On the food line, praise and scorn for Montgomery officials living on $5 a day

Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST - Craig Rice,vice president of the Montgomery County Council, and Councilmember Nancy Floreen compare notes as they shop at the Giant food store in Rockville.

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The line formed early in the cold parking lot off Piney Branch Road in southeast Montgomery County, near the District line. They waited at the back of the Manna Food Center truck, which comes every Wednesday afternoon with items including bread, fruit, milk, rice, frozen chicken and pastries and distributes them to as many as 150 people, mostly from Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

The site is one of 14 where Manna hands out food to 3,300 low-income Montgomery families every month. The nonprofit also supplies homeless shelters, food pantries and senior housing where residents are unable to get out and stand in line.

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Hunger has been an unusually prominent part of the political conversation in the prosperous county this week. A group of Montgomery officials and community leaders have taken the “SNAP Challenge,” a five-day pledge to live on the average $5 daily allowance given to those who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.

The objective, said the organizer, County Council member Valerie Ervin, was to shed a bright light on how it feels to live in poverty.

On the food line in the Long Branch Community Center parking lot Wednesday, there was both praise and scorn for the exercise.

“They’ll learn a lot,” said Jim Byrne, 75, a freelance writer. “It’ll give them an experience.”

Others said they were offended by elected officials dipping their toes in waters they tread constantly.

“I think it’s rather cavalier of them. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of what this about,” said Mariana, 60, who declined to give her last name. “I don’t know what they expected to come out of it. To prove that it’s possible?”

Some said the county officials were trying to prove an empty point. The “supplemental” in the program title is there for a reason, they said. If officials actually sought to re-create the life experience of county residents short on food, they would be seeking other sources, such as pantries. Or they would be standing with them on the Manna line trying to stay warm.

“Let’s get real,” said David Johnson, 52, who lost his cleaning job at Reagan National Airport recently.

“Why don’t they put themselves in the predicament we’re in?” asked a woman in her 70s, a retired nurse who said she gets about $15 a month from SNAP. “Then they would know all the things we have to do to make ends meet. We are trained to do this. That’s why we’re out here.”

Some of those taking the SNAP Challenge and documenting their experience on Facebook and blogs are aware of the resentment.

Merlyn Reineke, executive director of Montgomery Community Media, the nonprofit that operates the county’s two public-access channels, addressed it directly in his Tuesday video entry. He recounted a discussion he had about the challenge with a friend, a poor single mother.

“She actually became offended,” Reineke said. “She asked what good it does that a bunch of rich folks go on a diet for a few days. While I appreciated my friend’s struggle with poverty, I explained that these high-profile kind events that bring out government officials and other community leaders actually do make all of us think about the enormous challenges of feeding yourself and your family on so limited a budget.”

Reineke said he was making his regimen work. On Tuesday, breakfast was sweetened quinoa and berries, followed by a tuna and hummus sandwich with a side salad for lunch. Dinner was carrot ginger soup.

He said he was doing well “thanks in part to my nutrition coach . . . and her meal plan she made up for me for under five dollars a day.”

 
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