Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Food Stamp Challenge

Some members of Congress have agreed to live for a week on a "food stamp budget," basically the per person allocation for food stamps for those who qualify (which is $21.00/week for the average food stamp recipient).

Congressman Jim McGovern has been blogging about it at As his blog attests, it is not easy to eat well or even eat much all on $21.00 a week, or basically $1.00 per meal.

After my parents divorced when I was a young teen, my Mom went on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), on and off for about three years (from when I was 12 to about 15). AFDC included an allotment of food stamps, about $130.00 a month if my memory of those teenage years is correct. [My grocery budget now is about $180 a week, and that doesn't include dining out.]

The first two weeks of the month would be good, as we had enough food in the cupboards and fridge. But, the last two weeks were grim, as the cupboards ran bare, and there was no money to buy more until the start of the next month.

I remember praying for that check and the stamps to arrive at the start of the month so that our cupboards would have food in them again. When the postman would come and deliver the mail, and the check wouldn't be there, it meant another day of privation. The disappointment that empty mailbox produced, I still remember. I wonder if that's why I now need to keep necessities stocked. I get anxious when there's not milk or bread for tomorrow.

I remember many mornings at school when around 10am my tummy would rumble, because the piece of toast or small bowl of cereal had worked through my system hours ago. I was deeply embarrassed by the rumble. If I had gum, I'd swallow it to try and shut it up. No wonder I was a very skinny teen.

In especially lean months, my Mom would get government cheese, peanut butter, and prunes. I don't remember what agency or who gave that stuff out. The cheese came in a huge brick that would last weeks, and we'd live on cheese sandwiches until the bread ran out. I also came to love prunes.

When you're on welfare, you don't get to indulge in many sweets, like ice cream or candy, and the prunes were sticky and sweet, and would satisfy that intense craving for sugar that seems to drive children's taste buds. I still like prunes, although they're not as satisfying now.

The allotment for food stamps has not increased since 1996. So, as inflation has risen the amount granted in food stamps has stayed the same. Representative McGovern has proposed legislation to add $4 billion to the food stamp program, which he intends to add to the next agriculture bill. He also would peg the program to the rate of inflation.

For the 26 million Americans who receive food stamps (and that's only a percentage of those who are eligible for the program), such a move would help ease the burden of intense poverty and need, though it would by no means entail a life of gluttony.

So, I praise Representative McGovern and the other members of Congress who are taking the challenge. They get to try out poverty for a week, and to live in the shoes of the working and unemployed poor. They're trying to start a very important conversation in this country about hunger and poverty, two issues that are real, pervasive, and largely ignored by those of us who live comfortable lives.


TRH said...

Thank you for this powerful and important reminder. Our government (& we ourselves) can fairly be judged by how we treat the poorest among us.

Anonymous said...

Forgotten in this is NYC Council MEmber Goia, who first did this, living on $28 for a week in NYC. He made it until Friday, when he ran out and wound up at a food pantry. He later donated $100 to the pantry, seeing as how he was taking food out of the mouths of those who rely on pantries to make - a very justifiable - political point.

Some Guy said...

Hey Jen, Nate here,

We lived on food stamps as well in my adolescence. Hamburger helper, chopped beef and cream on toast, bologna sandwiches and ketchup. It was hard.

Personally, I think Congressional members of both houses should not only take the food stamp challenge, they should also take a medicare challenge and pick out medications and plans for randomly selected seniors.

Simple "live by the policy you enact" sensitizing experiments would go a long way, but of course that is a pipe dream.

Thanks for bringing this up. It is great for those that do and illustrates how protected the rest are and wish to remain.