At the invitation of the St. Matthews Church in Acton, I joined thousands of other Americans in participating in a Food Stamp Challenge this past week, when families and individuals survive for a week on the same amount of money that food stamp recipients receive. The point of the Challenge is to give participants a view of what life can be like for the millions of low-income Americans who struggle to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis. For me as a single individual, the Challenge meant eating on $46 a week, or just over $6.50 a day.
Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store and made my best effort to buy food that would fit into that budget, recognizing that my legislative schedule made it a little harder to plan ahead or find time to cook. I bought yogurt (59 cents) for breakfast, bread and bologna for lunch (a little over $1 for each day), and pasta and macaroni for dinner (between $1-2, including sauce). I also tried to fit in a banana once in awhile, or a small piece of chocolate. This also left a little bit of room for an all-important cup of coffee each day – a necessity for long days of meetings!
It was not always easy. When the debate at the State House on the health care cost control bill went late, it was challenging to resist going to the vending machine or grabbing take-out for dinner during a break. On other nights, when I was attending district events and getting home at 9 or 10 at night, I felt like I was running on fumes, eager to eat the pasta I had waiting for me back at home.
More than the actual hunger, however, the biggest impact on my daily life was just the sense of anxiety that sets in when you know that you don’t have the money for additional nourishment if you need it. It was at times hard to focus on my job, whether it was from lack of energy or simply from thinking frequently about how hungry I was!
During the week, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about what it must be like to live on food stamps not merely for one week, but for months or years. Of course, living on a food stamp budget for one week is not the same as having that longer-term experience, but at least it got me thinking.
In particular, I spent a lot of time thinking of the many poor families I represented, before I first ran for office, as a Legal Aid attorney in Lowell. These families struggled every day just to provide for their children and put a roof over their heads, and most if not all were just one economic hardship – a lost job, a medical emergency, an unexpected accident – away from falling into deep poverty. Beyond the very real hunger and nourishment issues, not knowing where your next meal will come from – or your next rent check, or money to pay for medicine for your kids – is incredibly traumatic, with lasting damage to families and especially children.
The Food Stamp Challenge comes at a particularly appropriate time, as the Senate prepares this week to take up the budget. Undoubtedly, we’ll spend many hours of that time debating fraud in the EBT card system and finding new rules and restrictions to place on low-income families receiving temporary help from the government – and almost no time at all discussing ways we could do more to help these struggling families.
There’s no place for fraud in any government program, including the food stamps and cash assistance programs, and of course I don’t believe tobacco, lottery tickets, tattoos and so forth are appropriate uses for food stamp or cash assistance. If reasonable reforms are before me, I will vote for them.
But sometimes I feel that ardent proponents of these restrictions can’t see the forest for the trees. Those receiving government assistance are trying to make ends meet for their families on very little money each week. They aren’t blowing hundreds of dollars on tattoos or fancy jewelry; they’re trying to put a solid meal on the table. Yet the intense focus on the very small percentage of people abusing the system sends the wrong message about our priorities. Why don’t we spend hours during the budget debate talking about how we can really help low-income families break the cycle of poverty? (Here’s one idea I’ve filed as a budget amendment).
At the end of the week, I was deeply grateful to grab dinner after a very long day of meetings in the district, and release that sense of deprivation that I had felt while participating in the Food Stamp Challenge. It was not only a pleasure to have a full stomach, but to let go of that fear that came with the week’s financial limitations. As we head into the budget debate this week, though, I won’t forget those feelings, or the many families whose food stamp challenge doesn’t end after just one week.