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Eating on $3 a Day: The Shame of the Food Stamp Program

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. — The federal food stamp program has never been known as being particularly generous, but the combination of budget cuts and inflation has made it even less so.

For all the talk you hear from economists saying the "core rate" of inflation is stable, you have to remember that the figure excludes two things all of us have to buy — food and energy. A trip to the grocery store or the gas station will tell you that prices are rising higher and faster than the 3 percent inflation rate we hear about.

It's been 11 years since the food stamp program increased its benefits. It's been a decade since the federal minimum wage has been increased. Meanwhile, the price of everything has gone up and the poorest among us are the ones who get squeezed the worst.

If you are poor enough to qualify for food stamps, the average benefit per person is about $3 per day per person. That's $21 a week for food.

On $21 a week, your grocery basket will have lots of rice and pasta and not much meat and dairy products or fresh fruits and vegetables. It is difficult to nearly impossible to eat a healthy diet, and as food prices keep rising, it gets even harder.

Recently, several members of the House Hunger Caucus, led by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and JoAnn Emerson, R-Mo., tried to raise awareness of the issue by trying to eat for a week on the $21.

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To some, it may have been just a political stunt, but the Hunger Caucus wanted to dramatize just what poor families in America are going through. They discovered what the poor know too well — that $3 a day doesn't go very far. You can read more about McGovern's week on the food stamp diet at foodstampchallenge.typepad.com.

The federal Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization this summer. Included in that bill is the food stamp program, and McGovern and Emerson are calling for an increase of $4 billion to the current $33 billion budget, which covered 26 million recipients last year. That would translate into an additional $48 a month for a family of four — not much, but better than nothing.

More needs to be done so that more nutritious food is available through the program. Education programs — to advise recipients about how to stretch their food dollar and still eat healthy food — are also needed. Most of all, the minimum wage needs to rise to the point where it is a living wage for all workers.

"All of us in Congress live pretty good lives," McGovern told The Washington Post. "We don't have to wake up worrying about the next meal. But there are a lot of Americans who do. I think it's wrong. I think it's immoral that in the U.S., the richest country in the world, people are hungry."

A truly just nation would ensure that no one goes hungry. Unfortunately, there always seems to be money available for war, but Congress too often cries poverty when more money for social welfare programs is sought. This is simply not right.

There are no lobbyists for the poor in Washington. They don't write big checks for politicians. They are all but invisible to our leaders. This must change.

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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