The Real ‘Food Basket’: How New Yorkers Make Ends Meet at the Market

The Department of Agriculture estimates that a single person, on a budget, will spend about $150 a month on food; for a family of four, the cost comes to $520 a month. Since the federal government declared a “war on poverty,” the official guidelines for determining who is poor in America has been based on the  cost of the so-called monthly “food basket.”

Do you spend a third of your income on food? The “food basket” model was developed in 1963 by Mollie Orshanky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration. A federal survey estimated the average American family spent one-third of its income on food; Orshanky determined that a family  in need is one whose income is less than three times the cost of the cheapest possible “food basket.” Nearly 50 years later, this remains the federal government’s official method for measuring poverty.

So how many New Yorkers are poor? It depends who’s counting. The feds say one thing, the city says another.  Today, the federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $22,350 a year; for an individual it’s $10,890. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers, nearly one in five residents, live in poverty according to these standards, City Limits reported. Critics have long argued that the federal government’s guidelines distort the landscape of poverty because they do not incorporate other annual costs such as health care and housing, which in areas like New York City are higher than in most other parts of the country. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg updated the measurement model using guidelines recommended by the National Academy of Sciences that factor in such necessities. By the news standards, it was determined that more than one in four New Yorkers — more than 1.8 million residents — are impoverished.

We interviewed New Yorkers at three grocery stores in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods about what’s actually in their food baskets.

MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Crown Heights, Brooklyn – Associated Supermarkets, 6:15 p.m. on a recent Wednesday.

Ruby Bryant, 28, is a home health care aide who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

What’s in my food basket? Two family-size boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Cereal; two cartons of Silk soymilk; one 12-pack Capri Sun juices; two boxes of Zatarains Chicken Rice Mix; two 6-ounce containers of almond yogurt; two 46-fluid ounce containers of Kern’s Nectar Juices; and one box of Twinings Tea.

MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

What I’m thinking while I’m shopping…“I try and eat healthy because I’m diabetic, but fruits and vegetables don’t last long so I look for the deals — like my juices, they were two for $4… I live across the street so I come here every few days…I spend about $80 a week on groceries for me and my son.”

MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Lower East Side, Manhattan – Compare Foods Supermarket, 7:00 p.m. on a recent Saturday.

Dorine Roche, 46, used to work in advertising but she’s been on medical leave for more than a year. She lives with her son and daughter in the Lower East Side.

What’s in my food basket? One jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise; two cartons of Minute Maid lemonade; two cartons of Dole fruit punch; two value packs of Pillsbury Biscuits (40 each); one package of Sazón Goya seasoning; one pork roast; 2 pounds of collard greens, four 6-ounce cups of Chobani Non-fat Greek yogurt; one head of iceburg lettuce; two cartons of Country Daybreak Jumbo Grade A eggs (12 each); one jar of Skippy peanut butter; one jar of Smucker’s Concord Grape jelly; one package of peeled garlic, one bag of parsley; one jar of B&G pickles.

What I’m thinking while I’m shopping… “Well I get $100 a month in food stamps, but I usually spend about $130 because my son and daughter help me out  — thank god for that, he works at Staples and she’s part-time at Kmart. We live together and split the cost of everything, rent, bills, groceries, you know… My son also helps me eat healthy, we both lost about 50 pounds… He’s 20 years old and you know when they hit that age it’s hard to get along and I think trying to eat healthy at home has brought us closer together… My son’s girlfriend is coming over for dinner tonight. It’s the first time I’m going to meet her so I bought some extra food I know she likes… We’re making collard greens and pork.”

MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Crown Heights, Brooklyn – Associated Supermarkets, 6:15 P.M.,on a recent Friday.

Alpha Dahhoh, 52, drives a yellow cab and lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

What’s in my food basket? Two packages of Arnold Select white hot dog rolls (eight each); one bag of fresh rolls (five), one bag of Sarah Lee Deluxe plain bagels (six each); one loaf of Home Pride wheat bread.

Sam Lewis/MetroFocus

What I’m thinking while I’m shopping…“I have seven kids so I’m here everyday! I usually go to the markets for my meats  and vegetables…It’s  not fresh from the grocery store, I am only here to buy bread and maybe some other canned goods…”


MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Harlem, Mahattan – Pathmark Supermarket 6 P.M. on a recent Friday.

Tanya Parker, 44, works part-time as a stylist and lives in Harlem with her son.

What’s in my food basket? One case of hamburger meat; two cases of Kool-Aid Burst soft drinks (six each), two cases of Chocolate Vanilla Snack Pack Pudding (six each);  one head of broccoli.

MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

What I’m thinking while I’m shopping… “I shop for groceries about twice a week… I don’t really come with a plan, but I look for the sales and try to use coupons —  everything in our basket, except for the meat, costs about one dollar…”



MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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