Montgomery County Board of Education member Christopher Barclay counts as he glances at items while shopping to stay within his budget. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Montgomery officials try eating for $5 a day

Joshua P. Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, peered at the shelves of coffee Monday morning at the Rockville Giant supermarket. He grabbed a can of Nature’s Promise for $4.69. Then he saw the Cafe Bustello at $3.09 and swapped.

“What’s the least expensive bread?” he asked a clerk, who guided him to the Arnold Whole Wheat, on special this week, two loaves for $3. Still, Starr took just one.

Over in the produce section, County Council member Craig Rice placed a $3.50 bag of potatoes in his basket, next to the two oranges and three apples. “You can make french fries and hash browns in the morning,” said Rice (D-Upcounty). “Gotta have good starch.”

Starr, Rice, other county officials and community leaders agreed to spend just $25 on food for the next five days, an attempt to simulate the everyday fact of life for residents enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps. Americans are receiving SNAP benefits in record numbers: 46.2 million people in 22 million households last spring, according to the Congressional Research Service, at a cost of more than $70 billion.

Hunger receives scant mention in Montgomery, where the median household income is $92,000 and growth, transportation and education dominate the policy discussion. “What most people know about the county is how well it does,” said Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County).

But amid the wealth there are pockets of urgent need. Almost 27,000 low-
income Montgomery households received SNAP assistance last year, a 138 percent increase from 2007, according to county figures. A family of four earning less than $2,400 a month is eligible for help.

The region’s other prosperous counties have similar under-the-radar populations that struggle for enough food. In Fairfax County and Falls Church, for example, about 23,000 households (54,300 people) rely on SNAP, according to a 2011 report by the county’s Department of Neigh­borhood and Community Services.

Elected officials across the country — including the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D); Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D); and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) — have taken on the “SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge,” a creation of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, as a way of highlighting hunger issues and helping them understand what economically pressed constituents face.

“This isn’t about us,” Rice said. “It’s about making sure people understand how tough it is.”

The initiative has received some dings from commentators, who call it a new fad diet for the political class. It is, at best, a brief duck of the head into the world inhabited by the hungry and poor.

While the Montgomery officials who shopped at Giant on Monday will likely get hunger pangs, they’ll still sleep in warm beds, free from worry about paying the next utility bill. Starr, the schools superintendent, makes $250,000 annually. Rice and the other council members earn more than $100,000.

None of them had to stand in the cold waiting for a bus to bring them to the market. Nor will hunger be a household experience; most officials said family members, such as Starr’s children (ages 5, 9 and 11) and Rice’s (7 and 10), will not participate.

“The idea of doing it has the merit of at least partially experiencing what low-income people experience,” said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “But if your kids are going to eat different, that’s probably not legit.”

Smeeding added that officials would do well this week to walk into a food pantry or soup kitchen, something many SNAP recipients do to supplement their diets.

Still, many said Monday’s shopping experience was an eye-opener. Program rules exclude pet food, soap, vitamins, paper products or household supplies. Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a breast cancer survivor, said it was difficult to devise a healthful diet on $25. Board of Education President Christopher Barclay, who has Type II diabetes and bought spinach, oranges, granola and soy milk, also was surprised by the difficulty of eating healthfully but cheaply, especially with the prices at Giant.

“With all due respect to our hosts, I would be shopping where I could get food for less,” he said.

At the checkout counter, Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who organized the Montgomery challenge, discovered that she’d busted her threadbare budget, running up $28.96.

“Take the canned salmon off,” Ervin said. She also had to put back a bag of Goya black beans to push her her bill down to $24.80. That sum bought ramen noodles, a loaf of bread, an eight-pack of eggs, two bags of frozen vegetables, a small chicken, two boxes of onion soup mix, four apples, an orange, a box of yellow rice and two cans of tuna.

Officials taking the challenge have been asked to keep track of the food they eat each day and to write journal entries describing how they feel.

They are scheduled to reconvene Friday evening at the Civic Building in Silver Spring to talk about the experience. And there will be food, Ervin said, a bit longingly, as she contemplated the week ahead.