Congress Must Learn From ‘Food Stamp Challenge’

Posted June 11, 2007 at 4:19pm

Recently, I, along with Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), spent a week living on the average food stamp benefit — $21, or $3 per day, or $1 per meal. I took this “Food Stamp Challenge” to experience firsthand the difficulty of living on the average food stamp benefit and, more importantly, to show my colleagues in Congress the inadequacy of the current allotment.

I knew my experience would be unique and not be like those of the 26 million Americans who currently receive food stamps. My goal was to draw attention to the Food Stamp Program’s vital role in providing nutrition assistance to low-income families and to put myself in somebody else’s shoes, if only for seven days. I thought it was important to actually do something to raise awareness of this successful federal program.

My wife, Lisa, joined me in taking the weeklong challenge and we learned many valuable lessons. We experienced how time-consuming and stressful it is to plan, purchase and prepare food on such a limited budget. We were forced to decide between eating to be healthy and eating to be full, a choice made by millions of low-income Americans every day. We realized that fresh fruits and vegetables are often luxury items. We did our best to stretch our food over seven days, but it never seemed to be enough. However, thankfully, we did not experience the pressure to make trade-offs between food, gas, medicine and our children’s needs, a reality faced by low-income families every day.

I took this challenge knowing that more than 35 million Americans are “food insecure” — the federal government’s preferred term for “hungry.” One-third of these individuals — more than 12 million — are children. Many are working families with parents who work hard during the day but are unable to earn enough to pay all the bills. Others are seniors who retired from the labor force after decades of contribution to this country and now live on a fixed income that fails to cover all their expenses, particularly with rising health care costs. They make up our families, neighborhoods and congregations. They deserve our support and assistance. They deserve better than they are getting today.

I also accepted this challenge with deliberate timing. This year, Congress has the ability to dramatically reduce hunger in America with the farm bill reauthorization. We must seize this opportunity. This Thursday, the nutrition title of the farm bill will be marked up in subcommittee. The nutrition title should include provisions that strengthen the Food Stamp Program as well as America’s food banks and emergency food systems that performed so well during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The status quo is simply not good enough.

Finding the money to fund these programs will be a real challenge, but that is not an acceptable excuse for inaction. According to a report released last Monday, commissioned by the Sodexho Foundation and written by researchers at Harvard, Brandeis and Loyola universities, the domestic cost of hunger is $90 billion each year. That’s $300 paid by every single American each year. We simply cannot afford to do nothing.

In addition, the cost of food is increasing at an astounding rate. An economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently said we will see one of the most rapid increases in food prices in the past 15 years. This is partly due to the ethanol-induced increase in corn prices that has raised input costs for livestock and processed foods with corn syrup. Undoubtedly, this disproportionately affects low-income people living on a fixed budget each month. At the very least, food stamp benefits should keep up with the rising cost of food and inflation.

It is shameful that one out of nine households in this country struggles to put food on the table. Collectively, we have the resources to reduce and end hunger in America — and the farm bill is the place to start. I hope my colleagues in Congress share this urgency and that together we find the political will to increase, strengthen and improve the programs that combat hunger.

Rep. Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.