program with great interest because it is considered an important barometer of economic health. It is sensitive to changes in employment rates, as well as to changes in the amount of work and rates of pay that individuals receive.

A survey of food pantries this spring found that 99 percent of respondents reported an increase in the number of people being served compared to a year ago, most of them reporting increased demand of 15 to 20 percent. 

The number of Americans getting food stamps is forecast to reach a record 28 million people by the start of the new federal fiscal year in October. Benefit costs will rise to a projected $36 billion, up $2 billion within a year.

The numbers may be even more worrisome than they at first appear.

If participation rates are only about 60 percent, then there are another 17.5 million or so eligible people who have not applied. That means that something on the order of 45 million Americans are living on less than 130 percent of the poverty line.

Stamps, as such, have disappeared, taking much of the social stigma with them. Recipients now are issued a swipe card that is hardly distinguishable from credit and debit cards with which so many better-heeled customers buy groceries.  

Editor’s note: Betty Ryder is a fictitious name created to protect the identity of the food stamp recipient recently interviewed by Bill Walsh.  

Getting help
In broad-brush terms, eligibility for food stamps is determined by income and assets. The program is available only to legal residents.

Generally speaking, participants income cannot exceed 130 percent of the national poverty level and they cannot have more than $2,000 in assets, not including their home and, depending on how it is used, their vehicle.

Pre-screening tests are available at and

Summer Food program helps thousands of needy children
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network is kicking off its annual Summer Food Service Program in 27 locations across the network. Though Fauquier County is served by the network, none of its locations are in the county.

Betty Ryder’s 12-year-old son is out of school for the summer. But the academic vacation means that Ryder has another mouth to feed at breakfast and lunch. Her son has been eligible for the National Lunch and School Breakfast Program.

Additional meals are the burden that Blue Ridge is trying to ease.

“The feeding sites are strategically located in low-income, high-need areas,” officials said. “Meals for the Summer Food Service Program will be provided to 60,000 children, free of charge.”