San Jose Mercury News
by Nancy S. Tivol
Oct. 9. 2007
The farm bill, which includes the Food Stamp Program, is up for reauthorization. This past summer, some members of Congress and others took the Food Stamp Challenge, spending only $21 on food for a week to focus attention on the program's inadequacies. It's been more than 10 years since any money has been added to the Food Stamp Program, and it is not indexed for inflation.
Although food stamps were intended to be a supplemental program, most recipients rely primarily on food stamps to put food on their tables. According to the California Budget Project, it takes $50,383 a year for a California family of four - with one working parent - to make ends meet and $72,343 if both parents work (higher in Santa Clara County), but a family of four is eligible for food stamps only if its gross annual income doesn't exceed $26,004.
What can you eat for $3 a day? Mostly carbohydrates. Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee's diet consisted primarily of crackers, a loaf of whole-wheat bread, tortillas, and brown rice. Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, filled up on 19-cent banana-and-peanut butter sandwiches. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said he would've killed for a candy bar or a cup of coffee. "I've had enough lentils for three years. For us, this is an exercise that ends Tuesday. For millions of people, this is their life," he said.
Feeling full on $3 a day is one challenge; eating nutritionally is virtually impossible. Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky's week's worth of fruits and vegetables consisted of one tomato, one potato, a head of lettuce, and five bananas.
Health problems are a likely result of the food stamp diet because the cheapest foods are carbs: bread, tortillas, crackers, rice, beans, ramen and noodles. It's easy to see why type 2 diabetes is an epidemic in America. No longer is it called adult-onset diabetes because it affects so many children. Eric Schockman, president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, noted other problems after a week eating a lot of canned beans and generic macaroni and cheese (because his childhood favorite brand was too expensive). The diet "was physically debilitating and emotionally exhausting. I was lethargic and found that I lacked my usual enthusiasm for getting through the day. I had difficulty reading, writing, communicating - doing anything other than anticipating (and, in some ways, dreading) my next meal."
Certainly, not all poor, diabetic, and overweight people make wise food choices, but for the poor, wise choices aren't as available. Unlike those who took the one-week challenge, they don't have a newspaper to search for sales or a car to drive to the stores featuring them. In Sunnyvale, there are only two supermarkets north of El Camino Real. Rather than paying bus fares for themselves and children, our clients usually walk to smaller neighborhood markets that don't carry the volume of fresh fruits and vegetables necessary for affordable prices.
Sunnyvale Community Services, a non-profit, emergency assistance agency, provides financial aid to low-income families and seniors facing temporary crises to prevent eviction and utility disconnection or to access otherwise unaffordable medical care. Our food program statistics show the skyrocketing need for food. The number of families participating in our monthly food programs doubled in the past six years from 600 to 1,280. Over the same period, the value of the food we distributed increased from $430,000 to more than $1 million a year.
So what are some actions we can take to try to improve the Food Stamp Program? Contact our state's U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to urge their support both of increasing money for the Food Stamp Program and of indexing it for inflation. Have out-of-state family and friends contact their senators. Check the California Food Policy Advocates Web site (www.cfpa.net) for farm bill updates and lobbying tips. Conduct food drives for agencies like Sunnyvale Community Services-emergency assistance agencies and meal programs and the Second Harvest Food Bank. As Schakowsky put it, "Healthy food should not be viewed as a luxury."
NANCY S. TIVOL is executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.