Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Members of Congress Try To Live On Food Stamps For One Week

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, shops for food on a $21-a-week budget at a grocery store in Washington. Ryan later said he made some poor shopping choices.

The Washington Post reports:
A pork chop and a bag of peanuts proved too tempting for Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, one of four members of Congress who has struggled for the past week to subsist on $21 worth of food — the equivalent of benefits received by the average food-stamp recipient.

Last Friday night, in New Hampshire to deliver a commencement speech, Ryan succumbed to a pork chop in the hotel restaurant because he feared he would otherwise be too weak to give the address.

Afterward, as he rushed to catch a flight back to Washington, airport-security officials confiscated jars of peanut butter and jelly from his carry-on luggage, leaving him with nothing but a small bag of cornmeal to eat in the final days of the "Food Stamp Challenge," which ended Tuesday.

"It just showed me that when you're living on food stamps, you're really one event away from disaster," he said. "If you drop a jar of sauce or jam, you can lose an opportunity to eat. Some people are constantly living on that edge."

So Monday, in the Cleveland airport on his way back to Washington from a funeral, Ryan bought a bag of peanuts. "I feel bad I couldn't do it the whole time, but I certainly got the point," said the lawmaker, who lost four pounds during the week and ended his test early, with dinner at a Washington restaurant Monday night.

He said he came away with two conclusions: He made some poor choices when he shopped for the $21 worth of food, and the country's food-stamp program is not sufficient for the 26 million Americans who rely on it.

Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., co-chairmen of the House Hunger Caucus, called on lawmakers to join them in taking the challenge to raise awareness of hunger and what they say are inadequate benefits for food-stamp recipients. Only Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Ryan took them up on it.

"I've been a little low on energy, but I feel guilty about complaining about anything," said McGovern, who took the challenge with his wife; each lost about five pounds. "For us, this is an exercise that ends Tuesday. For millions of people, this is their life."

Food-stamp benefits are roughly $1 a meal, or $3 a day. With that budget, the lawmakers said, they found that starchy foods are attractively priced and that there was little chance for variety.

"No organic foods, no fresh vegetables — we were looking for the cheapest of everything," McGovern said. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat — the fattiest meat on the shelf. ... It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food-stamp diet."

McGovern said he faced down many temptations at several receptions and fundraisers — duck rolls, crab cakes, red wine. "Every time I thought, 'I wish I could have that scallop wrapped in bacon,' at the back of mind I thought, 'Why are you complaining? This is the way people live every day.' "

McGovern and Ryan blogged about their experiences and received hundreds of comments from people nationwide, including food-stamp recipients who offered recipes and tricks to stretch meals.

"I was so deeply touched by the comments," said McGovern's wife, Lisa. "I was even struck by the angry remarks. One person was dismissive, but he gave a recipe for a biscuit. That was remarkable. ... It showed me there are people out there who are struggling, and it's neighbors and friends. You don't have to look to some faraway place to see it."

McGovern and Emerson have introduced legislation that would add $4 billion to the annual federal food-stamp budget, which was $33 billion last year. The proposal could be incorporated into the new farm bill.

McGovern said Monday that he had not given a lot of thought to what he will eat as he returns to his more typical diet. "I want a cup of coffee — or five," he said. "... And not lentils. I've had enough lentils for three years."