Food Stamp Challenge participants step into the shoes of the poor

November 4, 2011

Food overwhelmed his every thought.

“When am I going to eat? What am I going to eat?” he asked himself throughout the day.

Envious of those around him at work, on the street, in restaurants — enjoying what he could not have — he saved soup from Tuesday’s dinner to get him through Wednesday, and a spoonful of instant coffee to wake himself up on Thursday.

“All I think about is food and food,” he said, his voice trailing longingly over the phone as he spoke from his apartment in New York City.

For almost a week, he had been surviving on just lentils, cornflakes and eggs as part of a nationwide challenge to live for a few days like the millions of Americans who depend on the country’s primary food assistance program.

Living on a budget of $31.50, the average weekly food stamp stipend for an adult, Rabbi Steve Gutow, 62, joined at least 600 imams, pastors, members of Congress and community activists across the country in the second nationwide Food Stamp Challenge, part of an annual interfaith campaign to raise awareness about America’s poor.

As the challenge launched last week with a shopping trip at a Safeway in Southeast Washington, faith leaders and officials, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), vowed to put themselves in the shoes of the poor. In turn, they demanded that government decision makers preserve funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), widely known as the food stamp program.

The program is the “number one defense against hunger” in the District, benefiting about 140,000 people, or nearly one in every four city residents, said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. Nationwide, more than 45 million people relied on the program in August, compared with about 27 million participating at the end of 2007.

Advocates worry that programs such as SNAP could bear a disproportionate budgetary burden as lawmakers urgently seek cuts that will trim the nation’s deficit.

“There is tremendous political pressure to make spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit,” said Josh Protas, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

This is the second time that Gutow, president of the Jewish council, has taken the Food Stamp Challenge.

The first time, in 2007, changed his life, he said, helping him to empathize more with those who must make sure that their benefits last through the month.

“If you live like the poor, you sort of understand more of what it’s like,” Gutow said.

While shopping on his allotted food stamp money last week, Gutow discovered at the register that he was $12 over his budget. Scrambling to cut costs, he gave up bags of salad and rice and traded a bottle of grape juice for a cheaper can of frozen, mostly artificial fruit punch needed for Sabbath dinner the next evening.

On Friday, Gutow, who travels to the District from New York at least once a month, prepared a simple holy meal at a friend’s apartment in Woodley Park.

He measured the lentils he could afford to use in a Middle Eastern dish of rice and caramelized onions called mujadara and then prepared a vegetable omelet. And when his friend accidentally drenched the eggs with water, Gutow quickly emptied the soggy plate and nuked it in the microwave.

People on rigid budgets are limited not only by what they can eat but also by what they can do, Gutow said. “It feels a bit like you’re imprisoned,” he said. A lot of mental energy is spent thinking about food, when it could be spent on something else, he said. “You can’t be all you can be.”

Four days into the challenge, Gutow started to feel like he did at the same point during the 2007 challenge: “dead in the senses.” No one should live like that, he said.

But experiencing just a bit of what it’s like for those who do, Gutow said Thursday after finishing the challenge, has reinvigorated him to educate faith communities and politicians about the importance of SNAP and poverty and hunger in America.

“Once you go through this, you feel more acutely compelled to tell people what it’s like,” he said. “This is a non-negotiable budget item.”

Norton, who also participated in the first week-long challenge in 2007, said she found it just as difficult the second time around. Her biggest temptation? The enticing aromas of food offered at lunch meetings and receptions.

She hopes that the voices of the 600 participating religious leaders and activists who normally differ on a number of issues will inspire lawmakers to raise the stipends for food-aid recipients.

“It does incline members to sit up and notice,” Norton said. “Nobody can live on $4.50 a day. It’s impossible.”

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