by Sarah Barr
Oct. 24, 2007
Earlier this week, I spilled half of a glass of milk.
It wasn't a lot, but I was disappointed, knowing that I couldn't just pour another glass to make up for what I had lost. I am currently on day five of the food stamp challenge, which asks participants to live for one week on the nation's average food stamp benefit of $21 - that's $3 per day, $1 per meal. I have carefully allotted my milk for the week and more just wasn't an option if I planned to have any for Saturday.
That is the crux of the challenge: to provide a small glimpse into the choices that people who use food stamps must make each day. And while I haven't been noticeably hungry yet, the tough choices people make are increasingly obvious.
The challenge got rolling last summer in Pennsylvania when the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger asked local residents to commit to living on the amount of the average food stamp benefit. The Coalition credits a local food bank with the initial idea, but the most important point is that word spread quickly after a Philadelphia reporter wrote about his experience, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based non-profit that has tracked the evolution of the challenge.
Various community groups then picked up on the idea after it was highlighted by FRAC and other organizations. When a group of Oregon hunger leaders challenged their governor, Democrat Ted Kulongoski, to participate, his acceptance drew national attention. Soon a bipartisan group of governors and congressional representatives from across the county was joining in.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who represents a large part of Montgomery County and a slice of Prince George's County, is among the newest crop of national leaders taking the challenge.
"It quickly focuses your mind and your stomach on just how little $21 a week pays," said Van Hollen on the third day of his challenge experience. The congressmen did his shopping in a Wheaton Giant and had so far spent only $16 - with green peas, lentils, beans, pre-sliced turkey, two tomatoes, an onion and bananas making up the bulk of his list - in order to give himself some wiggle room as the week draws to a close.
Van Hollen is completing the food stamp challenge in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which included the challenge in their year of action to draw attention to hunger and poverty in the U.S.
"The reason you do it is to raise awareness about the inadequacy of the food stamp benefit," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Council, an umbrella organization for 13 national and 125 local Jewish organizations.
The challenge coincides with congressional consideration of the Farm Bill, which includes the food stamp program, the minimum benefits of which have not been raised since the mid-1970s. The House of Representatives recently passed their version of the bill with language that is a little better, according to Susskind, and debate is now focused in the Senate.
"I just wanted to get a real-world sense of what it means to survive on the average food stamp allocation, just to get a sense of what people go through," said Van Hollen. Among the immediate lessons he reports are the limitations in food variety, the inability to shop in bulk and the difficulties of maintaining a nutritious diet.
From my end, the lessons have been similar. I'm sick of peanut butter, craving fresh vegetables and was frustrated by my options within the grocery store as I had to buy more than I needed of certain items, forcing me to neglect others. I don't need a full box of pasta for the week or a whole bag of rice, and that money could have gone to other items like vegetables.
Granted the challenge occurs in a vacuum, and if I were to live on this budget for more than seven days I would probably have a stock of certain items that I did not need to buy every week. However, the challenges of timing - and of the very adequacy of benefit - are quite real for actual food stamp recipients, said Vollinger.
Food banks around the country provide anecdotal reports that their client load increases at the end of each food stamp period, according to Vollinger. "That would suggest that while it's true that the program was designed to be a supplement, people don't have enough resources," she said. Furthermore, far more people are eligible for benefits than those that receive them.
In August, in Montgomery County, 24,720 individuals received food stamp benefits and statewide there were 332,353 recipients, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate, however, that a scant majority -- 53 percent -- of those eligible in Maryland received benefits in 2004.
Other issues of timing have also illustrated the difficulties the current food stamp benefits present. I was originally assigned to begin my challenge the same day as Van Hollen. However, I started the day after because I was taking an important standardized test the previous morning and didn't want to deal with it yet. I had that choice - something the average food stamp recipient doesn't have.
I'm pretty confident I'll make it through the next three days. I still have, after all, half a dozen eggs, three apples, one yam, half a box of pasta, one quart of milk, six pieces of bread, six slices of cheese, half a bag of rice, four packs of instant noodles and half a jar of peanut butter.
Like I said, I haven't been extremely hungry, and while I know the diet isn't nutritious it's enough to keep me going. One more confession though.
Saturday is my last day, and I plan to quit as soon as I scarf down an early dinner so that I can go out with my older brother for his birthday. I'm willing to bet drinks and dinner (take two) are in order. The conclusion of my week spent on a food stamp diet will be a celebration.
Hardly a realistic end.