January 22, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 4

Community & Editorial

Take the challenge to survive on a daily food stamp allotment of $4.20.

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With two big food-related holidays behind us, and the 2014 session of the U.S. Congress just beginning, I had two reasons for thinking about food. The first is obvious. The second reason is because Congress has to pass a Farm Bill. That bill isn’t just important to farmers; it also sets the rules and benefits for SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps. Some 47 million Americans with very low incomes use food stamps to help keep food on the table and help stave off hunger and malnutrition on a massive scale.

Last November, while the 41 U.S. Representatives and Senators who make up the Conference Committee on the Farm Bill were meeting, I found myself thinking they should limit their food intake to the current daily allotment for food stamps, or $4.20/per person/per day. (One of them, U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, took the food stamp challenge for a week last summer.) But it quickly occurred to me that if I wanted them to eat $4.20 worth of food a day, I should also. So for three weeks, with a break over Thanksgiving, I blogged about my own “food-stamp challenge” for SKCCH, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Plus, I talked about my experience to anyone who would listen.

For me the issue isn’t just theoretical; it’s visceral. In 1967, just back from a two-year stint overseas in the Peace Corps, I was a student intern at the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now DHHS). One day I was sent to take notes at a U.S. Senate hearing. Witnesses that day were six physicians who had collectively examined several thousand poor children across America’s South. Among their conclusions: “[We] saw … children for whom hunger is a daily fact of life and sickness, in many forms, an inevitability. … They are suffering from hunger and disease and directly or indirectly they are dying from them — which is exactly what ‘starvation’ means.”

Prompted by the doctors’ testimony, a year later CBS aired a special called “Hunger in America,” and the U.S. Senate established a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Not long after I finished grad school, I was a staffer, working for that U.S. Senate Committee, helping to set up “hunger hearings” across the U.S. All of us — Republicans and Democrats, Senators and staff — saw hunger in America up close and personal: hungry, listless children; gaunt, skinny adults; people who looked ancient, but turned out to be much younger, thanks to hunger. Media coverage was extensive. Among the results: caring citizens, faith groups, anti-hunger advocates and a broad, bi-partisan group in Congress worked to get food stamps (and other, targeted food programs) expanded. Together, those efforts brought an end to the kind of widespread, severe hunger we saw 40 years ago.

I’ll admit: I’m not exactly objective; I have a long history with the program. But I’d never taken the challenge.

Knowing what we saw at those “hunger hearings,” I cannot imagine why anyone would want to bring back hunger in America — especially not when we produce more food, and waste more food, than most countries. The kind of hunger I saw in my Peace Corps years was understandable: People were desperately poor and food was scarce. In America, there’s no excuse.

And yet, bringing back hunger is exactly what Congress is considering. Over the next 10 years, the Senate would cut roughly $4 billion from SNAP; the House of Representatives would cut $40 billion. And that would be on top of cuts in food stamps made last November — cuts that have produced longer lines at food banks and soup kitchens everywhere.

So, I have a modest proposal. If you think we should not act deliberately to bring back hunger on a massive scale, tell your U.S. Senators and Representative. Ask them to live on no more than $4.20/day for food from now until the final votes are taken — longer if the program is cut. At the same time, everyone reading this should take the challenge, especially anyone who’s ever criticized what low-income people buy with food stamps and every member of the media likely to be reporting on the Farm Bill.

Or, do nothing. But please know that if you do not speak up, you will share some responsibility for bringing back hunger to our food-rich land.

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