US government's $58 a week food plan -- how practical?

Is it possible to feed a family of four for $58 a week? The new Thrifty Food Plan, released with great fanfare by US Agriculture Secretary John R. Block earlier this year, says yes. USDA officials acknowledge that it requires careful planning and a sharp eye for value food buys.

But critics of the program, who have many reservations about the publicity campaign surrounding the latest plan, also contend that it may require substantial changes in eating habits.

Secretary Block, however, whose family followed the plan for one week, said he felt it was important for him to spend some time living within the $58 allotment.

Why is $58 such an important figure?

This is the amount that a four-member family (consisting of a man, woman, and two children) with zero income would receive from the national food stamp program. The USDA has geared the Thrifty Food Plan to meet the nutritional requirements of such a family with well-balanced meals offering a variety of foods.

The meal plan includes food products from the produce, grains and cereals, meat, and dairy groups. There are no soft drinks, coffee, or tea on the menu, but it does include dessert items.

In drafting the meal plan, the USDA surveyed 4,400 low-income families nationwide to determine their present eating habits. Then it modified the amount and kinds of food to fulfill daily required nutritional criteria within the $58 limit. The meal plan was patterned for the ''typical'' low-income family, which usually consists of a woman and three children.

Isabel Wolf, administrator of USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service, says the new plan is more in line than previous food plans with the types of food poor people eat. But the emphasis is on different foods: more vegetables, fruit, grain products, milk and milk products, and beans are used. Less emphasis is put on meat, poultry, fish, and sweets. A series of recent seminars promoting the new plan in seven cities around the country was designed to get this information out to low-income families, as well as people working with food stamp recipients.

Critics of the meal plan, however, say that there isn't enough variety in the foods offered. According to Eileen Buckley, coordinating dietitian for Massachusets General Hospital Health Care Centers, the menu plan would be acceptable if people were to use it for only two weeks. ''But,'' she says, ''for most people using the plan, . . . it's a way of life.'' Ms. Buckley recommends that the USDA develop a two- or three-month plan, rather than just two weeks of menus.

Ms. Buckley also says that ''the portions sizes are unrealistically small'' and that ''there should be more extras (such as ice cream cones) allowed on the plan.'' She felt, too, that ''food-preparation time (should) be shortened.''

Irene O'Connell, an aide for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, has devised an alternate food plan that falls under the $58 limit. She has written up her plan and is handing it out to her families.

Instead of making up a menu and then writing a shopping list, Ms. O'Connell instructs the families she works with to begin with the shopping list. She says that ''it is easier and less time consuming (for her families) to decide the main course for each meal, write the accompanying items, and then use their shopping list as the menu.''

The purpose of the food plan seminars is to reach the low-income families who qualify for food stamps and let heads of families know they can feed their families for $58 a week.

But Ms. Buckley says the poor aren't being reached. Too often they don't have the language resources, time, or money to write to the USDA for the food plan. She says the plan should be made available free of charge to the poor - and also to agencies working with the poor.

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