Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Three

Day Three:

“I want spaghetti for dinner,” said a young friend who was visiting me Tuesday.

“We don’t have any.”

She just looked at me and rolled her eyes. So we got in the car to spend the last $5.22 remaining from my $31.50 grocery budget for the week.

So far I’ve managed to feed myself well on the basic, staple items I bought for the SNAP* Challenge. But how do you explain to a child that tonight’s dinner will be cereal or soup again?

Returning to CVS was my clever solution. The Ragu spaghetti sauce and Barilla pasta rang up at $4.24. But I had $3.50 in the store’s “ExtraBucks” rewards, so we spent only 74 cents (75 with sales tax).

That $31.50 is the amount each person eligible for SNAP can obtain to spend on food each week, and if my young friend were my child or dependent, I could combine our allotments for a total of $63. But what if I were her grandmother or aunt without that additional amount to spend? What if we couldn’t get to a grocery store and had to shop at convenience stores where, overwhelmingly, the least healthy foods are also the most  expensive?

Food banks, emergency food pantries (such as Charlotte’s Loaves and Fishes), houses of worship, and regional agencies help to bridge the gap. Still, across the U.S., millions of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meal programs at school face worsening hunger, especially in the summertime when school is out.

“You have to put hamburger meat in the sauce,” my young friend said. It’s a reasonable request. Growing children need protein.

The least expensive package of ground beef at Harris Teeter was $4.34.

Tomorrow, I can return that $1.79 bottle of soy sauce to the store, maybe even those tea bags I forgot to count in my budget earlier in the week.

But tonight, we’re eating spaghetti with hamburger meat.

*SNAP is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And for many low-income individuals and families, it’s not a supplement; it’s their only means of buying food.

Amy is documenting her experiences with the SNAP Challenge all this week. Check back daily for updates.

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day One)

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day Two)

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget: Day Two

Rotel seasoned tomatoes marked down to 14 cents a can at Target.

Day Two:

Yesterday I was feeling pretty smug about my cost-effective shopping. I’d spent only about half of the $31.50 grocery budget I’d agreed not to exceed as part of the SNAP* Challenge.

Then something happened to shake my confidence in my plan to make the supplies last an entire week. I realized I needed to factor in the cost of items I’d previously purchased or had on hand if I wanted to use them.

At Target, I’d paid fifty cents for a single lime. Seventy-five cents for a tomato and it was already going bad. A half-gallon of milk: $2.29. A package of provolone: $2.49. Soft tortilla shells were on sale for $2. Best find of all? Rotel seasoned tomatoes marked down to 14 cents a can.

Sure, the parsley at Super G Mart was a steal at 99 cents yesterday but to make the tabouli for last night’s dinner I had to add 1/2 cup of bulgur, which I’d bought in bulk at the Healthy Home Market. There went another 96 cents.

It added up to $9.13.

With the $14 I’d spent yesterday and the $3.15 for my sale-priced drugstore coffee the day before, my total now stood at $26.28.

No eggs, no meat, not even a can of tuna. I have just over five dollars left.

And it’s only Tuesday.

*SNAP is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And for many low-income individuals and families, it’s not a supplement; it’s their only means of buying food.

Amy is documenting her experiences with the SNAP Challenge all this week. Check back daily for updates.

Eating on a Food Stamp Budget (Day One)

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Eating on a Food Stamp Budget

What you get for $14 at Super G Mart. Photo by Amy Rogers.

Day One:

Think you could manage on $31.50 a week for groceries? That’s the amount you’d get to spend if you had to rely solely on food stamps.

From July 9 through July 15, I’m taking the SNAP* Challenge. Its purpose is to give well-fed Americans a chance to experience the struggle an estimated 1 in 7 are facing every day in the U.S.

I’m a creative cook so I’m not planning menus or making lists. My only advance strategy is to stop at CVS Sunday night where my 25% off store coupon cuts the price on Café Bustelo from $4.19 to $3.15. Monday morning coffee? Check.

What to buy today with the remaining $28.25? My first – and probably best – decision is to avoid my local grocery store and visit Super G Mart on Independence Blvd. Known for its extensive ethnic offerings, here the produce is bountiful and inexpensive. A pound of bok choy is 98 cents. A giant bunch of parsley, headed for tabouli, is 99 cents. A fat lump of ginger is only 20 cents. Extra firm tofu is 99 cents; I don’t recognize the brand but its advertisement for DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” on its label is oddly reassuring. A big bag of Asian noodles rolled into nests is $1.79. I’m thinking this won’t be so hard after all.

Confidently, I bag two red bell peppers. Yes, this is a bit extravagant. Normally $4 a pound at other stores, I can’t resist them here at only $1.49. They’re irregularly shaped but firm and fresh, so I get two and they ring up at for $1.31. I indulge in a small block of black sesame candy for $1.79.

Quaker Oats are more than $3; the no-name brand is $1.79 so that’s what I get. Cabbage, an onion, a small bottle of soy sauce.

I’ve still got nearly half of my $31.50 left. Then I remember: You can’t use anything already in your kitchen, other than condiments. I’ll have to add in the cost of the tortilla shells, bulgur, lime, cheese, milk and yogurt I bought a couple of days ago.

This creates two possible problems: One is math. The other is that even if I haven’t over-spent, I may have under-shopped.

I’ll let you know more tomorrow…

*SNAP is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And for many low-income individuals and families, it’s not a supplement; it’s their only means of buying food.

Amy is documenting her experiences with the SNAP Challenge all this week. Check back daily for updates.

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GOP Legislature Hits Walk-Off Homer To Defeat Democrats

Michael Bitzer

Now that the North Carolina General Assembly session has ended, it appears that one thing is clear: The final inning of the session included three strikeouts for the Democrats and Governor Perdue. There were also an error and a couple of switch-hitters, all based on a significant GOP triple play.

The push came at the very end.

First, the most important piece of legislation that any state government confronts on a yearly basis is the budget.  With North Carolina’s biennum budget process, the baseline of the fiscal year 2012-2013 spending was actually set last year; typically, though, the Legislature and governor use the short session to make “tweaks” to the budget.

After formalizing a game plan, the GOP legislature sent the budget to the governor, who had vetoed the two-year version last year in a bruising battle that ended with her veto being overridden by the legislature.

With her pledge not to seek re-election and instead campaign for an increase in the sales tax to pay for education spending, Perdue wasn’t in a position to barter as she did last time.

Perdue entered this year’s game as a lame duck with miserable poll numbers weighing her down. As is the case in many sports, it is better to be on offense than defense. Perdue’s problem was that it seemed nobody wanted to be on her team in an election year.

Republicans in the state Senate had the necessary votes for their override, and it wasn’t surprising that the GOP-led House secured a number of Democrats to ensure their override of the governor’s veto.

What was surprising was what happened in that same day’s proceedings on two other critical items that the governor had stamped her “no” on — the revisions to the Racial Justice Act and beginning the process toward tapping into underground shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking.” 

The Racial Justice Act, passed by the 2009 Democratic-legislature, allows death row inmates to use statistics to argue that racial bias contributed to their sentences. Republicans were able to secure four Democrats who had voted for that original legislation (Reps. Brisson, Crawford, Hill, and Owens). 

Last week, the four voted to override Perdue’s veto of revisions to the Racial Justice Act. The new legislation reduces the use of statistics in challenging death sentences.

The final part of the triple play was the override of the “fracking” legislation on an unforced error by Democratic Representative Becky Carney of Charlotte, who mistakenly pushed “aye” to override the governor’s veto of the controversial natural gas drilling bill.

But in the game of politics, those who know the rules can win the game. When Rep. Carney sought to invoke Rule 24-c of the House, which says that a “member may change a vote” but only with the approval of the full House and if the change does not affect the final result, Republican majority leader Stam cut her off with a parliamentary move to lock in the win.

Her lone vote provided the required 60 percent needed to override a governor’s veto.  But she had help from other Democratic teammates, most notably three Democrats who did not cast votes on the original bill (Rep. Hamilton had an excused absence, while Reps. Brisson and Hill did not vote) but who did vote to override the governor’s veto.

Two other Democrats — Mecklenburg representatives Kelly Alexander and Rodney Moore — both voted for the original legislation and then for the override.

I’ll be reviewing more of the historic legislative session in the next few blog posts, but going into the long, hot summer season before the upcoming bruising fall campaign, Democrats can look with some optimism to their concluded season —their record wasn’t nearly as bad as the Charlotte Bobcats.

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Kissell Has Reason To Be Concerned

Larry Kissell

Word is out that the Black Leadership Caucus in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District has decided to withhold its support for incumbent Democrat Larry Kissell. The group is citing his votes with the GOP to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, his intention to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his plans to skip the DNC in Charlotte, and withholding his endorsement of President Obama.

Certainly Kissell has to consider himself one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this fall.  Charlie Cook, a widely respected independent political analyst, has labeled the 8th Congressional District a “lean Republican” district, and one only needs to look at the 2010 and 2012 numbers to see why. 

In the 2010 election, Kissell was in a classic North Carolina swing district. But after Republicans took to their computers to redraw district lines, it became a much more Republican district:

 

8th Congressional District in 2010^

Redrawn 8th Congressional District in 2012*

% White Registered Voters

63%

69.2%

% Black Registered Voters

29.6%

17.8%

% Democratic Registered Voters

49.5%

45.8%

% Republican Registered Voters

27.6%

33%

% Unaffiliated Registered Voters

22.8%

20.9%

% Presidential vote winner in the district

52.5% for Obama

57.4% for McCain

^ from the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation’s Almanac of North Carolina Politics 2010 General Election Edition

* from the North Carolina General Assembly’s Redistricting Website

From just a “numbers” point of view, Kissell should be very concerned about his new district — and that means he needs to evaluate what his constituents want.

And the likelihood is that the constituents — especially the “new” constituents in the 8th  — would generally be more conservative, due to the significant loss of black voters (especially out of Charlotte and Fayetteville) and the increased presence of GOP voters from Rowan, Davidson, Randolph and Robeson counties.

One glaring statistic from those four counties: In the precincts added into the 8th from those counties, John McCain won 60 percent of the presidential vote.

For black voters left in Kissell’s new district, the reaction to the congressman’s recent moves is something that should have been expected.  From their point of view, why should they support a Democrat who appears more like a Republican?

While it shouldn’t be read that black voters in the 8th would vote for the eventual Republican running against Kissell, the pronouncement by black leaders in the district may convince some black voters to simply not work for his reelection. Or, worst yet, not show up at the polls for him.

And that can be the most devastating blowback against the incumbent Democrat. 

From Kissell’s point of view, getting re-elected may mean bucking the party line in order to appeal to the voters back in the district.

If Democrats expect to have any chance of regaining the majority in the U.S. House this fall, they not only have to win 25 seats currently held by Republicans, but keep districts like Kissell’s. 

One saving grace for Kissell may be the power of straight ticket voting, especially in early voting. One of the key strategies the 2008 Obama campaign took was to encourage black voters to cast their ballots early for the Democratic straight ticket. 

In 2008’s election, 1.2 million Democratic-registered voters across the state cast early ballots, and 46 percent of those Democratic ballots were from black voters.

In a twist of irony, Kissell could survive this fall if Obama’s grassroots organization can deliver the same early turnout as in 2008 and if black voters simply pull the “straight-ticket” lever.

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Down the Street Where I Once Lived

Backyard Chickens. Photo by Flickr/Will Merydith

By Gilda Morina Syverson

There was a chicken coop on Plymouth Drive, down the street from where I lived in upstate New York. I walked past it every day on my way to grade school. A large Williamsburg house faced James Street. The garage behind it was on Plymouth. Behind all of that was the chicken coop tucked inside a huge wooded piece of property.

Often the chickens were quiet, but time and again they would squawk and carry on, running up and down their pen. I never saw anyone gathering eggs or caring for the birds, but then again, I didn’t pay attention. The chicken coop was always there. It was a part of my geography, one of those things I took for granted.

Eventually the house and property sold. My father and two business partners purchased the land and cleared the woods, chickens and all. I was sad. I’d gotten used to those little critters. Dad offered the neighbors a patch of land to grow vegetables. There were rows of zucchini, yellow and butternut squash, cucumbers, peppers and greens of all kinds. Each neighbor had their specialty including Dad’s tomato plants.

Backyard Veggie Garden. Photo by Flickr/OakleyOriginals

About five years ago my husband and I built a new house in Cornelius. In the backyard was a sun-filled patch of land big enough for a vegetable garden. I asked my neighbor if she wanted to grow one with me. Since she’d grown a vegetable garden on our property before we’d purchased it, my neighbor was thrilled to be back growing vegetables.

Now in our fourth year, we have lettuces, spinach, turnip greens, radishes, carrots, collards, broccoli and snap peas. We are sitting pretty with onions, parsley, fennel and rosemary. We have summer vegetables that have blossomed from seeds ready to be planted.

Despite our flourishing patch of land, there is still something missing. I kept my disappointment to myself until one day, I blurted out to my husband, “I wish I could have some chickens.”

“Chickens,” he squawked, an urbanite at heart. “There’s an ordinance against those.”

“Not in Mecklenburg County,” I replied.

“But I think there’s one in the Town of Cornelius,” he said relieved.

I pushed aside my thoughts about any chickens and went back to the garden, weeding and picking vegetables. I told my neighbor about the chickens down the street from where I lived, and how I wish we could have some. Lo and behold my neighbor loved the idea, too. So one morning, when my husband wasn’t around, I called Town Hall.

Guess what. There are no ordinances against chickens.

Now I’m thinking about what I can do with all those fresh eggs.

Backyard chicken eggs. Photo by Flickr/Rachel Tayse

Gilda Morina Syverson, artist, writer, poet and teacher, has had her commentaries aired on WFAE. www.gildasyverson.net

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Health Care Ruling More Like A 4-1-4 Decision

U.S. Supreme Court Photo: Rosebennet/Flickr

In some of the best-known lines in constitutional law, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that it is…

“emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department [the judicial branch] to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.”

Now that we have the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it is current Chief Justice John Roberts who has set his stamp on the court and his legacy as the leader of the judicial branch of our government.

But in doing so, when one reads the opinions in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, Roberts appears to be seeking a compromise of his own, but ultimately failed to make either side constitutionally happy.

In reading Robert’s nearly 60-page opinion, he lays out a surprising route towards upholding the ACA that took most commentators and scholars by surprise.

The main challenge against the ACA was that it violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states” (Article I, Section 8).

Since the New Deal and the revolution in government intervention in the economy, the High Court has generally deferred — but not always — to the use of interstate commerce as a way for the government to interact with the private sector.

For example, in what many thought would be a key case from the New Deal era, a farmer sued the government over a penalty for growing too much wheat, which he claimed he would use for only himself.  The Court, however, took the side of the government to declare that if he had used his own wheat, he would not have bought the wheat on the open market, and thus affected interstate commerce.

Another notable decision upholding the government’s interstate commerce power was during the modern civil rights movement. A Georgia barbeque restaurant challenged its right to serve only white customers. The court held that while most of the customers may have been local, the food served to the customers came across state lines, thus allowing the federal government to regulate.

A few recent cases — most notably on the issue of preventing guns in schools and making domestic violence against women a federal crime — restricted the federal government’s role in economic regulation.

And in the health care reform case, Chief Justice Roberts refuses to use the interstate commerce power to allow Congressional interaction, due to the fact that the core aspect of the law — the individual mandate — “does not regulate existing commercial activity.”

To allow Congress such power as to “regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain” of governmental power, something that neither Roberts nor other conservative justices would allow.

Roberts goes on to say that the commerce clause “is not a general license to regulate an individual from cradle to grave, simply because he will predictably engage in particular transactions.” One would think that the full law would be struck down and the conservatives would be rejoicing, but then Roberts takes a different direction.

Roberts, joined by the liberals, instead uses Congress’ power to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises” as a way to “encourage buying something,” such as purchasing homes and professional education.

The rationale behind the “tax” is that it “leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.”

While Roberts received the votes of the four liberal justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion appears more like a stinging dissent to the Chief rather than one in which she and her colleagues joined in upholding the law.

Ginsburg argued that the Commerce Clause did allow for Congress to regulate consumers’ behavior, and takes after Roberts for his “novel constraint” on the commerce power — even going as far as saying his argument had “multiple flaws,” “difficult to fathom,” his “analogy is inapt,” “accepts just such specious logic,” and “disserves future courts.”

She sums up her displeasure with the following:

“Why should THE CHIEF JUSTICE (all caps in original) strive so mightily to hem in Congress’ capacity to meet the new problems arising constantly in our ever-developing modern economy? I find no satisfying response to that question in his opinion.”

With friends like Ginsburg, I’m surprised that Roberts could have gotten the majority on the decision.

But in reading the dissenting joint opinion, signed by the three regular conservatives and the justice who is the typical swing vote — Kennedy — they proceed to blast the majority (i.e., the Chief’s) opinion:

“If Congress can reach out and command even those furthest removed from an interstate market to participate in the market, then the Commerce Clause becomes a font of unlimited power, or in Hamilton’s words, ‘the hideous monster whose devouring jaws … spare neither sex nor age, nor high nor low, nor sacred nor profane.’”

The four dissenting justices then go to blast Justice Ginsburg’s arguments, most notably the principle that the Constitution outlines “not federally soluble problems, but federally available powers. … None of our cases say anything else. Article I contains no whatever-it-takes-to-solve-a-national-problem power.”

They also make not-so-suitable swipes at the end of their opinion, presumably against the chief justice: “The Court’s disposition, invented and atextual as it is, does not even have the merit of avoiding constitutional difficulties. It creates them.”

They go on to declare that:

“In the name of restraint, it overreaches. In the name of constitutional avoidance, it creates new constitutional questions. In the name of cooperative federalism, it undermines state sovereignty.”

In the end of their opinion, they lay a broadside principled attack on the decision:

“The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril. Today’s decision should have vindicated, should have taught, this truth; instead, our judgment today has disregarded it.”

Many commentators have posited that this decision was a 5-4 one, but the way that I read it, is more like a 4-1-4 decision, with the liberals reluctantly joining Robert’s decision in order to uphold the ACA.

In fact, some reports are now surfacing that Roberts changed his mind and the course of the decision by voting to uphold the ACA as constitutional, in his own approach.

This would seem to fit with the style and writing of both Ginsburg’s and the conservatives’ opinions. In fact, I would not be surprised if Ginsburg’s opinion was originally a dissent and the conservatives’ opinion was the initial majority opinion.

This embittered decision shouldn’t, though, come to any surprise, because as many scholars have noted, the Supreme Court does tend to mirror the nation’s opinion. One day after the Court released its landmark ruling, Gallup Poll released a poll indicating a split of 46-46 in approving or disapproving of the Court’s decision.

Among the partisans, 79 percent of Democrats agreed with the decision, while 83 percent of Republicans disagreed, and independents split 45 percent agree to 42 percent disagreeing.

With the level of political polarization in the two elected branches of government, should we have been surprised when those in the judicial robes were so divided as well?

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