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Three-year-old Robert Wells waits patiently with his dad, Kenneth, in a basement at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in northeast Washington Nov. 9. They were among about 45 people receiving emergency food packages during a weekly distribution.

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‘Humbling, difficult’: Bay Area rep’s week on a food stamp diet
November 16th, 2011
By George Raine

You can learn a lot about nutrition and how to stretch a food stamp dollar, as Rep. Jackie Speier did, when you’re limited to $4.50 per day for food, as food stamp recipients are. Oatmeal, beans and peanut butter are key staples, and a tuna-noodle casserole may be good for a week.

You can better understand, too, the struggle of the poor, even the working poor, like the woman who wrote to Speier during the week she ate on a food stamp-limited diet to tell her that she had to rub the tummies of her children when they didn’t have food because they were in so much pain.

“That put tears in my eyes,” said Speier, D-Hillsborough, who participated with other House Democrats in a “Food Stamp Challenge” the first week of November to call attention to the food stamp program facing a possible budget reduction in Congress.

Now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – in California it is called CalFresh – the program that feeds some 44 million low-income Americans is threatened. At least one senator, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, has recommended to the bipartisan super committee trying to identify $1.5 trillion in federal savings by Thanksgiving that members reduce the food stamp program budget significantly. He said in a letter Nov. 7 that the nutrition assistance program is an “unmonitored welfare program” and that even modest reform to it “can save many billions of dollars over the coming years.”

“I would like to take a big whack out of his salary,” Speier said of Sessions. “I don’t think anyone in Congress should be allowed to cut this program unless they have lived on $4.50 a day for a week.”

Speier called the experience of living on $4.50 a day “humbling and difficult.” She said she found herself constantly thinking about food and controlled stomach growling by eating popcorn. She also learned to be a crafty shopper: She found three bunches of Romaine lettuce at Trader Joe’s and two cans of chicken noodle at Walgreens for half the price at Safeway. The popcorn came from the Dollar Tree store. At Safeway, she didn’t have enough cash for one of three tomatoes and one of two cans of chili in her basket. Back they went.

On the fifth and final day she had one carrot and half a container of yogurt. “What if I had to go another day?” she asked.

“It made me appreciate so much what we are not doing as a country,” said Speier. “That we have really become compassionless, almost like it is acceptable. Well, it is not acceptable. And we can’t be the biggest industrialized country in the world and yet have the worst policy around hunger and poverty.”

Indeed, three of four people who are on food stamps are working people, but are below the poverty line.

Libia Bustamante, a single mother of two in Redwood City who depends on CalFresh, said she and her kids eat foods they prefer during the first two or three weeks of the month, and other foods later. She said they rely on rice, beans and tortillas most days.

“We are very grateful to have the food stamps,” she said. “The reason why we have food stamps is there are no jobs out there.”

Speier noted that members of Congress are in the top 5 percent of the nation’s population economically – and enjoy free food all day long at meetings and receptions. “There is an indignation that I have about this because, how dare we, how dare we who are living in the very top of the food chain deny food to those at the bottom. I think there has to be a loud indignation expressed by all of us. I would say that for all the principles that many of my colleagues espouse around Christianity, they don’t practice it if they are looking at cutting programs like this.”


From November 18, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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