WASHINGTON – Before sitting down to that traditional turkey feast, say another thank you if you’re not on food stamps.
For the 137,000 Maryland households who get by on food stamps, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, minus the frills, would consume almost one- tenth of the average food-stamp budget for the month, according to a Capital News Service shopping basket survey.
A frugal Thanksgiving dinner for five, prepared with budget brands and cheaper methods, would cost at least $18.59, according to the CNS survey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the average Maryland household receiving food stamps gets $180 a month to help feed the average 2.3 persons in the home.
The truly needy, those on welfare, receive an average of about $267 a month in food stamps, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources. But those families may have little or no other income, making the Thanksgiving dinner dilemma even more dire.
Robert Hess, president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, said arcane public policy debates become very real for those trying to put food on the table.
“All that seems very abstract, but when you break it down to just a family that wants to enjoy a decent Thanksgiving meal, it is a really sad commentary from a public policy perspective as to where we are in providing to our most vulnerable citizens,” said Hess.
He said Congress cut the food stamp program by $26 billion in 1998, which he said translated into a $50 million loss for Maryland recipients.
But careful shopping can keep Thanksgiving costs close to what the Pilgrims paid.
“A Thanksgiving dinner can be one of the less-expensive feast meals because it is based on the traditional foods the Pilgrims had available,” said Jean Schnelle, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. “It only gets expensive if you need to be more fancy.
“Study newspaper ads and take advantage of what there is in the way of better prices,” she said.
Grocery stores often use low turkey prices to draw in customers and stores frequently put traditional holiday feast foods on sale, she said.
A recent trip to two Prince George’s County grocery stores confirmed Schnelle’s assertions. One store had one brand each of turkey, stuffing, gravy mix, cranberry sauce, corn, sweet potatoes and cornbread mix on sale the week before Thanksgiving.
Even when there are not many dollars, cutting Thanksgiving costs may be a matter of smart shopping and trimming down to the bare essentials — but losing the turkey is not an option.
Frozen, store-brand turkeys cost $1 less per pound than the premium brand- name, fresh birds last week. Butterball claims there is only a little difference between fresh and frozen, except for the half hour per pound it takes to thaw a frozen bird.
There’s also room to save some change in the stuffing. Standard, store- brand croutons were at least $1 cheaper than brand-name stuffing in both supermarkets and making it from scratch would lower it to the cost of bread and spices. Most Thanksgiving foods are cheaper homemade, except for mashed potatoes, which come cheaper and faster in a box.
In today’s prosperous times, it is easy for many people to take things for granted, said Steve Bartolomei-Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
“When we look at something as basic and traditional as buying a Thanksgiving meal and begin to think about the lack of money that many of our neighbors have, it can be humbling.”
Bartolomei-Hill said that even those families with no income are barred from receiving benefits that amount to more than 60 percent of the poverty level in Maryland.
“The inadequacy of food stamp benefits is an old and ongoing condition and it’s one of many facets of our safety net program that doesn’t provide people enough to make ends meet in Maryland,” he said.