Saturday, May 26, 2007

Congressional Food Stamp Challenge

I've been trying to decide all week whether or not to mention this. It's not directly related to Congressman Tim Walberg and the 7th Congressional District. But it is important, and this blog happens to be my little soap box. So I hope you'll forgive me for a little piece of unrelated content.

Suppose that after paying for rent, or heat and electricity, or other necessities, you could only spend $21 each week on food, or just $3 for each day. I don't tend to live extravagantly, but I know that I would have a very difficult time planning my budget to make it last all week, and I'd have a hard time eating healthy foods. With my personal habits, I know that I couldn't manage it. I suspect most people reading couldn't do it either.

Four members of the United States House of Representatives-- three Democrats and one Republican-- decided to see if they could do it, and were joined by spouses and staffers in the endeavor. It was called the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, running from May 15 to May 21, and the participants wrote about their experience on the challenge blog.

Is it political theater? Well, yes. But it has a purpose and a valuable message. Sometimes theatrics are what it takes to get people to notice the issue and act on it.

Here's some of what they had to say.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky wrote:
Living on food stamps is not just about the food. It takes a lot of planning ahead to live on a food stamp budget, and still, even if you get the calories you need, you can’t get the nutrients. Maybe some nutrition expert can figure out how one can eat healthily on a food stamp diet, but I can’t see how it’s done. Fruits and vegetables, especially fresh ones, are very expensive relative to foods like pastas and bread.

I spoke with a radio talk show host today, who said that food stamps just increase dependency, that poor people should be taught a lesson, and that they should just stop having children. He also said that food stamps were just meant to supplement anyway, that kids get free meals at school, and that poor people should get their lazy selves off their couches and get a job.

I tried to keep my cool and countered that most of those families receiving food stamps had at least one and maybe two working adults in them, and even working full time at a low wage job put that family below the poverty level, and that, even if he was right, which he wasn’t, should the children be punished by sending them to bed or to school hungry or malnourished? I said it was in our interest to ensure a generation of healthy children if we want to be competitive in the world, and besides that it was a moral issue that in the wealthiest country in the world, tens of millions of people struggle to have enough to eat every day and many fail. Talk about clueless and cold, in my estimation, that guy was it.

Congressman Jim McGovern wrote:

Some have called my office over the last several days both "pro" and "con" what we are doing. I am grateful for all the comments.

Those who have been critical have been mostly people who, I believe, have some bad information about about the food stamp program and about hunger in America. Some have suggested that food stamp recipients get a job. The reality is that most have jobs! Others have accused us of exaggerating the problem of hunger in our country. The fact is, according to US government statistics, there are over 35 million Americans who are hungry or food insecure. There is not a community in the United States of America that is hunger free. That, in my view, is something we all should be ashamed of.

A few people have complained that those of us who are doing this cannot possibly have any idea of what it is like to be struggling as low-income families. I believe this criticism has some merit. Because for us this food stamp challenge is an exercise that will end on Tuesday. After that we will go back to our regular lives and regular habits where we do not have to worry about the planning, preparing and anxiety of living on a food stamp budget.

Reporters have asked us, "Are you hungry?" "Are you tired?" "Will you run out of food?" or "Are you cheating?" Yes, I'm a little hungry and a little tired. No, I don't think we'll run out of food because we think we planned OK. And, no, we haven't cheated. But, I must confess, I feel a little embarrassed even saying I'm a little hungry or tired. It sounds like complaining. And the fact is we are very, very lucky - luckier than most people. My biggest temptations have been the appetizers at receptions and banquets. Most Americans don't have access to what Members of Congress have access to everyday.

It is sometimes easy to get detached from the reality of poverty when you're in Washington. I would like to believe that I never have. But, the experience of the last several days, the comments on the blog, the calls to my office, reporters' questions and the people I have talked to in Massachusetts and around the country have given me an education. I am grateful for that -- and I and others need to take what we've learned and do something about it.

Lisa McGovern (the Congressman's wife) wrote:
First day was kind of tough but I was so busy at work and we had an evening event so there wasn't a lot of time to eat. I had tuna and an apple for lunch. I left the house at 8am without breakfast but I won't do that again! I did drink gallons of water. Several months ago, we had accepted an invitation to a dinner event so went, but couldn't eat. At home, before the dinner, I made an egg with shredded cheese on a tortilla, ate it quickly, and made one for Jim which I wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it hot(ish). I drove it and me down to the fancy Mayflower hotel and handed the tin foil to Jim. He ate the tortilla in 5 bites and about 30 seconds. Meal over. (I wish we had bought the larger size tortillas instead of the small ones, but the small ones were cheaper. Still, it was a bad call. And there are only 10 small tortillas -- and 2 of us for 7 days, so we need to ration them.)
As I began cooking, separating and freezing food for the week, I began to worry that we won't have enough food to get us through Tuesday. 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 (but we only have 2 cans of those). And that goes against what I think of as healthy on a plate (which would be 1/4 protein, 1/4 carbs and 1/2 fruits and vegetables). But it's a long time until Tuesday and we have a limited amount of the "good" stuff so we're doling it out carefully.
And, of course, mistakes were made by members of Congress not used to the experience, and trying to combine their active political lives with the challenge. Congressman Tim Ryan wrote:

You aren’t going to believe this, but all I have left is cornmeal.

I was doing SO well! I had everything rationed out perfectly and knew that I was going to be able to stretch my food out until the end. That was of course, until the TSA decided to step in. So after giving a GREAT commencement speech (You’ll be able to see it later today when we post the video) to the graduating class of my old law school, Franklin Pierce, I was talking with students and faculty, and really enjoying myself. I guess I was enjoying the time a little TOO much because before you knew it the Dean of the school had to remind me that we were running late. Manchester airport is easily an hour away from Concord, NH so my buddie State Rep. Steve DeStephano and his family had to rush me down I-93 to get me to the plane in time. When I arrived I decided just to carry my bag on so I ran over to the security gate with my carry on. I step up to the metal detector, take my shoes off, place my bag through the scanner and come out the other side to the most dreaded words in travel, “Bag Check!”
Sure enough the very nice TSA agent explained to me the 3-1-1 regulations for liquids. As a public service I’ve decided to link you to them. He politely put the peanut butter and jelly to the side, closed my bag and gave it back to me. I was too astonished to talk. I took my bag and walked towards the gate thinking about the 4 or maybe 5 meals that she had taken from me. What am I going to do now? It’s not like I can just go to Safeway and grab another jar. I have .33 cents and a bag of cornmeal to last today and tomorrow.

If what they went through for a week sounds familiar to you, or you have trouble putting food on the table, the USDA has online resources to help determine if you are eligible and can help you find a local office.

In 2004, 10.3 million households and 23.9 million individuals each day were assisted by the Food Stamp program. The USDA provides these statistics on their FAQ page:

22. What are some characteristics of food stamp households?

Based on a study of data gathered in Fiscal Year 2005:

  • 50 percent of all participants are children (18 or younger), and 65 percent of them live in single-parent households.

  • 54 percent of food stamp households include children.

  • 8 percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).

  • 77 percent of all benefits go to households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent go to households with elderly persons.

  • 34 percent of households with children were headed by a single parent, the overwhelming majority of whom were women.

  • The average household size is 2.3 persons.

  • The average gross monthly income per food stamp household is $648.

  • 46 percent of participants are white; 31 percent are African-American, non-Hispanic; 13 percent are Hispanic; 2 percent are Asian, 1 percent are Native American, and 7 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity.

In Michigan, 1,197,856 individuals received assistance in February, 2007 (the most recent month for which data is available). That's a 6.9 percent increase from February of 2006.

So what can be done to help? Well, Congressman Jim McGovern gives us some advice.

One more thing, please make sure that your Congressperson or Senator is active on these issues. Make it a point to e-mail, write or call them. Ask them to cosponosor HR 2129. Tell them your own stories. Don't let them off the hook. Remember, we work for you -- not the other way around!

Stay in touch....

Major provisions pf HR 2129:

  • Raise the minimum benefit from $10 to about $30 per month so that everybody who qualifies for the program gets a real help up
  • Peg benefits to inflation to stop the erosion of the purchasing power of food stamps
  • Restore eligibility to all legal residents
  • Raise the asset limits for eligibility so that families on food stamps are encouraged to save for college and retirement
  • Allow families to deduct the full cost of childcare when determining their eligibility

The text of HR 2129, sponsored by Congressman McGovern, can be found here. It currently has 84 cosponsors. Congressman Tim Walberg is not one of them.

Congressman Walberg is on the Agriculture Committee, and is the only Michigan representative on that committee. That committee, of course, deals with Department of Agriculture programs, of which the Food Stamp Program is one. McGovern's legislation has been proposed in connection to the farm bill Walberg has been traveling the district to talk about.

Government shouldn't provide everything for us, and it should be a challenge to get through life. But American children should not be going to school hungry, and hard-working Americans should not have to end their day trying to figure out how to feed themselves the next day.

Contact Congressman Tim Walberg. Ask him to sign on as a cosponsor, and help solve this problem.

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There's now a Michigan Food Stamp Challenge from Sept. 4 to 10, I wonder if Walberg will step up to take the challenge?
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