Council members’ week on food subsidy both personal and political


Craig Rice, vice president of the Montgomery County Council, walks along a meat and dairy section that he mostly had to avoid for budget reasons. Members of the council are trying to live on $5 a day worth of food. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 11, 2013

Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice described the stares he got from other diners as he sat in a cafeteria with his lunch of beans and hard boiled eggs last week, part of a pledge to spend five days living on a federal food subsidy.

“I could feel their eyes looking at me,” said Rice (D-Upcounty). “It’s tough. There’s a mental aspect that goes into it.”

About 27,000 low-income Montgomery households receive an average of $5 -a-day under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.

Officials who took the “SNAP Challenge,” — five days of living on such a spartan food budget —said they had a number of takeaways, both personal and policy-related.

Council member Hans Riemer said his experience underscored the importance of restoring the county’s match of refunds that low-income residents receive through the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Budget cuts during the recession have reduced the county’s match to about 75 percent. Riemer (D-At Large) said he is introducing legislation to gradually restore it to 100 percent, bringing the total county EITC to $505.


Craig Rice, Vice President of the Montgomery County Council, and Councilmember At-Large, Nancy Floreen, compare notes as they shopped at the Giant food store in Rockville. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“It’s a modest step, but it will make a real difference for a lot of people,” he said in a Facebook entry describing his diet last week.

Others reflected on the high cost of eating healthily.

“If you’re trying to minimize carbs for health reasons, and the price of meat would eat up all your money, your options narrow,” said Council member Marc Elrich, recounting his second day on the SNAP challenge in a Facebook entry.

“I drank lots of water yesterday with dinner and that made me feel full— for a while. I bought boneless, skinless chicken breast for $2.38/lb and plan on getting dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow out of 1 lb,” wrote Elrich (D-At Large)

Council member Nancy Floreen said lack of mobility forces many low-income families to pay more for their food. She shopped at the Gaithersburg Costco, buying in bulk but rationing her purchases to approximate a $25 a week diet. Riemer did he same thing shopping at Whole Foods.

“I was lucky,” said Floreen (D-At-Large), who ate oatmeal, a banana and coffee for breakfast, an apple and yogurt for lunch, and chicken and rice at dinner.

But it was the mental and emotional grind that seems to have resonated with officials. Rice said eating became less pleasurable and more of a source of tension.

“I found myself not looking forward to eating. It put me in a different kind of a mood.”

Council member Valerie Ervin, in a blog post, described her long day Wednesday—day three of the challenge--which she spent in Annapolis to testify in favor of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun control package.

“For me, one of the most interesting effects of this challenge is the way that my mind has begun to fixate on food. In the morning, I think about what I’m having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At lunch-time I’m thinking about dinner, and before I go to bed, I’m thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast. . ..

“I arrived early at 11:30 a.m. preparing to present my testimony at 1 p.m.; however, because of the huge crowds I didn’t go on until 4:30,” Ervin wrote. “In the meantime, I realized that I couldn’t just walk someplace and pick up a bite to eat, and I hadn’t planned on spending so much time with no access to food.

“As soon as I left the Senate Building I tore into an apple that I happened to have in my purse and that’s when thoughts of the McDonald’s Dollar Menu started to creep into my head. But I’ve come this far, and I’m not going to turn back now. I’m going to race home and heat up some leftover chicken and scarf down some rice and beans.

“This experience makes me wonder, if I am this hungry, what do people who have physically demanding jobs feel like? How does a parent who works two jobs find the time to prepare and cook nutritious meals? How are these folks making it on $5 a day?”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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