Even as I write this, I'm hungry. The truth is that I've been a little hungry ever since I began the Food Stamp Challenge. Along with more than 75 other Marylanders — including Anne Sheridan, executive director of Governor's Office for Children; Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP; and former SNAP recipient and "Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother" author Barbara Morrison — I committed to living on $30 worth of food for a week. That $30 is the average Food Supplement Program (FSP) benefit in Maryland.
We aren't pretending that this one week is the same as being in poverty or the same as being an FSP recipient. But it will give us a flavor of the challenges that more than 795,000 Marylanders, 330,000 of them children, deal with on a regular basis, the challenge of living on a limited budget and trying to afford enough food.
When I went shopping at Shop Rite in Glen Burnie for the week, I had a plan. I knew that I wouldn't be able to eat salad every day for lunch or dinner as usual — that was out of the budget. So was seafood, dessert, or a daily glass of orange juice. Not being a coffee addict, I didn't have that challenge, but I was only able to get a single frozen can of apple juice for the week, plus a small box of assorted tea.
I was able to get an apple, a banana, a pear and some grapes. Not enough fruit for every day, but I'll stretch it. I bought a couple of cans of vegetables (green beans and peas and carrots) but not the fresh spinach that I like so much.
Chicken quarters were on sale, so I got four, plus a bag of russet potatoes, some whole wheat spaghetti and a jar of store brand spaghetti sauce. I also got a bag of pinto beans to make soup, a bag of brown rice, a loaf of wheat bread, some peanut butter and jelly. Using store discounts (and getting 15 cents back because I brought my own canvas grocery bags), I was able to make it through the checkout line with $2.52 to spare. Fortunately, Maryland doesn't tax food.
Also fortunately, I didn't have little kids with me, clamoring for brand name sweet or salty snacks that weren't on my list. My college student kids declined to join me on the challenge — are they smart or scared? My spouse also declined — too bad because I would have benefited from the additional $30 dollars for the two of us. But those were choices — choices real FSP recipients don't get to make.
I also have a working refrigerator, stove, microwave and automobile — tangible tools for shopping, storing and preparing food that most of us take for granted.
What's omnipresent is this sense of what I am missing. And the continuing sense of being just a little bit hungry.
It's also what people who don't have this challenge don't understand. Most folks on FSP are working, or they are kids, or they are disabled, or they are seniors. Some in Congress want to cut the program that is providing a lifeline to folks who need it — undercutting hard-working families who need a temporary hand just when they need it the most. The House of Representatives recently voted to gut the program by $40 billion, and the Senate would strip $4 billion. Either scenario means less food for low-income people, and frankly that just seems mean.
Thirty dollars doesn't go a long way, and people are going to have to do with even less on Nov. 1. That's when the boost that FSP was given in the stimulus legislation to combat the recession ends. Every person who receives SNAP will see a drop in their benefits. Never mind that the lingering effects of the recession are still obvious, here in Maryland and all over the nation. It's clear that most members of Congress just don't get it — or don't want to.
If you are still skeptical, I encourage you to take the Food Stamp Challenge. I believe that if you succeed in living on the average weekly food stamp benefit of just $30 per person — or about $4 a day — you will come away with a more concrete understanding of the daily struggles thousands of our neighbors face as they attempt to stretch limited budgets into enough healthy food for their households. You too will agree that Congress must protect the nutrition programs that are so effective in improving child health, preventing hunger for low-wage workers and their families, and helping to rebuild our fragile economy.
Me? I'm going to bed now. I may be hungry, but I'm over budget. Food will have to wait until tomorrow.
Michael J. Wilson is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.