Lawmakers, Reporter Survive on Food Stamps
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, a report from Mexico: how the country is dealing with a wave of violent crime and how the immigration bill is playing south of the border.
But first: while heated debates over Iraq war funding and immigration are dominating Capitol Hill, another urgent conversation is taking place there, too. It concerns hunger in America, and thus far it's drawn a handful of representatives and even a state governor into a challenge - trying to spend only $21 a week on food, the same amount that the average food stamp recipient receives.
Some might say that the food stamp challenge, as it's being called, has taken on a bit of a theatrical bent as news outlets - including ours - has all of these officials and their own reporters diligently shopping to fit that budget. But will the challenge change anything?
Here to talk about this in our studio is a member of Congress who has taken the challenge, Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. Also with us on the phone is Julie Simon, a reporter for Austin's KEYE TV, a CBS affiliate, who also took the challenge as well for five days. Thank you both for joining us.
Representative JIM McGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, House Hunger Caucus): Thank you.
Ms. JULIE SIMON (Reporter, KEYTE TV): Thank you.
MARTIN: Congressman McGovern, you are chairman of something called the House Hunger Caucus. How did the idea of the food stamp challenge come about?
Rep. McGOVERN: Well, I'm the chairman of the Congressional Hunger Caucus along with Jo Ann Emerson from Missouri, who's a Republican. And we formed that caucus because we're concerned about the fact that hunger is a problem in America and it's a growing problem. And talking with a lot of nutrition and anti-hunger groups, we decided to try to call attention to the fact that the food stamp benefit is inadequate. A lot of people are struggling, and we need to do better. And the farm bill is coming up for consideration in the Congress. That's where the food stamp money's are, and we thought this would be a good way to call attention and educate our colleagues and give us an opportunity to learn ourselves about what it's like to live out of a food stamp budget.
MARTIN: Have you ever been that hard up against it? I mean, have you ever had to actually live on that kind of a budget?
Rep. McGOVERN: No. I never have. And look it - those of us in Congress are pretty lucky. We live pretty good lives. We get paid a decent salary. And we learned a lot during this challenge, one is that it takes a long time to shop when you're on a tight budget like that - $21 a week, that's $3 a day, a dollar a meal. And it's also almost impossible to make healthy choices.
MARTIN: Now, you and your wife did this together…
Rep. McGOVERN: We did.
MARTIN: …and so you had a grand total of $42.
Rep. McGOVERN: That's right.
MARTIN: Talk to me about some of the choices you had to make.
Rep. McGOVERN: Well, I mean, Lisa and I, you know, one - we normally try to eat fresh vegetables, but fresh vegetables are more expensive than canned vegetables or frozen vegetables. So we have to go with the latter. We - you know, I have a high cholesterol problem, so when I buy a hamburger, I try to buy the leanest meat. Well, the leanest meats are the most expensive and it's not a lot. So we ended up buying the fattiest hamburger because that was quantity, not quality. We bought lentils and beans and pasta and that kind of stuff. And we had small portions.
Look, when I go shopping, you know, for the week, if I run out of food on a Thursday or Friday, I go back to the supermarket and buy more. For a lot of people on food stamps, I mean, they don't have that luxury. So, I mean, they have to survive on this food. And I've learned from my food banks back at home in Massachusetts that a lot of people on food stamps supplement their benefit by going to food banks because the cost of gas is so high, utilities are so high. I mean, they're almost living almost exclusively on a food stamp budget. And a lot of people don't know this, including one of my colleagues, but the minimum food stamp benefit is $10 a month. And that hasn't changed since the mid-1970s. So give me a break. I mean, we need to do better.
MARTIN: Julie Simon, why did you do this? Did you volunteer or were you assigned?
Ms. SIMON: I was actually approached by Capital Area Food Bank, which is the food back here in Central Texas, and I really only had to think about it for about 10 seconds, you know. And they thought it was a great idea. They heard about what the congressman was doing and they thought, you know, why we shouldn't we do it on the local level? And they approached our station and then, I was happy to do it. I mean…
MARTIN: What was the hardest part for you? You heard the congressman say that he had to give up fresh fruits and vegetables, which is something that he'd really - he missed. What about you?
Ms. SIMON: Same thing. I mean, absolutely. I had to ration four carrots through the whole week. I had absolutely no fresh vegetables. I didn't get to buy the bread that I usually like to buy. I mean, wheat bread is far more expensive than, kind of, processed white. I have one little package of deli meat - also processed - because the fresh, you know, the fresh deli meat is a lot more expensive - a lot of beans and rice, lots of rice, certainly. I mean, you're pretty much eating, I found, the same thing over and over again.
MARTIN: Did you feel hungry?
Ms. SIMON: Absolutely, I did. I have this kind of gnawing, unsatisfied feeling the whole week. That's kind of how I would describe it. You know, I was able to sustain, although I also lost about three and a half pounds. But I, kind of, always had this unsatisfied feeling following me.
MARTIN: Were you hungry, congressman?
Rep. McGOVERN: Yeah. I mean, I was hungry in the sense that - I felt like Julia - unsatisfied, you know.
MARTIN: And you lost weight too, didn't you?
Rep. McGOVERN: I did. I lost like six pounds.
MARTIN: You blogged about it.
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Rep. McGOVERN: And I - you know, and I also felt low on energy and kind of cranky because I had to give up coffee, too, because, I mean, I was able to afford $1.50, a little thing of coffee, Safeway Select, but, you know, I saved that until Saturday when I could actually enjoy it a little bit. But, you know, I just - no desserts, no frills. I mean, so it's just - and look…
MARTIN: And, you know, you have access to a lot of free food out there.
Rep. McGOVERN: I do. Last week was…
MARTIN: …I mean, going around with receptions and so forth. So tell the truth. Did you sneak a crab cake at any point?
Rep. McGOVERN: No, I didn't. And the fact that a lot of people in the media reported it, everybody - every time we went to a reception, people watched me very carefully. I went to a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at the home of Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley in Smith Bagley's house in Washington, and boy, what a spread they had. I almost died. But I just had tap water because I also couldn't have bottled water. That was part of the pledge I signed.
So, yeah, it was tempting. But, you know, I felt a little bit embarrassed by the fact that I complained a little bit, because for me, this exercise ended on Tuesday. For millions of families this is a way of life. And again, this is something that we can change and do something about. I hope Congress does.
MARTIN: Did you get any angry responses from people who said, hey man, this is just a week for you? I don't - you know, give me a break.
Rep. McGOVERN: Yeah. On our blog some people wrote, you can't possibly understand what it's like to be poor living on a food stamp budget for only a week. You should do it for a month or two months. Well, I think there's a point to that. And look it, I'm not poor, but I think I got the message. I think I understand a little bit more, a little bit better what people have to go through. And I feel more passionate about the need to do something.
MARTIN: Conversely, though, I could see what some people might argue this is a management problem. I mean, this is a country with a tremendous amount of surplus food, and there are resources. And some people might argue that this is an issue of people not being able to manage their resources properly. If someone would have that view, what would you say?
Rep. McGOVERN: Look, the deal is - it's - the cost of living is high. I don't care where you live. And food should be an absolute right. And, you know, the cost of the status quo, where people aren't eating properly, is heavy. I mean, health costs - I mean, you know, some people on these low budget - on these low budgets end up having an obesity problem, too, because they end up buying the worse kind of food and end up buying things that filled them up but with empty calories but are unhealthy for them.
So, look, we can do better. If we can - this is - what we're asking for is like a day of war funding in Iraq to put toward nutrition and food stamps and help people in this country get the kind of healthy diets that I think they're entitled to.
MARTIN: I want to hear a little bit more about how much of an increase you're looking for. But before I do that, Julie, did you get any negative response from anybody who said, you know, a, gimmick, b, this isn't very real - anything of that sort?
Ms. SIMON: I didn't get too much. Although, we did get one email from somebody whom may have a valid point about the fact that I was living on $3 a day, like the congressman. And that's the average, and since food stamps are meant to supplement that, you know, and I wasn't supposed to be applying, obviously, any of my own income that I was perhaps making it…
Ms. SIMON: …harder than I needed to. But when I researched it and realized that somebody who has zero income, I think they get something, like, just under $5 a day, which - it is more, certainly, than $3 a day, but it's still very, very limited.
MARTIN: What do you think you learned, Julie?
Ms. SIMON: Oh, how lucky, how absolutely lucky I am. I mean, I was really struck by two things. I would sure like people to, you know, keep in mind: a, is just how darn hard it is to eat healthy, how on that little money it's difficult to get the caloric intake that you need. And I'm sure that's why I lost weight. And that's why it's easier, possibly, sometimes, to go to a fast-food place and get three tacos for a dollar. And I think that's probably why there sometimes there's an obesity problem, like the congressman said.
MARTIN: Because at least you'd be full. You'd at least feel full.
Ms. SIMON: At least, you'd be full, exactly. You're not full on a cup of oatmeal and a carrot and a canned peach. You know, it just doesn't fill you up. So it's just - the challenges of trying to eat healthy on such a fixed budget are so unfair.
And the other is how many of us out there enjoy our food. You know, that we eat what we're in the mood for, and it's fun sometimes. And all the fun is taken out of it when you're on that tight of a budget. Certainly, I mean, there's just - there's no looking forward to a meal, there's just kind of - you eat to kind of survive and exist.
MARTIN: Congressman, we're down to our last minute or so - what kind of increase in aid are you looking for, and would it really make that much of a difference?
Rep. McGOVERN: Well, as I said, the minimum food stamp benefit is $10 a month. I mean, what we would like to do is raise that up to at least $32 a month, index the benefit for inflation. Also, you know, provide, you know, some relief to people in the form of, you know, allowing to deduct the full cost of the child care and have it not count against - you know, their consideration for a benefit, being able to allow people to save a little bit more. Retirement accounts should account as an asset that would make - disqualify you for a certain benefit.
I mean, part of the deal here is not only to make sure people have what they need and be able to make healthy choices, but also, hopefully, to be able to transition off of this, to be able to, you know, be in a situation where they don't need food stamps anymore. And so, I mean, that's what we're trying to do, and it's, again, I think it's a moral obligation for all of us in Congress to move toward this goal.
MARTIN: Congressman Jim McGovern, thank you.
Rep. McGOVERN: Thank you.
MARTIN: That's Congressman Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, who was kind enough to join us here in our studio. We were also joined by Julie Simon, a reporter for Austin's KEYE TV, who joined us on the phone. Thank you both so much for joining us today.
Ms. SIMON: Thank you.
Rep. McGOVERN: Thank you.
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MARTIN: To get links to more information about the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge and to read blog entries from the members of Congress who participated, including Congressman McGovern, visit us online at npr.org/tellmemore. And with this program, remember, the conversation never ends. Take a minute to check out my blog. Again, it's npr.org/tellmemore.
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MARTIN: Just ahead: A reporter investigates unsolved murders in Mexico, and why the story hits close to home.
Ms. TERESA RODRIGUEZ (Author, "The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border"): Who's to say, Michel, that one day this could not happen to a young American girl who goes down to Juarez for the weekend to have some fun and doesn't make it back?
MARTIN: That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues - TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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