When the House passed the $819 stimulus package, they did it based on the presumption that sending more money to the average person, through resources such as expanded unemployment benefits, reduced payroll taxes, money for childcare and $20 billion for food stamps. The conventional wisdom on these kinds of give-backs is that through these benefits, the economy will trickle upward. Mark Zandi, chief economist and cofounder of Moody’s Economy.com argues that for every dollar spent on food stamps, the U.S. economy sees a 173% return.
Theoretically that might be sound. However, Zandi may be accounting for the high cost of food today, with the increased profits going to the manufacturers who will then spend it on hiring, infrastructure, and other business effects. What is not said is that the rise in the cost of food ensures that even with food stamps, one dollar buys by some estimates, 40% less than it had in years prior. Whereas a month’s worth of stamps typically covers only three weeks of the average family’s food bill, we can expect less than that from our grocery stores. The current government package is seeking to give a true month’s worth to families. As it is, we are giving away more, yet the people are getting somewhat less now. The fast rise in unemployment and food prices since 2008 has caused participation in the food stamp program to reach record highs. Between August 2007 and August 2008, caseloads nationwide increased by almost three million persons, and that doesn’t account for the colossal crashes of the financial institutions that began cascading in September 2008, and the massive losses suffered by non profits designed to help the needy when Bernard Madoff‘s scam was exposed.
For the stimulus package to truly work, we need to get creative with how we serve the public and beat back the high prices of the basic needs. Food should not be inaccessible, as we have so much of it worldwide; we just need to get into the hands of the people who need it. Perhaps if there was a way of buying high quality food in bulk rates, much like the large chain stores do, and through a truly creative way, package and distribute it throughout the country, the average family could get a break and get their money’s worth; and with food stamps, they can get what our money is truly meant to pay for.
In Monroe, Georgia, a program like that does exist. In fact, it goes beyond the model above and actually sends cash donations back into the communities they serve. Angel Food Ministries is a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 to do just this. Using its procurement power, it buys more than $13 million per month of quality products – meat, chicken, grains, milk, even dessert – and sends out prearranged food packages across 39 states and into more than 5000 communities at a rate that feeds a family of four for one week for just $30. For a every package distributed through the religious centers and community organizations, $1 is returned to that particular institution. In 2008, Angel Food distributed nearly 6 million packages and donated $5.1 million dollars; and they take food stamps.
Imagine the benefit to a family on food stamps that is used to getting about three weeks worth of food in one month. Through a program such as this, a family can stay ahead of the curve. Their food at $30 compares to anywhere between $64 and $80 in grocery stores. By that calculation, a family can feed itself quite well with a month’s allotment of food stamps, and use what’s left to get that something extra from the supermarket or grocery store. Isn’t that the point, to help people live like people and not feel their burden?
The beauty of a program such as this is that it doesn’t negate the need for supermarkets. It focuses on the food groups, and provides protein – not processed – but pure; perhaps the most expensive items that the underserved might otherwise avoid, or use the cheaper, high fat and salt content found in take-out.
Combined with the $20 billion extra in food stamps coming our way, co-op food programs are a perfect match. Not only does this organization have a food model that works to benefit the working poor, near poor or anyone who needs food relief, it is perhaps the model of a nonprofit that others in these leaner days might follow. This organization does not take donations, provides a needed service and puts money into communities where it is put to local use.
In full disclosure, I am now working with Angel Food Ministries to help make more people aware of their work nationwide.