Eating off $21 opens politicians’ eyes

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

There’s a guy running for president, and he’s facing all kinds of questions. One question spoke volumes, and it wasn’t about terrorism, taxes or gasoline.

Instead, it was about milk, and how much stores charge for a gallon. His answer was $1.50. I won’t name the candidate because I haven’t seen answers from other candidates, but I can say he’s out of touch and Americans might pay for that if he’s elected.

Maybe the guy running for president should be Ted Kulongoski. The Oregon governor, incensed about the low benefits offered from food stamps, decided to live that way for a week. He and wife Mary spent a week in April living off $42 in groceries, the average benefit the two would receive in food stamps.

Media outlets picked up on Kulongoski’s effort, and members of Congress were challenged to follow suit. Four did — Rep. Jan Schakowsky, R-Ill.; Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R, Mo. And Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.

In media reports and in blog entries on foodstampchallenge.typepad.com, the representatives spoke of the meals they made, the catered Washington meals they declined and the harsh realities of $21 a week when other luxuries are unavailable as well.

“If you are constrained to where you can walk or take public transportation, then you can only shop at the places in your neighborhood, and you are forced to pay whatever they charge,” Ryan wrote in his blog. “That is EXACTLY what I was doing. I had the option to head out to Costco or Shoppers and decided instead to replicate as close as possible the REAL experience of someone who can’t afford a car and is constrained by public transportation.”

Ryan used his $21 to purchase peanut butter, strawberry jam, cornmeal, cottage cheese, pasta, tomato sauce, whole wheat bread, a can of coffee, and a clove of garlic. He said the bread didn’t make nearly as many sandwiches as he’d imagined, and fresh fruits and vegetables just weren’t an option. Also, he lost his peanut butter and jelly to an airport screener on Day 5 — he was running late for a flight and accidentally put them in his carry-on.

During their time, many dispelled convenient criticisms. They heard food stamp recipients need to get a job (many have jobs) and food stamps are intended as a supplement (budgets are stretched thin when food stamp benefits and wages haven’t changed in years, and the price of gasoline and other products has nearly doubled in that time).

All five talked about how relieved they were to return to normal eating habits, and many spoke of just how out of touch they were before they tried to live on $21 a week. Shakowsky quickly realized it would be hard to go without her Diet Pepsi and Starbucks coffee, for instance.

“Every day 35 million people in America struggle to put food on the table,” wrote Shakowsky. “I am not one of them, not even close. But just this small effort to put myself in their shoes has made even more real to me the immorality of such a fact in the richest country in the world.”

Shakowsky’s comments tell me Illinois citizens will be better off for her experience, as will Oregon, Massachusetts, Missouri and Ohio for their elected official’s experience. I applaud them for sacrificing to educate themselves about challenges they’re elected to take on.

I only wish I could say that for more than 1 percent of U.S. governors and congressional members.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be reached at 763-3431, ext. 313, or by e-mail:
kevin_wilson@link.freedom.com