Social scientists, scholars and liberal think tanks study it; Democratic Congresspeople and social activists work to prevent it; and Republicans – with their penchant for social spending cuts – seek to worsen it: Food insecurity. 46 million people are on food assistance, 6 million of which survive only on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) allotment, roughly $4.30 per person, per day.
Recently, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (among others, including some Democratic Congress members) took the SNAP Challenge. He pledged to eat for a week on what the poor in this country are allotted by the government for food assistance under SNAP. For those who’ve taken the SNAP challenge (and this author is on Day Two), it’s an eye-opener. For those in highly populated areas with numerous discount grocery stores, it’s do-able, although the budget forces recipients to the margins of hunger abatement. For those in food deserts, where convenience stores or gas stations or higher-priced “mom ‘n pop” grocery stores are all that’s available, it’s a near impossibility to eat with some semblance of nutrition on what SNAP provides. And even given access to Aldi and Save a Lot and other discount chains, the food choices are severely limited. A simple meal of a chicken breast and a fresh vegetable is a day’s allotment. Eggs are a great source of nutrition, but eaten in quantities, they’ll drive up cholesterol. Ramen noodles are economic, but they’re loaded in salt. Hot dogs and mac ‘n cheese, or a frozen pizza or burrito, will fill a stomach, but they’re high in fat and calories, and not the greatest source of nutrition. A pack of frozen vegetables, with much of the nutritional properties leached out during processing and freezing, can be had for a buck, but it’s no substitute for leafy greens. Aside from lettuce, largely devoid of any nutritional value, leafy greens are a luxury, far too pricey for the average SNAP diet. A discussion about the punitive nature of Republicans’ attitude toward the poor is a non-starter for Republicans. During the primary, Rick Santorum pledged to cut food stamps, and sneered, “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger problem?” But it’s no accident that obesity, along with hypertension, are rampant in low-income communities, given the steady diets of fat, salt and hunger-abating carbohydrates.
For the lucky ones, with food options other than SNAP, the SNAP challenge is an exercise in “walking in another’s shoes,” an effort to raise awareness and, as Cory Booker noted, to reduce the stigma of food assistance. For millions of people, it’s a way of life. The bullet we just dodged when Romney was trounced by President Obama carried with it the Paul Ryan budget, which would have cut the SNAP allotment even further; over the next ten years, $133 million of the Ryan cuts would have dug deeper into the meager allowance provided by SNAP. Ryan, as we know, believes “shared sacrifice” means all poor people sacrifice equally. If Romney had prevailed, and the Ryan budget had become a reality, 8 million people could have seen their assistance disappear entirely. Others would have seen cuts to their benefits of $22 to $27 per person per month. It’s hard to imagine how $4.30 per day, factoring in the rising costs of food, could be cut any deeper.
CNN’s Christine Romans (high and mighty in her $500 suit) lectured that SNAP is “not meant to be your only calorie intake source. Supplemental is the key. The government designs it so this is on top of what little money you might have, food pantries, soup kitchens. If you’re gonna survive on it, then you have to, we have to discuss as a country, are we, are taxpayers, going to pay for every calorie somebody consumes. Are we going to completely support people. 46 million people are getting food stamps.” Eric Cantor has been spotted eating $365 meals while smugly promoting the reduction of SNAP benefits. Michele Bachmann believes the poor should just skip a couple of Happy Meals to pay taxes. Mitt Romney, the bullet we recently dodged, referred to those protesting income inequality as instigators of “class warfare.” A Missouri Rep., Cynthia Davis, advocated cutting off summer meal programs, claiming, “Hunger can be a positive motivator.”
During this holiday season, many people have very little to be thankful for. Many people may be calculating whether another day above ground is, in fact, a good day. Many people are watching their children go without, are scrambling to provide some sort of holiday meal, are worrying about coats and boots and scarves and gloves for the winter, are wondering how they’ll heat their home – if they have one – and keep their families from becoming a check in the “win” column of deficit reduction at the feet of heartless, irresponsible, reckless Republican lawmakers. Even during this season of “giving,” Republican evil abounds: Walk down any street in Chicago, in any city in the country, and you’ll see its fallout. The shame of it is that, as these same brutally callous people sit down to sumptuous meals and $300 bottles of wine, they don’t give a passing thought to those who are struggling to pay for bread and peanut butter today. In fact, they want to reduce the food allotment even further. Any previous compassion certain Republicans have ever had for the “have-nots” has swirled down the drain in favor of the desperate pursuit of the notably heartless tea party’s political support and the Paul Ryan budget.
Many of us can give thanks for the things we have in our lives, none of which we can take for granted: Jobs (for those who have them), having a place to live, a decent meal, a car to drive, heat, running water, electricity. But for those of us with better fortune than others, the SNAP challenge allows us to think about all the people in this country who don’t have all those things – who, in fact, may have none of those things. As we approach the day of reckoning in January and the “fiscal cliff,” it’s important to remember that there’s a faction in this country, comprised of the tea party and many Republicans, who don’t care if people have those things – who, in fact, don’t even want everyone to have those very basic, very simple, attainable things. There are people – like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor and others – who believe that $4.30 per person, per day, is still too much.
Taking the SNAP challenge – eschewing the morning lattes and the lean meat choices and the fresh fruits and vegetables in favor of high-caloric, filling, but nutritionally lacking items – is itself an education. Some of us may be ashamed to go back to our “real” lives. Some may double their efforts in favor of the poor. And for all of us who care enough to “walk in another’s shoes,” the SNAP challenge is a reminder to continue to battle against the Republican plan – or lack thereof – to provide for this nation’s poor.