Norton, Gray Get a Taste of Lean Times

"Poor hungry people are invisible in this society," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, center, who is taking the $21-a-week food challenge and wants to increase food stamp benefits. With her are Reuben Gist of the Capital Area Food Bank, food-stamp recipient Jamila Johnson and George Jones of Bread for the City. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 8, 2007

For seven days, they are trying to do what the average food stamp recipient in the United States must do routinely: live on a mere $21 a week in food. Already, the latest participants in the "Food Stamp Challenge" are hungry and humbled.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), relying on a bare-bones diet of canned beans and shredded wheat, is feeling more tired than usual, she said. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is trying to make his four cans of tuna and jar of mayo last, admits that it has been hard for him not to, well, cheat; a lot of people have offered him freebies.

Norton and Gray have quickly learned one thing: For food stamp recipients -- including 86,872 D.C. residents in fiscal 2006, according to the Department of Human Services -- making do on such a tight budget actually means doing without. Very little meat is affordable, few fresh fruits and vegetables, no coffee or juice.

"Poor hungry people are invisible in this society," said Norton, who has co-sponsored a House bill to increase food stamp benefits. "What I think happens is that by the end of the month, they wind up going to food banks or borrowing money from somebody. They can't live that way."

The so-called hunger challenge, in which public officials and others learn firsthand about life on food stamps, has become a popular means of publicizing the plight of the poor. Last month, four members of Congress took the pledge and discovered that $21 a week meant little more than a banana for breakfast and peanut butter for lunch.

In the District, 11.4 percent of households are struggling with hunger, according to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which publicizes the challenges and urges people to lobby Congress for increases in food stamp benefits.

About 9.4 percent of Maryland households are living in such circumstances; in Virginia, the figure is 8.4 percent.

"What it means is they don't have enough food to ensure three nutritious meals on a daily basis. They have to wonder if they're going to pay the electric bill or put food on the table," said Executive director Alex Ashbrook, who has eaten a dozen eggs during her week's challenge and looks forward to a fresh salad when it's over.

But Ashbrook and the others taking part are only pretending. For Jamila Johnson and her two sons, ages 6 and 10, staving off hunger is a way of life.

Johnson, 32, who lives in Northwest, receives about $200 a month in food stamps for the three of them, and often, by the end of the month, she has to ask her mother for an emergency loan for food. Once in a while, when her mother has had a bad week and no extra money, Johnson fears that the boys are going to bed hungry. More often, it's a case of them clamoring for a certain cereal she cannot afford.

"We do eat a lot of hot dogs, because hot dogs are cheap," Johnson said at a news conference yesterday with Norton. "It takes a lot out of me -- it would be so helpful to have more."

Norton, who describes herself as "not much of a cook," said she was struck by all the things that were off-limits because of her budget. The price of the fresh fruit she likes to eat for breakfast was too steep; the same with chicken and seafood. Finally, she settled on canned peas and beans, hoping to spruce them up with chopped onions and peppers. It helps, she said, that a cold has lessened her appetite.

At first, Gray thought he was doing just fine with his challenge. Then, about 30 hours into it, he was tearing into a steak and baked potato at the Capital Grille during a Monday night business meeting -- an obvious no-no. While presiding over a nine-hour council meeting Tuesday, someone offered him a Coke and a bag of potato chips, which he jokingly pronounced "delicious and nutritious." There also was a peanut-butter cup from a bag on the dais, but just one. Later, he was given a chicken sandwich that he decided to save for the evening.

Then he reacquainted himself with the rules of the challenge: No free nibbles, nothing beyond the $21 in food. "I swear I'm sticking to it from now on," he said Wednesday night, chastened.

Norton has had no such lapses, she said. Headed to a luncheon for the United Black Fund yesterday, she planned to turn down her plate.

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