Rep. Lee's food tab: $21 for week
Grits, chicken thighs help lawmaker survive test of food-stamp life
By Sara Steffens, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Inside Bay Area
She ate grits and toast for breakfast, lunched on bananas and crackers, and stretched the same package of chicken thighs over several dinners, accompanied by peas from a dented can.
For Rep. Barbara Lee, surviving for a week on $21 worth of groceries was a lesson in why poverty and chronic health problems often go hand in hand.
"I've been eating grits and a lot of carbs, because they fill you up," said Lee, D-Oakland. "You really become aware of the choices people have to make, which are unhealthy choices."
Like the handful of other lawmakers who took last week's Food Stamp Challenge, in which public officials were asked to eat for a week on the average allotment given a food stamp recipient, Lee found the tight budget left no room for fresh fruits or vegetables.
Her attempts to make healthy choices were thwarted by cost. Whole-wheat tortillas were twice as much as flour, and grits proved cheaper than her usual oatmeal.
"Canned greens — the sodium content is off the scale," said Lee, who completed the challenge Tuesday morning. "I wanted the fresh greens, but the canned is cheaper."
And although food stamps cannot be used at fast food restaurants, Lee supplemented home cooking with cheap items from Taco Bell, McDonalds and White Castle.
At one point, she so craved vegetables she bought a dollar-menu taco just for the smidgen of lettuce.
Given those choices, Lee said, it's no wonder low-income populations suffer disproportionate rates of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity.
Researchers long have noted the link between not being able to afford food and suffering from poor health, including conditions related to obesity.
"The simplest way to put it is the right sort of foods cost more, and poverty makes that very difficult for a family to afford," said Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates. "The food-stamp program helps close part of that gap, but needs to be strengthened in several ways. ... The obvious one is to increase the benefit amount."
Among the 2.5 million California adults with food insecurity — that is, who are sometimes short of food — more than 40 percent report they are in poor health, Sharp said.
The Food Stamp Challenge was created by anti-hunger groups to call attention to the debate on the federal Farm Bill, which includes reauthorization of the food stamp program.
Advocates want to improve the program by expanding eligibility, simplifying enrollment and increasing the average benefit.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Mo., have introduced a bill that would invest an additional $20 billion in the food stamp program over the next five years, adding about $37 to the monthly benefit for a family of three.
California Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, also completed the Food Stamp Challenge this week, while promoting his bill to remove a requirement that Californians be fingerprinted to qualify for food stamps.
"It clearly communicates, intentionally or not, that there is something criminal about being poor and hungry," said Leno.
The bill passed the state Assembly last week and has been sent to the Senate.
Knowing last week's busy legislative schedule wouldn't permit time to cook, Leno ate mostly cereal, chicken soup and peanut butter sandwiches.
"The little that I could eat at best dulled the hunger, and it never went away," Leno said. "After three or four days, my energy level was depressed, and I did experience some lethargy. It really dampens the spirit."
In the final days of the challenge, Leno ran out of food and dined at a Haight Ashbury soup kitchen where he used to volunteer.
Though food stamp benefits average $94.05 a month per person, larger households can often extend their buying power, said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
"Four people in a household could qualify, and that could be maybe $400 a month in extra money to acquire nutritious food," she said.
Still, a month's worth of food stamps typically lasts an East Bay family two or two and a half weeks, Bateson said, so many families also rely on school lunch programs, government commodities and emergency supplies from food pantries.
To help boost nutrition for low-income families, the food bank now offers fresh fruits and vegetables, which are not only expensive, but can be hard to come by in low-income communities that lack grocery stores.
The Food Stamp Challenge reflects the choices low-income families are forced to make every day, said Bateson.
"People are very overwhelmed when they go to the store and realize they have a limited amount of money to spend and they have to nourish their families."
Lee relied on tricks she learned as a college student, when she received food stamps to help feed her two sons.
On a Saturday visit to Grocery Outlet in Berkeley, she bought a 25-cent box of macaroni and cheese and a 35-cent can of tuna, ingredients for a makeshift tuna casserole.
Lee found herself thinking about food constantly, worried about how to make her money stretch.
"A couple of days, you got in a panic mode," she said. "What if the food I bought doesn't last? What if I run out of money?"
"It's a very hard thing to do," Lee said. "I worry about the people who after Tuesday are still on food stamps."