For the past seven days, about 100 of us around Maryland have been eating only what we can buy for $30 for the whole week. That's the typical benefit, for one person for one week, in the food stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). The Food Stamp Challenge is sponsored by our good friends at Maryland Hunger Solutions.
Breakfast today: Oatmeal. My last banana for my mid-morning snack.
Lunch - PB&J and a hard-boiled egg.
Dinner: Mac and cheese with tuna and green beans.
Emergency snack: peanut butter and brown rice. My idea is if I get hungry between meals, I'll mash up my leftover rice with my leftover peanut butter. It might be better than I think.
So here is the big difference between me and most real food stamp recipients. I know that after my seven days of challenge, I will go back my normal, (overly) ample, (reasonably) nutritious eating habits.
Most food stamp recipients do not know when or if their economic circumstances will improve to the extent that they can buy food that is enough and that provides reasonable nutrition, variety and convenience.
The most important and urgent is the availability of jobs that allow a worker to support themselves and their children. With more jobs that pay living wages, not so many Marylanders would depend on food stamps. We should increase the minimum wage to catch up with the cost of living. We should require employers to provide some level of paid sick leave. We should assure that young people and adults have access to the education and training they will need to qualify for the decent paying jobs of the 21st century.
What I missed most in my food stamp challenge week were salads, fresh vegetables, and fruits. Protein was my first priority, and after that carbs were the cheapest items. Fruit and vegetables are expensive. I could only afford two cans of veggies and six bananas.
But, I had access to a good grocery store, where at least I could buy the canned veggies at a reasonable price. What about food stamp recipients stuck in urban "food desserts" without access to reliable transportation. We should promote access to nutritional food choices in low-income areas, and we should increase the SNAP benefit to allow recipients to buy well-balanced selection of foods. We MUST protect federal funding for existing nutrition programs.
Finally, SNAP is part of a network of programs that help with food needs, also including the WIC program and school breakfast and lunch programs. Even with all this help, one of every six Maryland families has problems affording enough food. Families also need housing, healthcare, and transportation. These strands in the safety net are currently very weak as well. We need to strengthen programs to help low-income renters, expand health coverage, promote primary and preventive care, and make public transportation more convenient and reliable.
Eating peanut butter from a spoon is not really a hardship. People who are stuck with low-incomes and inadequate supports have real problems. But they are capable of becoming independent and productive with a little help. We need to get serious about helping.