Food Stamp Challenge

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.

8 thoughts on “Food Stamp Challenge

  • Hi Jamie,

    I was impressed by your blog. I grew up in Waltham (7children) raised by a resourceful mother. Early thirties, standing in line for milk and bread and occasional goodies (government surplus). The story of folks on food stamps and the challenge to their health and the anxiety of food, housing, education etc is always a major concern. I applaud you for your ‘clinical trial’ and the good work I know you are doing. Thanks

  • Jamie –

    I really admire you for doing this. I can’t even imagine trying to eat on $6.50/day – it just seems impossible, and certainly unhealthy. I found your account interesting and enlightening, especially recognizing the aspect of anxiety being just as prominent as the actual hunger. Thank you for doing this, and for sharing your experience. Stacey

  • I remember reading the book, Black Boy, and how the author could not concentrate in school due to his extreme hunger. Then, when he went to live with someone else and started having three meals a day, he could start learning. That example has stayed with me for many years.

  • Way to walk the walk Senator! At a time when the political conversation in this country makes it so hard to believe, there are so few things I can point to which sustain my faith in the idea that government can survive long enough to deliver on the promise of the “great society” which I grew up believing in (and somewhere deep in my heart and soul still believe is possible). The fact that you were elected to public office in the first place, and continue to be re-elected, is one of those few things. Keep at it.

  • A good example. You are wiser and stronger for having done it. I know you will use that wisdom and strength to push harder for the people who have to do it constantly. Good man. Good leader.

  • Good for you Jamie for taking the challenge. One additional problem with your food stamp diet was that it was not very nutritious for a regular diet day in and day out — such a diet would lead to other health problems down the road. My single Mom miraculously made ends meet– but as children we didn’t understand that brushing our teeth with baking soda meant we could have a piece of fruit. We begged Santa for toothpaste and other forbidden “luxuries”.

  • Senator Jamie: God Bless You for your efforts to walk in the shoes of those who really know what it is like. I know my parents struggled all the time raising 3 kids in the 50s. We never experienced REAL hardship though, and my kids and grandkids have no clue what it is like to face the challenges of no job, no food, no shelter, etc… I’m going to propose to my Pastor and Church that we take the Food Stamp Challenge — so that we can get a glimpse of what so many people are facing today. Thank you for opening my eyes and may you be strong in your resolve as you face budget discussions.

  • Senator Eldridge, Perhaps you could consider spearheading a movement to have individuals plant extra food to share with those in need? One deck container can hold a tomato plant, lettuce and herbs enough for many meals. If everyone did just one planting and donating that to the food pantries, the compounding effect would be astounding. Many many families who go hungry now would have access to fresh, free food and in turn would have the energy to break the cycle of poverty, recover from their illness or simply sustain during their most trying days. One plant, one family feed. It’s not a perfect solution but it is a start. Many wonderful organization such as Growing Places are trying to teach homeowners gardening and are making headway but a larger solution everyone can adopt and participate in is needed. Think back to the days of the Victory Gardens. This is what we need a feed the neighbor effort. Person to person until all are taken care of.

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