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.
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."
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.
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.