By Kelly McCormack - 05/23/07 06:58 PM EDT
Last Friday, when the Buckeye State lawmaker was running late to the Manchester, N.H., airport after giving a commencement speech at his former law school, he forgot to remove his jars of peanut butter and jelly from his luggage.
Transportation and Safety Administration officials quickly confiscated the goods and let him pass. Only problem was that those provisions were almost all of Ryan’s food for the next few days.
By the end of Monday, Ryan and Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.), Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) had completed a week of eating only $21 worth of food each — the average amount of benefits a food-stamp beneficiary uses.
Their mission was part of the Food Stamp Challenge.
Nationwide, other lawmakers have also recently taken the challenge: Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and his wife; Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) and his household of eight; and New York City Councilman Eric Gioia are among those who participated.
The four Capitol Hill lawmakers sought to shed light on the program’s inadequacies and secure an additional $4 billion per year for food stamps over the next five years in this year’s farm bill. They also want to index the program for inflation.
These lawmakers say that it’s been more than 10 years since any money has been added to the Food Stamp program.
Although it is intended to be a supplemental program, more and more people are relying solely on food stamps to put food on the table.
New York Reps. John McHugh and James Walsh are the only two GOP members who have cosponsored the legislation.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced a resolution that would dub June 5 Hunger Awareness Day.
McGovern, who introduced the bill increasing funding for food stamps, notes that there are 26 million people on food stamps and more than 35 million hungry Americans. And he points point that inflation, childcare and transportation costs and other expenses make it increasingly difficult for families to use food stamps as only a supplement.
“It’s a real sad reflection on kind of where we are,” says McGovern, who organized the challenge on the Hill and co-chairs the Hunger Caucus. “We live very lucky lives up here. I’m getting a sense of what reality is for a lot of people.”
But is he? Some critics say the four lawmakers could not possibly understand what it is like after living on food stamps for only a week.
McGovern acknowledges that he can’t fully understand how terrible it is to live on food stamps — and admits he was tempted to cheat.
He recalls attending two functions and longingly watching the appetizers being passed around. Everyone there knew of his one-week plight, so he didn’t give in.
“I ate an egg-and-cheese sandwich on a tortilla in front of everyone,” McGovern says. “It was tough. There was a lot of temptation because I was hungry.”
He remembers another time during the week when he “would’ve killed for a candy bar or a cup of coffee.”
Ryan admits that he cheated — Dunkin’ Donuts, a pork chop and airport peanuts — but says that he tried to stay as true as he could to the challenge. Standing at more than 6 feet tall, Ryan said he was bothered most by the “monotony” of the diet.
He lost four pounds and was too lethargic to work out more than once.
“I was the only single male doing this whole thing,” Ryan says. “I probably did the worst job shopping. I could’ve bought a little more protein.”
Bottom line for Ryan: “It is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to make [do] on this amount of money,” he writes on his blog.
Schakowsky couldn’t be happier that the challenge is over — and no, she didn’t cheat.
“It’s hard to eat on $21 a week and be nutritional,” notes Schakowsky, whose week’s worth of fruits and vegetables included one tomato, one potato, a head of lettuce and five bananas. “Healthy food should not be viewed as a luxury,” she says.
Although she says that she wasn’t that hungry, she did lose three pounds. She said it must have been much more difficult for Ryan, who requires more calories. She did notice some fatigue when working out.
The time it takes to shop and prepare meals, along with the worry that you may run out of food, all weighed heavily on Schakowsky.
For the Chicagoan, the challenge was intended to “help everyone in Congress and the country think about it,” she says. But she admitted that it’s very different for the lawmakers because they knew they could eat whatever they wanted to when the challenge ended yesterday.
Emerson, who introduced the legislation with McGovern, did not comment for this article. She and her husband lived on $21 each last week. Her Safeway receipt shows that among her groceries were chicken, angel hair pasta, white bread, tuna, celery sticks, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, Kraft blue cheese and a Vidalia onion.
McGovern’s wife, Lisa, also participated. She says that the amount of time it takes to prepare a meal was eye-opening. They have two children, ages 9 and 5, who were not participating, and meal preparation was difficult when her husband was
not home. She admits that he’s the better chef.
“You could always stretch anything,” Lisa learned. “A half-pound of hamburger is never [just] a half-pound. For instance, you can put it over pasta and make a different meal.”
But for families relying on the program, there’s no room to ad-lib.
“We are living on the fly,” Lisa says. “And there’s no living on the fly [on food stamps.]”