Sunday, December 1, 2013

Poulsbo Couple Experiments with Life on a Food Stamp Budget (Kitsap Sun)

Susan Herriott and her husband, Jon, lived on a food-stamp budget for the month of November to understand what it is like for clients at the North Kitsap Fishline, where they volunteer. It took a month of hoarding and giving up favorite foods to have enough to serve Thanksgiving dinner for 11, but they managed to do it. (MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)

POULSBO — The Herriott Thanksgiving table did not bear any markings of poverty.

Nothing on the table was a handout, but for the month of November Susan Herriott and her husband, Jon, lived as if everything they ate was.

The Herriotts volunteer at North Kitsap Fishline, getting up early to help gather donated groceries from the four big local grocery stores and helping clients.

Susan Herriott wondered what it would be like to rely on the groceries Fishline provides and food stamp income. So in November, she and Jon committed to do it for a month. She documented her experiences in a blog called “Loaves and the Fishline.”

“I did it because I didn’t understand the decisions people were making when they came to the food bank.” Herriott said. “I see them buy what I think is strange stuff.”

She also noticed that many of the organization’s clients were older, past retirement age — much like the Herriotts.

She didn’t get any of her groceries from the food bank itself, but she made regular visits to Fishline’s Third Avenue store and made a list of what she would get if she were a client. Then she went to a grocery store to buy it. What she wouldn’t have received from Fishline, she could buy with $49 a week she and her husband would have qualified for in food stamps, were they living only on their Social Security income.

It was a stretch to not open the Herriott kitchen pantry, which is evidence of an experienced long-term menu planner. But Herriott essentially closed the doors, planned what she could and experienced living with the mystery of what’s available at the food bank day to day.

To read more Susan Herriott blogged about her month-long experiment living on a food-stamp budget. The blog, called “Loaves and the Fishline” is located here.

In November she bought supplies that come in a monthly “emergency box,” or “Ebox,” distributed by the food bank to its clients once per month. Each box contains enough food for balanced meals for three days, according to Fishline’s website. Canned chili and tuna are examples of the contents.

She also bought the goods that come in the federal government’s mystery “commodities bag.” It’s a mystery because the supplies are based on whatever is overstocked, incorrectly packaged or otherwise unsellable. It’s all good food, but there’s no predicting from one month to the next what will be in it, said Mary Nader, North Kitsap Fishline, Executive Director.  Commodities are provided for distribution from a federal government program and are not overstocked, incorrectly packaged or unsellable items. 

The third part of the Fishline program is the organization’s store. Clients are allocated a certain number of “Fish bucks,” depending on family size, to purchase items from the store.
Thanks to local grocery donations from Poulsbo’s four major grocers, Fishline can provide fresh produce, frozen goods, yogurt and mostly free bread.

During the month of the experiment the Herriotts ate less meat and little fish. They experienced the panic of lost food when a dish of spaghetti slipped off the table, wasting some of their precious provisions.

They learned firsthand the luxury of coffee.

Susan managed to plan for a Thanksgiving feast for 11, complete with a turkey and all the sides, by doing without some favorites and hoarding items like cranberries early in the month.

One of the biggest realizations during the experiment was how much time it took to live so tuned into her food budget.

“I usually shop one day a week and go to Costco once a month or once every two months,” she wrote on her blog on Nov. 9. “I find that I am going to the grocery store two or three times a week. I can’t get enough money together at one time to get ahead. Since the food bank limits the amount of some things, I have to go several times a week in order to get enough for the week. I understand why there are limits. The food bank never knows what or how much of a single item they will have at a time and they don’t know how many people will show up in a day. I think they do a good job but it does make it difficult.”

Some of the work included making granola instead of buying it, saving about $9 for three pounds. One day a neighbor brought jars of jam and banana bread as thanks for some compost the Herriotts had shared. Though the neighbor has been doing it for nine years, it took on added meaning during the experiment, Herriott said.

“Today the gift brought me to tears,” she wrote on her blog. “The banana bread is great but what really touched me was the jam. I am out, and my husband almost always has toast and jam as part of his breakfast. I wasn’t sure when I could afford more since I have spent all but $6.00 of my food stamp budget this week. I was surprised at my depth of feeling. We aren’t starving by any means. I have to think a little harder about what we eat and work a little harder to prepare it, but the worry about having enough is new to me.”

The time it takes to provide meals based on food bank donations was a “full-time job,” Herriott said.

“I don’t know how you do this and look for work,” she said.

Carole Herriott, daughter to the Poulsbo couple, was one of those on hand for Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. For some time a few years back, she relied on food banks and bargain shopping.

“The greatest invention ever was the Grocery Outlet,” she said.

Making it easier for her were healthy children. Carole Herriott said they ate a lot but didn’t have special diet problems.

“Only rich people have food allergies,” she said.

Susan Herriott said she knows she is lucky there were no huge surprises during the month and also that she didn’t do this experience in February, when food pantries typically run low on supplies.

Nader said donations from grocery stores and others slow down during the early part of the year. Food gets more expensive for grocery stores to order, so the daily donations get thinner, something Fishline is preparing for now by planning targeted food drives. Our targeted food drive campaign is called Hunger Heroes, which you can read more about here.

Before November ended, Herriott was planning a steak dinner for the first day back to regular menus. It’s a luxury she counts among many. The Herriotts planned well for retirement and have suffered few setbacks or health issues.

She has a lot of respect for those forced to rely on the food banks.

“I don’t know how you do it,” she said.
This article was originally posted on Kitsap Sun's website and can read with a paid subscription HERE.  It is also on the front page of today's printed edition of Kitsap Sun (December 1, 2013). The italicized text in gray are our corrections to the article.

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