The Food Stamp Challenge 2007

Live on a Food Stamp Budget for a Day

Food Stamps are a safety net for the 1 in 10 American households who don’t always have enough food. The Food Stamp Program is part of the Farm Bill, and the next couple of weeks (second half of May, 2007) are critical as Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. A lot of folks, starting with the Hunger Caucus of the House of Representatives (led by Reps. James P. McGovern and Jo Ann Emerson), are working right now to raise awareness of how Food Stamps make a dent in hunger in the United States … but also of the challenges faced by Food Stamp recipients.

So here’s their idea: Pretend your cupboards are bare, and buy food for one day on the amount allotted by food stamps: $3.50 per person. (But note: Rep. McGovern’s website says it’s more like $3/person/day.) Members of the House Hunger Caucus are doing it all this week, from May 15 to May 21. According to Representative Emerson’s website, they’ll be shopping at a local grocery store accompanied by food stamp recipients, who will probably give them some much-needed tips on how to make that small amount of money go farther. Yishar Koach to them, “Well Done” and more or less “May You Be Strengthened”! You’ll need it! It certainly means not eating at any restaurants! (See also the Congressional Hunger Center and a joint statement about the Farm Bill reauthorization.)

Think you can do it? Want to try? Leave a message here (really, you can create an account and log in, nobody’s tracking anything you do as far as I know and all you have to do is remember the username and login you create) and let me know you’re participating! Then write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or to your congresspeople, telling them about your experiences. And be counted as participating by emailing Trudi Renwick at the Fiscal Policy Institute, Renwick or (518) 786-3156.

Why should Jews in particular care about this? Because over and over the Torah demands of us that we take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and surprisingly enough, the Levite. The tribe of Levi was the special tribe whose men officiated at the Temple in Jerusalem (2,000 years ago). Why did they need the same kind of caretaking as the poor, the widow, the orphan etc? Because they had very little land. “God is their inheritance,” says Leviticus. But in an agricultural society, that apparently meant that they didn’t always have the resources to feed themselves!

And how are we to do this? Three mitzvot (commandments): Pey’ah, Leket, and Shichecha.

Pey’ah means “corner.” When you harvest your fields, don’t take everything. Leave some for the poor and the needy. How much? The corners.

Leket was another form of encouraging people to share. It refers to what was dropped during the harvesting. Today we might call it “wastage.” But instead of clamping down on “wastage,” leave it there for someone else. It’s not actually going to go to waste; one of the folks who has come to “glean” will pick it up. That is, folks who didn’t have enough food would come to your fields at harvest time and take what they were entitled to, and what you dropped was part of what they were entitled to.

Shichecha means “forgotten.” If you leave a sheaf behind, don’t go back and get it. That, too, belongs to those who need it more than you.

These are all very simple ways to “program” sharing and giving into the normal activities of daily life.

I have a colleague who took her high school kids to a local farm — maybe it was an orchard — in order to glean what had been left behind. Maybe it was a U-Pick place and these hadn’t been picked, or maybe it was a commercial operation and the fruit pickers left the less saleable fruit on the tree. I don’t remember. But they harvested a LOT of left-behind food and donated it to their local food pantry.

And there’s always tsedakah — giving money to those who need it as an act of justice. That’s a better translation than “charity” — I’ll write about that sometime. Anyway, one of my favorite Jewish organizations is Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. My congregation is a “Mazon Partner”; we endorse its goals and methods and encourage our congregants to participate. Mazon’s “shtick” is “3% of simchas.” That is, whatever you spend on feeding your guests at a joyous event, send 3% of that amount to Mazon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they came up with that amount by calculating how much of the harvest was given away by practicing pey’ah, leket, and shichecha. But I don’t know that that’s what they did. What I do know is that if you spend $1,000, they’re asking you to donate an additional $30. We can do that.

What I love about Mazon is that they’re a Jewish organization collecting money from Jews to feed everybody. They make grants to all kinds of organizations, primarily in the US but also in Israel and around the world. And the other thing that I love about them is that they fund hunger awareness and education as well as food programs.

Anyway, do you think you can live on $3 – $3.50 a day for your food budget? Will you try? I’m going to go home and talk about it with my partner.

By the way, there is also a special program under WIC (Women, Infants and Children) (and one for seniors) where they can use vouchers to buy from Farmer’s Markets. Now THAT is a smart and healthy idea. Assuming that the Farmer’s Markets are held in places easily accessible by public transportation. Like right here in downtown Troy (unfortunately for us, the big one is on Shabbat, but there’s a smaller Wednesday market too).

Below is the the PR from the Fiscal Policy Institute in Albany, NY. There are probably other organizations in other localities.

Live on a Food Stamp Budget for a Day

HungerFood insecurity. These are abstract terms for most of us. We imagine. We theorize. But we haven’t experienced not knowing where our next meal will come from or if we’ll have enough food in the cupboard to make it through the week.

For more than 35 million Americans, this situation is all too real—and 775,000 of them are New Yorkers.

What is it really like to be hungry? Most of us have never known. But now you may have a small experience of what it’s like. Join New York advocates in taking the food stamp challenge. Experience the challenge of eating nutritious meals on $3.50 per person a day. Learn the difficulty of poverty by living on a food stamp budget for a day.

For 30 years, the Food Stamp Program has been America’s first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity. Each month, more than 1.8 million New Yorkers rely on food stamps to help meet their food needs. Through the use of food stamps, low-income individuals and families are able to obtain food at grocery stores for meals at home. In New York, more than 80 percent of food stamp benefits go to families with children.

The Food Stamp Program helps strengthen families and the communities where those families reside—rural, urban, and suburban—by generating almost $2.2 billion in economic activity in New York The National Journal recently identified the Food Stamp Program as one of government’s top successes.

During the week of May 15 – May 21, participate in the food stamp challenge to see if you can make ends meet on a food stamp budget. Imagine your cupboards are bare, and buy your groceries using the average food stamp benefit in New York of $3.50 per person per day.

The food stamp challenge will include government, religious, business and civic leaders in the educational and awareness-building experience of living on a food stamp budget for one day during the week. Participants are asked to share their experiences during the challenge through speeches, sermons, letters to the editor, and calls to their Congressional representatives.