Congressmembers Take "Food Stamp Challenge," Eating On $4.50 A Day

The number of Californians receiving food stamps jumped 11.5% between August 2010 and August 2011, according to a report released Tuesday by the US Department of Agriculture.  Actually, they’re not “food stamps” any more, but debit cards. The program has been rebranded as CalFresh in California and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program nationally. Recipients must be citizens or permanent residents with low incomes and minimal savings.

Rep. Jackie Speier taking the Food Stamp Challenge

To better appreciate their constituents’ situation, eight members of Congress, including Peninsula Representative Jackie Speier, are participating in the Food Stamp Challenge -- for a week eating on a budget comparable to the average recipient in their state. 

For Speier, that’s $4.50 a day. On Monday she headed over to the Safeway on El Camino Real in Millbrae, camera crews and reporters in tow, to do some shopping. Speier had already been to a dollar store and a Trader Joe’s for a little pre-purchase reconnaissance.  At Safeway, she put carrots and an onion in her cart while explaining, “I'm not going to get my lettuce here because I found at another grocery store that it was less expensive. There's a lot of comparison shopping that frankly, many people who are impoverished are not going to have the luxury of doing because they can't run from store to store.”  
Earlier, Speier held a roundtable with Peninsula civic and community leaders also taking the challenge. They were offered a breakfast buffet with all items labeled by unit cost, so they could subtract the appropriate amount from their $4.50.  A hard-boiled egg was valued at 19 cents, a small chunk of orange a third that.
Some of the participants had been on food stamps or had worked with those who had. The way that they spoke about food was very different from the vocabulary many of us in the Bay Area use.  Organic, sustainable, innovative, delicious? No. In lieu of the view of food as a source of pleasure or comfort, or of cooking as recreation, was the sense of it as merely fuel, of which you needed to find the most cost-effective available.
Libia Bustamante of Brisbane was the one person at the roundtable who is currently receiving CalFresh benefits. She’s a single mother of two who works part-time and studies accounting full-time. “I try to plan ahead my meals as best as I can,” she said, “but if I’m late getting out of work, I find myself picking up my children from school, and the kids are hungry, tired, moody, they have a bunch of homework I need to help them with, I have homework to do myself...that’s when I end up going to the grocery store and picking up something quick to eat."

Bustamante said it was hard for her kids to see classmates bringing tastier fare to school. “But they have to understand we have a limited budget. We shop for the whole week and that’s what we have to eat. They probably don’t have enough snacks, but they have to learn that we can’t always satisfy ourselves.  We have to control our appetites and eat what we have.”
Representative Speier is experiencing her own version of lunchroom envy.  From her Twitter feed: “Tough sitting with friends at restaurant drinking water while they eat chips and salsa.”
Interested in taking the challenge yourself?  The Food Research and ActionCenter, a public policy nonprofit, has the how-to.  And the state’s Department of Social Services has the details on CalFresh.