May 17, 2007

Congressional Food Stamp Challenge

Several members of Congress are taking on a challenge that I am guessing few of our national leaders have had to experience. They are taking a "Food Stamp Challenge." They have agreed to live for one week on the average budget that the government allows for food stamp recipients. The national average for that budget is $21 per week - if they can afford 3 meals a day, that is $1 per meal.

At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about this. Is it a voyeuristic exploration of what poverty is like or how fun it is? After reading more about it, I actually think they are doing good work. This is partly because they have a lot of power - they may be able to change government programs and laws, or their colleagues may be convinced by seeing their challenges or working with them. They also seem to recognize that while they are doing this for one week, this isn't their everyday reality and they still don't know as much as people who have to live on that budget each week. They are keeping a blog on what they learn and in this early post they quote a speech Congressman McGovern made on the floor of the house.

Yesterday, Congresswoman Emerson and I went grocery shopping at the Capitol Hill Safeway for the week. However, she was a more efficient shopper than I was. While she made it through the checkout line in 30 minutes, it took me almost an hour and a half to find food that fit my budget, and that was even with the much-appreciated assistance of Ms. Toinette Wilson, a D.C. food stamp recipient, who assisted my wife Lisa and me with our shopping.
Lisa McGovern calls taking on the challenge their "small effort to bring attention to a very big concern... As we all know, some people -- far, far too many people -- are already painfully aware too of the reality of hunger and living on $3 a day. But for others, an article or a challenge like this might help direct attention to this problem and create the understanding and will -- both at the grassroots level and in Congress -- to make better policy. Any little bit that can raise awareness or provoke thought and conversation is good in my book."

Other public servants taking the challenge, who have taken it, or who plan to take it include Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr., New York City Councilman Eric Gioia, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson from Missouri, Rep. Jan Schakowsky from Illinois, and Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio.

On the blog, you can find information about the actual challenge including the McGoverns' grocery receipts, but you can also find out more about the other ways that some of these public officials are working to fight hunger, including the Feeding America's Families Act, about which I know little but plan to learn.

About the food they are eating itself, Rep. Ryan said, "On a dollar per meal, a person can't buy fresh fruit and vegetables," and " No money for meat, milk, juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, save for a single head of 32-cent garlic to flavor the tomato sauce." Lisa McGovern says, "It seems there are two ways to think of this: if we want to eat healthy food, this is like a very strict diet or a semi-fast. There is strict rationing of protein and fruits and vegetables. If we want a more satisfying portion size, the only way to do it is lots of rice, pasta or beans."

As a numbers person who also does a lot of cooking, this seems quite obvious. Obviously for $21, you can't get much. But I have to admit, I've never eaten for $21 a week, even for one week and I am a vegetarian and think of myself as a cheap eater. I hope this challenge gives people like me, but maybe who aren't numbers people, a little bit of an idea of what Food Stamps buy. At least maybe a few more jerks will stop talking about how their tax money goes to food stamps for "welfare queens" to buy caviar.

And maybe they will urge their legislators to increase the amount of aid given by Food Stamps and other anti-hunger programs. The farm bill is going to be on the floor pretty soon and it's important to bring people's attention to food and nutrition issues before the passing and implementation of legislation that has such a strong and long-lasting impact on our food and diet.


tea cozy said...

wow, thanks for bringing this to our attention, wtto!

icarus said...

your link to their blog doesn't work...

aurora said...

Link fixed :)

kkrahel said...

People on food stamps are just lazy.

Instead of pandering, these members of Congress should tell those people on food stamps to get a real job, or go to college, or move somewhere cheaper, or, like, die. I dunno, anything so that my tax dollars are only spent on massive military-industrial complex cronyism.

(too much? sorry)

wannatakethisoutside said...

That's good because I just went in to fix it and couldn't find the problem.

The problem is that aurora is so awesome and fast that I needed to do no fixing. Thanks :-)

wannatakethisoutside said...

I have to admit I had a minute of "wait, did kkrahel just have some huge political becoming-a-shithead experience?"

Then I got to the military-industrial complex part.

Katie Loncke said...

yeah, i had a similar 'hmm-i-don't-know-how-i-feel-about-this' reaction when my mom recommended barbara ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed, about how she spends time working at diners, cleaning people's homes, and at places like Wal-Mart in order to experience what it means to try to 'get by' in America. but i wound up liking it, not only because the book is informative, but because it seems to have fueled ehrenreich's activism even after its publication. she continues to do good work. i think efforts like this food stamp challenge are most meaningful when they lend a sense of urgency to a problem, motivating the people involved to work even harder to make real change. on the other hand, they can be counterproductive if people become fixated on the stunt itself, seeing it as an end rather than a means.

icarus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
icarus said...

I will try not to go into my spiel about Nickel and Dimed, but I just want to throw it out there that I find it a problematic book for a number of reasons, which I would be happy to discuss further. Notably:

- Nickel and Dimed tends towards voyeuristic portrayals of the lives of the poor. A common criticism of the book is that Ehrenreich’s brief stint as “poor” does not necessarily provide the most insight into the reality of everyday life for the poor. In fact, in some ways it can be seen as counterproductive, in that the book describes the impossibility of living on minimum wage as if it were a great surprise.

- I feel that Ehrenreich appropriates and sensationalizes the experience of poor working people (especially women) and that she inaccurately depicts her experience as "authentic," when in reality it reflects a wealthy, well-educated white woman's adventure in kind of "slumming it."

- I think that the popularity of this book is due, not to an original or previously unknown truth uncovered by Ehrenreich, but because it was marketed as a sexy, novel adventure of someone finding out what it is "really" like to be a member of the working poor, and was primarily marketed to, and read by, middle and upper-class educated people. I wonder how many of the people depicted in this book have actually read it.

In her introduction to Without a Net: Voices from the Bottom, Editor Michelle Tea write that, as someone familiar with working-class experiences, she regarded the book’s premise as obvious:

“Overworked, underpaid Wal-Mart workers!...I couldn’t believe this was news...Duh, I thought again and again, leafing through the book.”

She continues:

"Poor people are always left out of the intellectual conversation, despite being the subjects of entire books. In Nickel and Dimed , Ehrenreich, a successful middle-class woman, speaks directly to other middle-class people. This happens frequently in books and articles about working-class people – it is assumed that none of us will be reading the text. It’s a decidedly creepy experience to read about your life like this, passed from one middle-class perception to another. It’s like being talked about in a room where you sit, invisible. It’s a game of intellectual keep-away, the words lobbed over your head, but worse – no one even knows you’re trying to get in on the game. It doesn’t even occur to them that you could play."

That said, I do think there are redeeming aspects of the book, as it does seek to bring attention to the urgent issue of the impossibility of living on a minimum wage in this country. I just wish that Ehrenreich could have taken the words of the women she worked with to describe, illuminate and explain these facts.

Anonymous said...

A+ Icarus! My family is working class and I read the book last summer and had the same "duh" reaction the entire time. Thanks for articulating the argument against the book so well! All I could really mutter out was WTF

Anonymous said...

Icarus' concerns are dead on. At the same time, there's no reason to underestimate the power of the often-brazen classism of the privileged and wealthy to deny the obvious about economic injustice and inequality.

That classism is also part of a belief system that can be articulated, roughly, like the following:

"Working class and poor people can't be believed when they describe their own situations."

"If they describe their own situations, they're just complaining, because they are lazy and want a handout."

"If their descriptions do not fit into the norms of privileged discourse, then they can't be taken as trustworthy or educated."

"If their descriptions do fit the norms of privileged discourse, then the writer/speaker must be educated and thus must NOT be actually part of the working class or poor. And is thus an imposter. And thus can't be believed."

All this is not so much a defense of Nickle and Dimed, but a description of where the book fits into current privileged ideologies of what and who are believable and what/who are not, by the privileged.

Or, more bluntly, the book is about the privileged speaking to the privileged because that's who the privileged listen to. ESPECIALLY when it comes to "personal" experiences, which are often subject to being dismissed as "just personal" or "just anecdotal."

I'm in a grim mood today.


Anonymous said...

What books would you recommend instead?

icarus said...

Here are my top recommendations for literature related to the personal/cultural experience of class:

*READ THIS. Then read it again:

Where We Stand : Class Matters. by bell hooks. 2000. New York: Routledge.


Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars : A Memoir by Lauralee Summer. (Harvard College '98)

Without a Net : The female experience of growing up working class, Michelle Tea, editor.

Two or three things I know for sure and Skin : Talking about sex, class & literature
by Dorothy Allison

Harvard Works Because We Do by Greg Halpern.

The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller.

Experiencing Poverty : Voices from the Bottom by Wadsworth Thomson.

New York Times feature: "Class in America: Shadowy lines that still divide." 2005. Janny Scott and David Leonhardt.

The film "Born Rich" directed by Jamie Johnson is also interesting.

...This is a preliminary reading list, but should provide a variety of interesting perspectives and approaches to studying the personal aspects of class that are, I feel, less sensationalizing and more powerful. Enjoy!