Friday, May 18, 2007

Lawmakers Find $21 a Week Doesn't Buy a Lot of Groceries

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; Page A13

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) stood before the refrigerated section of the Safeway on Capitol Hill yesterday and looked longingly at the eggs.

At $1.29 for a half-dozen, he couldn't afford them.

Ryan and three other members of Congress have pledged to live for one week on $21 worth of food, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance. That's $3 a day or $1 a meal. They started yesterday.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the House Hunger Caucus, called on lawmakers to take the "Food Stamp Challenge" to raise awareness of hunger and what they say are inadequate benefits for food stamp recipients. Only two others, Ryan and Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), took them up on it.

"All of us in Congress live pretty good lives," said McGovern, who ate a single banana for breakfast yesterday and was going through caffeine withdrawal by midday. "We don't have to wake up worrying about the next meal. But there are a lot of Americans who do. I think it's wrong. I think it's immoral that in the U.S., the richest country in the world, people are hungry."

McGovern and Emerson have introduced legislation that would add $4 billion to the annual federal food stamp budget, which was $33 billion last year and covered 26 million Americans. The proposal could be incorporated by Congress into the new farm bill.

"We're trying to get this debate going," McGovern said. "There are more working people today getting food stamps than six years ago. . . . There's not a member of Congress that doesn't have hunger in their district."

According to the rules of the challenge, the four House members cannot eat anything beside their $21 worth of groceries. That means no food at the many receptions, dinners and fundraisers that fill a lawmaker's week.

At yesterday's weekly lunch meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, McGovern was mesmerized by an attractive roast beef sandwich with cheese. He noted the potato chips came in two flavors: sour cream and plain. But his own lunch consisted of some lentils he cooked for himself and brought to work in a plastic container.

This morning McGovern is hosting a fundraising breakfast for his reelection at Bistro Bis, the restaurant in the Hotel George. The catering charge is $20 per person for the breakfast -- nearly McGovern's entire food budget for this week -- but he won't be eating any of it.

And tonight he is to attend a fundraising dinner for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) thrown at the Georgetown mansion of oil heir Smith Bagley. "I guess I'll just drink tap water," McGovern said.

McGovern and his wife, Lisa, did their food shopping for the week with help from Toinette Wilson, a D.C. resident and mother of three who relies on food stamps. Wilson gave him some tips, but it was still a struggle, he said.

"No organic foods, no fresh vegetables, we were looking for the cheapest of everything," McGovern said. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat -- the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet."

The McGoverns have exempted their two children, ages 5 and 9, from the challenge. "I'm lucky when they eat anything," McGovern said.

At the Safeway, Ryan seemed to grow depressed as he realized the limits of his budget. "It's unbelievable," he said, filling his small grocery basket with peanut butter, jelly and bread. He bought a big bag of cornmeal that he says he'll try to fashion into grits for breakfast and polenta for dinner. And he grabbed some canned tomato sauce and pasta on sale. No money for meat, milk, juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, save for a single head of 32-cent garlic to flavor the tomato sauce.

"I don't know if this is going to make it," said the third-term Democrat, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds. "By the end of the week, I'm going to be eating cornmeal and strawberry preserves."

Both lawmakers will keep blogs about the experience, McGovern at http://foodstampchallenge.typepad.com and Ryan at http://timryan.house.gov.

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