Sunday, September 28, 2008

The $25 Challenge

In the U.S. right now, some people are attempting to eat for a week on $25. This challenge is meant to simulate the lifestyle of a person living on food stamps who has to feed a family on $3 per person, per day. I learned about this challenge via the web site The Kitchn and read some of the blog entries by people accepting the challenge. If you read the linked posts, you'll note that many Kitchn readers smugly assert they can do it nutritiously with no problem and that they have already done this because of their judicious shopping at "farmer's markets" and great cooking skills. I'm sure one could do it for one week with luck and shopping coincidentally with harvest seasons and good sales resulting from said harvests, but I don't think it'd be so easy to manage year-round.

If you're not American and don't know what food stamps are, they are the means by which the U.S. government helps people on public assistance ("welfare", "the dole") while ensuring that they spend the meager amounts of money they're given on food rather than on ale, whores, and crack. I add that last bit sarcastically. Food stamps can only be used to buy food while cash can buy anything, so food stamps are a way of controlling behavior. Note that they can't buy other necessities. If you're on welfare and need toilet paper, over-the-counter medication, or new underpants, you can't use food stamps.

I grew up around people who lived on food stamps and my family spent one exceptionally painful Reagan-era year on them. That year was due to my father getting kicked off of his disability payments as his situation was "reassessed" by the fine Republicans who thought he was faking partial left side paralysis, left eye near blindness, crippling headaches, and a blood clot that could kill him at any moment.

Using food stamps is a humiliating experience. Clerks at the markets treat you differently than people who pay in cash. One of the CH's and my friends used to work as a cashier at a supermarket and she made scathing remarks about people who used food stamps to buy soda or junk food. She felt that, if she were assisting in footing their food bill, she had a right to judge how and what they ate. Never mind that she had lived with her parents all her life and never worked any job but low-paying dead end ones. If she weren't getting free rent and subsidized food, she'd find her perspective on life rather different. I daresay she'd need some public assistance herself if she were to live on her own.

My grandmother worked for many years of her life at a tree nursery. After she could no longer work there, she lived on public assistance because she wasn't strong enough, skilled enough or able-bodied enough to do more work. She lived in a trailer with no running water and used food stamps. The amount of cash people receive on welfare is paltry and she was "lucky" to own a plot of land and not have to pay rent. You can't live on welfare and afford real rent. You have to live in special low income housing or have your rent subsidized. You can imagine the wonderful quality of home you're likely to get as a part of that deal.

To get by, my grandmother worked "under the table" for a well-to-do woman who lived on a large plot of land and couldn't care for her own property. Sometimes my grandmother would pay one of her 8 grandchildren (my sister and I plus 6 cousins who were lying, thieving, drug-using hellions) to pick up sticks or rake leaves for her on this woman's huge property. The woman paid her in cash so the welfare people didn't know about the money. We'd also sometimes go with her to pick strawberries for 25 cents a quart. It was hot, hard work for pocket change. These were the only ways she could get by, though I didn't realize her hardship at the time.

Getting back to the challenge though, I found myself wondering what an equivalent amount of money would be for dealing with such a challenge in Tokyo. I have wondered in the past about the lowest amount of money you could spend and eat healthily in Japan. When you're forking over at least $1 per bit of fresh fruit in many cases, and sometimes more, it'd be awful difficult to keep numbers down. For Tokyo, I think 500 yen a day would be a doable, but difficult challenge. That would be about $35 a week, though I don't think that would be too hard if it was "per person". Covering one person alone would be much harder than doing 1000 yen a day for two people or scaling upwards for more.

It's a little harder for me to get a good handle though on what a reasonable low amount is for someone in Tokyo for two reasons. First of all, my husband and I buy in bulk and are drawing food from our stores of items bought from Costco or the FBC. We have determined that we probably are "spending" between 5000-6000 yen a week because of food we're using from the freezer or pantry. I spend another 4,000-8,000 per week on fresh food purchases from around the neighborhood depending on prices and eating habits. That means I'm spending about 12,000 a week in general for two people. The other reason I can't easily conclude anything about food prices in Tokyo is that our diet is pretty Westernized. Neither of us is much of a seafood fan and I'm not about to make tofu or beans for one. My husband is decidedly a meat-eating person.

If anyone who reads this post is eating a more Japanese-style diet and has some input on the type of numbers it requires, I'd appreciate hearing their thoughts. Sometimes I think a Japanese diet would be cheaper, but I'm not entirely sure. Rice is certainly a good buy (and I do make dishes with rice on occasion), but other things less so. I'd especially like input on whether or not 500 yen a day is an equivalent challenge to the U.S. $3 per day challenge or if it's too much or too little.


Emsk said...

We have those welfare stamps as well, but they seem to be given out to asylum seekers. Given that asylum seekers get the back up so many nice hard-working, tax-paying British subjects, this seems to be another humiliation for the people who really need them and feed families with them.

Ditto public housing. Mine is okay actually, and I acquired it in a slightly unusual way, given that I'm considered a comfortably-off, well-educated, middle-class type who shouldn't need council accommodation. But there are some hell-holes in London.

I often try to see how much money I can live on. I'm lucky in that I often take students out for lunch or dinner and that means my company feeds me too. In Japan it was hard sometimes because as you may remember I'm a vegetarian. fresh produce is expensive, plus I'm not the best cook in town. However, I didn forve myself to use my rice cooker ad made some excellent rice and steamed vegetables which would last me a day or two. I guess my biggest indulgence ingesting-wise was coffee, which I can'tlive without. I also enjoyed gong to my favourite cafe in Kitakyushu as there was free internet access, plus a very nice atmosphere. That would set me back Y350 per cappuccino, but I didn't care.

Orchid64 said...

Coffee is definitely an indulgence for us as well. We don't buy it outside the apartment very often, but the CH likes real cream and he likes good beans. A lot of the money we spend at Costco is for bulk bags of Starbucks beans. I think we go through a 1/3 bag a week. Combined with the cost of cream, I'm guessing coffee alone sets us back about 1500 yen a week. Cheese very likely adds another chunk since it's so pricey.

Japan is definitely not vegetarian friendly either in food preparation or on the pocket-book. I've never priced dried beans, but canned ones are quite expensive. It's 300 yen for a can of garbanzo beans!

Personally, I always eat fresh fruit and vegetables. I can't stand canned stuff, though I guess I'd learn quickly if my budget was reduce.

Many thanks for commenting! :-)

Lulu said...

I don`t think we have food stamps in Australia but we do have public housing although it still isn`t very affordable for those who are struggling.

I don`t really have much advice about living on less in Japan, as I am hopeless with money and even worse when it comes to food since I love cheese and fruit- two of the most expensive things in Japan. However I know that a lot of Japanese families save money on groceries because the "mum" usually does the shopping everyday and they scour the supermarket brochures. Even though my partners family is quite well off his mum still looks through all the supermarket brochures to see where to go for bargains. Also, shopping late at night when things get marked down is also the way to go!! I have been shopping with her a couple of times and she is awesome at finding bargains!

So if you want to try to save on food or spend less on groceries maybe checking the junk mail is the way to go!!

I have also found that shops that sell just vegies and fruit are often better priced than the supermarkets and usually a bit fresher!

Anonymous said...

We've had to live frugally since the moment I got here. Now, since my husband may lose his job (the company keeps threatening to go bk), and I can't continue at the place I tried to work at, we'll have to go back to being frugal, paring it down even more. I think when we started, I tried not to spend more than 1000 a day, though it usually came out to around 1200. It may have been a bit high at that time mainly because I was pretty much building up our pantry, and I think now we'd have more success, as we've got everything we need but the veggies and meat from time to time. We have...kind of like a wholesale market nearby that used to be open only to restaurant owners, where you can buy meat and other things in bulk, which has saved us a LOT of money in the past...Still wish I could find a whole chicken somewhere for less than 1800, though...That's been too much of a luxury for us, sadly - I always loved roast chicken!

While I don't really have a key to success in this one, a saving grace with us is that my husband doesn't require a super fancy bento lunch every day. Usually he's happy (he's even requested I do NOT make him a fancy bento, in the interest of saving money) with a mess of rice and leftovers from dinner the night before. Even a minimal bento can be elegantly designed (a piece of plastic grass and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds go a long way! ;) ), though I'm grateful he's so content with the basics!

One thing that came really cheap during the summer was a super common Japanese salad of shredded carrot, daikon and paper thin sliced cucumber. Usually if you go to the grocery stores around here in the evening, you'll find a ton of vegetables marked down, and daikon is a major player! ;) It's cheap and abundant, and I've been able to find it at 40 for a chunk that would last us for a week's worth of salad or whatever else you'd want to make with it! I mean, it starts to turn pretty quickly, but if you use it every day and keep it wrapped or sealed tightly, you'd have no problem making it last.

Another thing I started doing for lunch was making ochazuke. It's just a bowl of rice with some seasoning and hot water poured over it. The traditional striped seasoning packets are barely over 100 for 8 or 12, and they're actually pretty tasty! If you wanted to make it fresh, though, that would also be simple, since it's green tea, soy sauce and some other staple (I think) I can't remember right now. I found the recipe for fresh online at one point, so if you're interested at all, and like soup and rice, I could find it for you! :)

Not sure if that'll help at all, as I know you're not really all that fond of Japanese food, but thought I'd mention it just in case!

Orchid64 said...

Lulu: Hi, and thanks for commenting. It's interesting that every country has public housing (even Japan), but not all of them have the same sorts of welfare systems. I've heard that it's pretty easy to get on public assistance in Australia, though I'm not sure if that is still true (I was told that some time ago). When I say, "get on", I mean that you don't have to prove your poverty as hard as you do in the U.S.

You're going to find the cheese front here very sad, as I'm sure you already know from having been here before. Not only is it vast oceans of processed cheese with tiny islands of the real stuff, but prices on real cheese have gone up 50-100% in the past year. When you return, your best bet for cheese will be Costco as they have it for as low as 120 yen per 100 grams. In Japanese shops, bags of real (but relatively tasteless) mixed cheese are now 160 yen per 100 grams.

I consider us exceptionally fortunate on the shopping front as we have 2 shops similar to "green grocers" with very cheap stuff most of the time (though currently, lettuce is going for 100 yen for 4 paltry leaves when available). However, I never get any sort of circulars or fliers from markets. I think you have to sign up at the shops or get their cards to receive those. I hear Seiyu is big on those sorts of things, though they're cutting down on them now to save money.

Dateline: Hi and many thanks for commenting. Actually, the types of things you mention are exactly what I wanted to know about (Japanese dishes). Though I don't plan on eating them, I did want to figure out if Japanese-style dishes were going to be cheaper. It appears that it depends on the dish rather seriously, but I do believe 500 yen a day would definitely be about the equivalent of the U.S. $3 a day.

I had sort of forgotten about daikon. I like it fine, but the CH doesn't so I never buy it. Can you imagine how long it'd take to get through one by myself? ;-)

Whole chickens are obscenely expensive here. I don't think we have found them for a decent price except at Costco. Costco has big, whole chickens for about 1100 yen, but we have been saving our freezer space for cheese so haven't gotten one for awhile.

'badmoodguy' is mike said...

In Ohio we don't have food stamps. Food stamps are often traded openly on the black market like cash and used to procure non-food items on the sly. What we have now is a debit card, called the "Ohio Direction Card", where by your assistance is deposited into a special account with the state and you then use the card. Like food stamps, the card can only be used at grocery stores where it is accepted. At the megamarts, when your bill is tallied, the POS separates your bill automatically and will charge your eligible food purchases to the card when you swipe it like a regular charge. All other purchases will stand by for another form of payment.

This type of assistance is necessary, yes. I have known people that have needed it and have managed to get off of it in a quick hurry because to them it is embarrassing. However, working for the local transit agency, I have seen my fare share of people on public assistance driving their Cadillac Escalades with six of seven kids in tow buying a smattering of food on their card, but then hauling out a wad of cash to pay for their liquor, cigarettes, junk food and mass of clothes and entertainment items. Are there people that abuse the system? Absolutely. It is they that make it difficult on those that truly need a hand up. It seems that some people view it as a mark of pride as to how much they can get over on the man for welfare and such.

"Section 8" housing, as it is called here, are often pretty nasty places. This is partially because the people that live there for the most part don't take care of their places and the landlords don't do their part in keeping it up. They seem to do just the bare minimum to keep the city off their backs. This type of housing is common in the area and the apartment complexes are often a mixed bag of housing. In a complex that a friend of mine's house abuts, the entire place is Section 8 qualified. So, a person in a two bedroom flat may pay $800 per month, while the same flat next door will have a section 8 family paying $350 or so. (Along with their rental furniture and huge flat screen TVs and video game systems, and their Escalade parked out front...)

I hope that I don't sound bitter, but there are way too many abusers of the system and no one can seem to do anything about it while my taxes keep going up.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Mike, and thanks for your comment. You don't sound bitter. In fact, I am all too aware of the abusers. Those 6 hellion cousins I mentioned? Quite a few of them were such abusers. The only ones that get loads of money are the ones with a lot of kids. I think it is what compelled one House member recently to propose that we pay each poor person $1000 to get spayed or neutered. :-p

The system is definitely open to abuse, and, as you say, it does make it hard for those who need it. Part of the problem with all welfare or public assistance is that it relies to some extent on people acting in good faith and that's by no means certain.

Kelly said...

My mother and father in law in hokkaido live in government housing and are pretty poor. My FIL still works but his wages would only be around 40,000 yen per week on average, so they don't have much to throw around.

My MIL is a savvy shopper and browses the weekly brochures for specials. She also grows her own vegetables in a very small plot of land at the back of the government housing, otherwise she could never afford to buy fresh veges. I know she grows pumpkin, potatoes, beans, watermelon, tomato's etc.

I also think ochazuke is good, whether you make it with tea or if you make it with the pre-made seasonings.

My MIL told me recently that the price of rice has risen and is now no longer affordable, at about $15 for a 2kg bag. Here it's $20 for a 10kg bag!

We do have welfare in Australia but you have to have a means test to prove eligibility. This means you have to submit all documents regarding tax/bank accounts/earnings/superannuation/interest from banks/loans etc to them so they can see if you earn too much to receive welfare or not.

If you are eligible you have to see the office every week and you have to actively look for work. Every 2 weeks you get a form sent out to you and you have to fill in at least 4 employers names who you have contacted to look for work.

It's not as easy as sitting back and collecting money here. The main purpose of welfare in australia is to pay you while you actively seek work.

In some cases though, the amount of welfare is higher than what some people would take home at the end of the day, especially single mothers who have to pay child care fees. Some people have been known to cheat the system and fill out bogus details on the record of jobs searched, but somehow they do get found out.

If you quit your job and go on welfare there is a 13 week wait until you can get paid, so this is the deterrance for people who think they could get welfare so easily by quitting their jobs.

Disabled/elderly people do get welfare but in the form of a pension. I think there is also a single mothers part-benefit until the child turns 16. There is a family tax benefit now that families with children get, about $1000 per child, per year.

Also in australia we have the baby bonus. For every child born, the parents will receive $5000. The baby bonus has copped alot of bad press recently because it was found out alot of teenagers became pregnant in order to get the baby bonus, most of them spent it on plasma's and game consoles, and then ended up giving the babies up for adoption because they didn't want them anymore.