Lawmaker cuts budget to $3 a day
Rep. McGovern tries eating on average food stamp benefit
WASHINGTON -- US Representative James P. McGovern pushed his grocery cart along the aisle at
And out of the cart it came. He decided he could not afford it. Instead he headed for dairy, where he selected a large package of shredded cheese, on special for $3.50. It would help stretch his meals for the week.
Normally when he shops at Safeway, McGovern, 47 and a Worcester Democrat, throws things into the cart regardless of price. He is not a food stamp recipient who shops deliberately, mindful of every nickel. Except for this week.
From breakfast last Tuesday morning (a banana and tap water) to dinner Monday night (whatever he has left), the Democrat from Worcester is eating on a total of $21, or $1 per meal. Nationally, the average monthly food stamp benefit in fiscal 2005 was $94.05, or about $3 a day, according to the US Department of Agriculture. (It ranged geographically from $76.39 in Wisconsin to $163.85 in the US territory of Guam.)
McGovern's point is that the allocation is inadequate and forces the poor to make impossible choices among food, rent, heat, gasoline, and healthcare. He and Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, cochair the House Hunger Caucus and are trying to raise awareness among their brethren and the public as the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization this summer. The food stamp program is included in the bill, and the duo has asked that $4 billion be added to the current $33 billion budget that covered 26 million recipients last year, 430,000 of them in Massachusetts. Under the bill, a family of four would get an additional $48 a month.
"We want to urge or shame Congress into doing the right thing," McGovern said as he entered the Safeway market. "Thirty-six million people are what is called 'food insecure.' That's something we should all be ashamed of in the richest country in the world."
McGovern is a big guy: 6 feet, 188 pounds. He has a healthy appetite. He loves red wine and desserts. Every day he gets a candy bar from the vending machine. "I love food," he said. "Everything."
At Safeway, he was joined by his wife Lisa, who is also taking the challenge. Together they had $42 to spend. (Their two young children will not be on the food stamp diet.)
They were accompanied by expert shopper Toinette Wilson, a single mother of three on food stamps who is earning a cosmetology license. Wilson offered tips: Buy bags of pasta, rice, and frozen vegetables.
The McGoverns bypassed chicken breasts and got a cut-up chicken for $7.32. They skipped the lean ground beef they usually buy for a cheaper, fattier cut.
Should they get the bag of brown rice for $2.79 or the white for $2.19? They splurged on the brown. Should they buy butter? No, they could not afford it.
Then there's the coffee question. He wanted it but felt guilty. She encouraged him: "If you're going to be miserable all week . . ."
In the end, it was McGovern staff member Michael Mershon who saved the day by putting a small packet in the cart for $1.55.
Lisa headed for the checkout line while her husband dashed off with another cart for their last supper that night before their lean cuisine begins the next morning. He bought steaks, asparagus, tomatoes, and a bottle of pinot noir.
At the register, the total for the week comes to $41.70 -- 30 cents under their food stamp allotment.
The total for that night's dinner for them and their two children: $44.
At home in southeast Washington, he broiled the steaks, sauteed the asparagus, and sliced the tomatoes.
The next morning, McGovern rose at 5 a.m. -- it's usually 6:20 -- to soak and boil lentils. He also made bacon and eggs for Patrick, 9, and Molly, 5, and packed a banana for breakfast and a bowl of lentils for lunch.
That night he was off to speak at a National Immigration Forum dinner at the posh Mayflower hotel. "No, thank you," he said, as waiters offered trays of endive with goat cheese and asparagus wrapped in phyllo. At the open bar, he asked for tap water.
Dinner was difficult: The tables bore baskets of rolls and trays of petite pastries. He waved off a waiter and glumly unwrapped a cheese tortilla Lisa brought him: It was gone in four gulps.
Wednesday: McGovern attended a breakfast fund-raiser in his honor at Bistro Bis in the Hotel George. While others ate eggs, bacon, potatoes, and sweet rolls, and drink freshly squeezed orange juice and "great-smelling coffee," he had a banana and water. At lunch he traded his lentils for Jo Ann Emerson's chicken salad, a good deal for him. At dinner he attended a Hillary Clinton fund- raiser at the Georgetown home of Elizabeth and Smith Bagley. The guests, except for McGovern, nibbled on duck and spring rolls, and then dined on soup, ravioli, crab cakes, chicken, and various breads and desserts. He ate nothing until, back at his office, the chicken and rice he brought from home that morning. ("The chicken was OK. The rice was gross -- soggy and cold.")
Walking home from his office at 9:30, he ran into several colleagues sitting out at sidewalk cafes. Would he join them, several asked. He wanted to, but declined. One friend jokingly inquired whether he would be sleeping on a grate that night.
Thursday: It was a banana again for breakfast. He and Lisa talked about how in the scheme of life, this week's menu was just a minor inconvenience. "We know that on Tuesday we can go crazy and eat whatever we want," he said. "Doing this week after week after week must be just awful."
He prepared his lunch: lentils and "a tiny chicken wing." In the evening, he attended an Oxfam America reception, skipping the hors d'oeuvres, and gave a speech about world hunger. Later, Lisa and the children brought dinner to his office: spaghetti made with the hamburger and a jar of tomato sauce.
Yesterday: McGovern wolfed the last banana for breakfast, chasing it with water. He was hoarding his packet of coffee for the weekend, which he expected to be particularly hard: more free time, little food left.
Lunch was leftover pasta; dinner was scrambled eggs with potato and cheese. He had lost three pounds in four days.
But he felt his forced diet had done some good. "Our point in doing this was to get attention, to get people talking, and to raise awareness," he said. "It was also for us to learn. That's happening."
Tuesday, when they're back to their old lives, Lisa will reach first for a Diet Coke. He's thinking of a "nice, grilled New York strip." And all the coffee he wants.