In the last few years, a number of political leaders have tried to live on a food stamps budget. Among others Newark Mayor and political heir-apparent Cory Booker and current and former governors of Colorado and Oregon. Some have done so to draw attention to the limitations of food stamps, others with the intent of proving that their benefit is sufficient. A number of writers have done so too, as have celebrity chefs and others. A number of people have asked me to do it as well, and I’ve always refused.
This isn’t because I don’t think I can – it is because frankly, I know for a fact that the reality of living on food stamps is rather different than making a week or a month long shift. To know this, all I have to do is ask some of my kids.
Consider two of my former foster sons’account of life with food stamps as their primary income, something they experienced living in a motel room with their mother. At the beginning of the month their mother buys them treats – not because she was stupid or foolish or doesn’t understand that if she didn’t buy them she could buy more healthy food, but to make up for the end of the previous month when there was little or nothing to eat, and she watched her sons go hungry.
By the end of each month, no matter how carefully she tried, they are out of food, and have to go in desperation to the food pantries, or if they have used up their food pantry visits for the month, around to various agencies. Or, often enough, they go hungry. Yes, if their mother didn’t buy junk at the beginning of the month, they’d have a bit more at the end, but because it is never enough, and she feels guilty and ashamed, she wants to give them something to make up for those weeks when there was nothing but peanut butter and bread, and not much of that.
So they start the month already behind in that respect. Hungry from a week or more of under-eating, seeking comfort, they eat extra and indulge because they can and they need to. But they start the month behind in other ways too.
You see they have almost no income – like six million Americans, their entire household income consists largely of food stamps. The mother has used up her TANF payments, and so they are living on food stamps. But food stamps don’t pay for tampons, soap, shoes, toilet paper, cleaning fluid, roach killer, school supplies, or anything else you need living in a motel. So their mother trades a portion of her food stamps to get a percent on the dollar to buy those things – she can lose her kids for sending them to school dirty, for not having shoes for them. Her older teen daughter misses a good chunk of school every month because they don’t usually have menstrual supplies, but she can lose custody for not sending her to school either.
So she owes the convenience store owner some of her food stamps for last month, when she bought toilet paper and tampons. Is what she’s doing technically ethical? No, but she doesn’t have a choice. Sometimes she can get those supplies from the shelter or food pantry or anti-poverty agencies, but she has to take multiple buses with little ones to stand in line – and often they don’t have them.
When politicians and bloggers do these challenges, they start with a kitchen full of spices and seasonings to make food palatable. They don’t start with a week or two of hunger, depression and misery behind them in which there wasn’t food, so they don’t understand why poor people who finally can eat what they want might consume bad choices. They have a bathroom full of supplies, so they don’t need to use their food stamps to get things like soap.
They also have a kitchen. Many of my foster kids come after living in shelters or motels with a microwave only – no cooking facilities at all. Or after living in rental apartments where gas and electric are regularly turned off for non-payment. Or after squatting in buildings with no services whatsoever. They may have technical kitchen access, but only under limited circumstances – for example, adults only are allowed to cook, so during the long hours when my kids are home alone after school in their motel room, there is no way to heat up a can of soup. Or perhaps like with two of my children, a 6 year old cares for her 18 month old brother after school alone every day and all day on weekends while her mother works – her food options are limited to what her mother feels she can safely prepare – microwave popcorn, microwave hot dogs, cereal, canned soup.
I can buy enough brown rice, cabbage and dried beans to live cheaply and on food stamps – but what I can’t do is mimic the circumstances and realities that accompany life on food stamps. What I’d like to see as so many contemplate cutting food stamp subsidies is a realistic food stamp diet. I think that experience would be truly salutary for governors, mayors, leaders, writers and chefs.
How well will you do in school or at work with a week of living on two slices of bread a day with peanut butter – all that is left of the food stamp budget? Or the days when it is bread with ketchup packets lifted from McDonalds on it? How will you do lying in your bed smelling food from other people’s use of the communal kitchen and crying because there’s nothing to eat? How will you feel when after three hours in the cold in line at the food pantry you come away with nothing, because there was only food for the first 200 people, and you were number 239? How will you feel when you have to choose between letting your kids go dirty to school and letting them go hungry?
Doing the food stamp diet for a week or a month won’t give you a sense of how depressing, humiliating, exhausting and frustrating it is to be poor in our society. It won’t let you experience the ways poor diet and the grinding suffering of poverty degrade your health and your energy to keep going. It won’t give you a sense of what it is like to live on food stamps month after month, what it is like to be ashamed of yourself and your inability to give your children and family what they need. It won’t let you experience what it is like to feel that you can never catch up, so what’s the point of even trying? The truth is that all it can teach you is how challenging it is to start on second base and have to get to third with very limited means – but it cannot give you a real picture of what it is like to stand swinging at the ball and never even get near it, month after dreary month.
Not everyone who receives food stamps starts as far back as my kids do – but the truth is for the one in four children in America who depends on food stamps for their family’s basic food security, the conversations we are having about cutting the food stamp budget, about the farm bill and about poverty don’t even begin to cover critical ground.