Isaiah J. Poole is executive editor of TomPaine.com.
Do you know how you could eat on just $21 a week?
This week, you may have heard about the four members of Congress who have decided to try living on the amount of food they could buy with $21, the average weekly Food Stamp program allotment. One of the members, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and his wife, Lisa, have maintained a blog about their experience. It’s a sobering read—not just the experiences of the normally well-fed politicians who are doing this for a week, but the comments of ordinary people who have had to do this, and worse, for weeks or months at a time. It makes you wonder how on earth a nation’s leaders can be so casual when spending public money on instruments of war, power and political advantage, and yet be so stingy when it comes to that most basic form of human compassion, making sure your neighbor has enough to eat.
The Food Stamp program, which in its current iteration is entering its 30th year, is up for reauthorization as part of the omnibus farm bill. McGovern’s family and those of the other three members of Congress—Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Ohio—are among the dozens of national, state and local officials who are participating in a National Food Stamp Challenge intended to call attention to the need to increase food stamp benefits.
Government officials argue that the food stamp benefit, which can go as high as $38.75 a person per week, depending on the circumstances, is sufficient for three healthy meals a day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Food Stamp program, even offers recipes on a website that a recipient could use to help make affordable meals.
The reality, though, is much tougher.
"No organic foods, no fresh vegetables, we were looking for the cheapest of everything," McGovern said in an interview with The Washington Post at a Washington supermarket. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat—the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet."
It does not help that some of the cost estimates of the USDA recommended meals seem out of date. A chili recipe that calls for three-quarters of a pound of ground beef, beans, celery, onions and seasonings is priced at $3.87 for four servings. But the lowest-priced ground beef, with 20 percent fat, was selling this week for between $2.99 and $3.59 a pound at two major Washington supermarkets.
After about three days on their food stamp diet, Lisa McGovern wrote, “We've been eating so minimally—concerned that we won't have enough food to carry us through to Tuesday. I can see an impact on our energy levels, even in just these few days. When Jim got home around 10 last night, he just seemed a little ‘flat.’ He's usually very animated when recapping his work day, whether it was good or bad. But the lack of fuel seemed to drain that from him a bit.”
McGovern and Emerson have co-sponsored a bill that would add $4 billion to the $33 billion Food Stamp program. James D. Weill, the director of the Food Action Resource Center, said that there are several changes that need to be made to the program, starting with raising the individual benefit. While the aggregate benefit has kept pace with inflation over the past 30 years, “for some families, benefits are eroding.”
Even for those people who are not seeing eroding benefits over time, the reality is “there are health consequences” to living on such a limited budget for more than a few days. People on food stamps are often forced to choose foods with higher fat, breads that are not whole grain and processed foods with unhealthy levels of sodium and sugar—a dangerous combination for people prone to diabetes, heart disease or other diet-related health problems. “Living (on $21 a week) for a week is different from living on it for six months,” Weill said.
While 27 million people a month on average are served by the Food Stamp program—which is actually an electronic debit program—millions more eligible people are not in the program, largely because of administrative hurdles or because of anemic publicity efforts. There is vocal support across political lines for fixing these and other problems with the Food Stamp program, but Weill says, “I’m concerned that the progress will be much too modest” when the program “needs significant strides” to accomplish its goals.
That is why more people should demand to know why—in a year in which we are projected to give the wealthiest 1 percent of the nation some $56.5 billion in tax breaks, just to cite one example of the national priorities set by President Bush—we can’t do better than an average of $21 a week to ensure that our fellow Americans can have three decent meals a day.