At the community food stamp redemption center in southeast Washington, John R. Block did not win any popularity contests this week.
"That man can go straight to hell," said Mary Coates, a Southeast housewife, after picking up her $120 worth of food stamps for the month of August. "He's not feeding his family right."
Added her boyfriend, Maurice (Butch) Rivers, a cable television maintenance worker: "He can do it for a week, just like I can go on a fast for a week, like it's a diet. But he can't prove anything in a week" about the adequacy of the food stamp program.
Most of those interviewed at the center said they thought the agriculture secretary's highly publicized food stamp experiment was a publicity stunt that could not possibly enable him to empathize with the guilt they feel over their children's diets and the constant tension caused by money problems.
The 20 or so recipients interviewed -- among the 90,000 food stamp recipients in the District -- were virtually unamimous in feeling that $58, the Department of Agriculture's weekly food stamp allotment for a family of four with no outside income, is not enough for four people week in, week out.
"You can't just throw an 8-year-old boy a baloney sandwich and say, 'That's dinner,' " said Coates, of Bass Place SE. "Sometimes my son says after I feed him, 'Mom, I'm still hungry.' It hurts me."
Patsy Mungo, 54th Street NE, said she doubted the Block family would be happy keeping up their diet for more than a week. "You can do that kind of thing for a week but not a year," said Mungo, who receives $194 in food stamps for herself and her three children each month, in addition to $366 in welfare. "Your kids will get sick."
"Summer's the worst," said Carlton Chapman, a part-time house painter who receives $236 a month in food stamps to help in feeding himself, his wife and five children. "School's out and the kids don't get their lunches at school." His wife, Penny, said that summer heat brings higher grocery bills because she plies her children with powdered soft drinks to stave off dehydration. She said that the extravagance she lavishes on her children is two pieces of fruit a day.
Penny Chapman said she is continually offered the choice of whether to break her food stamp budget or stick to it and risk harming her children's health.
Like most of those interviewed, she said that by the 20th of every month, she has run out of food stamps.
"Food stamps don't cover a whole month, not if you're feeding your children right," said a Northeast Washington woman who said she was afraid to give her name because the government might find out her boyfriend is giving her money and might then cut the $169 a month she receives in food stamps for herself and her two children.
She said the hardest times are when her 3-year-old son doesn't get filled up on the meals she feeds him.
"How in hell do I get by?" asked another woman. "We suffer." The woman declined to be named because she is afraid government officials will cut the $88 a month she collects in food stamps for herself, her 66-year-old diabetic retired husband and her son, because her husband supplements his Social Security check by tending the grounds of their apartment complex for $72 a month.
"I come from a family of 18 children," the woman said. "I have to know about economics. I know how to pinch a penny. . . I'll let him see my refrigerator," she said of Block. "I wish I could let him shop with me. I think he's crazy."