(C. Proxmire, June 11, 2013)
Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter and US Congressman Sander Levin are taking a stand against cuts to food programs, by getting a first-hand taste of life on a food-stamp-sized budget. As part of the Food Research and Action Center’s National SNAP Challenge the two elected officials will be spending a week trying to feed themselves on just $4.50 a day – the average amount of benefits that someone receiving food benefits receives.
The Bill was a bi-partisan plan led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the Agriculture Committee and Republican Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi). The bill reduces funds that typical go directly to the nation’s needy, while “strengthening agricultural jobs initiatives” through the following, listed in a press release from Stabenow’s office:
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that allocates resources to combat hunger through the nation. This includes food benefits to individuals, free and reduced cost school lunches, and funding to agencies like food banks, shelters, and meals for low income seniors. SNAP also provides education on how to balance adequate nutrition with the challenge having low income. The 2013 Farm Bill was passed in the Senate Monday, the same day Levin and Coulter held a press conference and grocery shopping trip at Ferndale Foods.
- ~Export opportunities to help farmers find new global markets for their goods
- ~Help for family farmers to sell locally, increasing support for farmers’ markets and spurring the creation of food hubs to connect farmers to schools and other community-based organizations
- ~Training and access to capital to make it easier for beginning farmers to get off the ground
- ~Initiatives to help American veterans start agriculture businesses
- ~Growth in bio-based manufacturing (businesses producing goods in America from raw agricultural products grown in America) to create rural agriculture and urban manufacturing jobs
- ~Innovation in bio-energy production, supporting non-food based advanced biomass energy production such as cellulosic ethanol and woody biomass power
- ~Research to promote the commercialization of new agricultural innovations
- ~Rural development initiatives to help rural communities upgrade infrastructure, extend broadband internet availability and create a better environment for small businesses
The bill passed 66-27 and is expected to be taken up in the House within the next week.
In the meantime, elected officials like Levin and Coulter are putting their money where their mouths are in terms of understanding the issue of food benefits for their constituents. With a budget of $31.50 they planned out how they would eat for an entire week.
Both men struggled to figure out a grocery list that would meet their nutrition needs. Processed foods like pasta, tomato sauce, and hot dogs were inexpensive choices compared to the fresh fruits and vegetables that are better for one’s health.
Coulter planned for plenty of peanut butter sandwiches, though jelly was not within his budget. He also found hot dogs on sale 3 for $5, which he selected to fill the void where higher quality meats normally would fit into his life. Peaches were on sale 99 cents per pound and he found a lone container of orange juice close to the sell-by date that was marked down to $1.99. Other items included a bag of frozen strawberries, a can of diced tomatoes, a box of tea, and a tub of generic instant oatmeal. He came in just under budget, spending $30.85. Normally he spends closer to $100.
Levin had an additional challenge to his shopping in that the Congressman would be flying back to Washington DC for work and could not carry perishables or liquids. He reserved some of his grocery budget for buying milk, margarine and peanut butter after arriving in the capital. The toughest choice it seemed was figuring out which type of Raisin Bran was the best value given the multiple brands and box sizes. His $20.19 grocery bill also included pasta, tuna, bread and cheese.
Tagging along for the shop were nutrition experts from Forgotten Harvest and Cooking Matters, an educational program for low-income families to help teach them how to make wise purchases. They insisted on including green vegetables into the mix. Levin left with a packet of fresh green beans and one zucchini.
Making such choices is an everyday reality for people receiving SNAP assistance, particularly those with children. Over 75% of households in the program have a child, a disabled person or an elderly person in the household.
For those who rely on the benefits, not only are the choices hard, they have consequences. “People want to know how they can do the best for their families, and how they can invest in their children. Not just for educational purposes so they can do better in school, but also for health reasons. SNAP is an economic investment, and also a medical investment,” said Rachelle Bonelli of the Cooking Matters Program.
The Cooking Matters guides gave tips along the shopping route, including being careful about the processed foods selected. “The Congressman wanted to get a can of soup, but I told him about the high levels of salt, sodium, and he opted for noodles instead. A can of soup has a whole day’s worth of sodium in it. It’s okay to go over once in a while, but people who eat like that all the time have more health problems because of it,” one said.
Focusing on protein is also important, particularly for children who need it for brain development and growth. Other suggestions included buying in bulk and buying things that can be used in multiple meals.
Aiming for variety and putting care into cooking also help. Bonelli had a suggestion to counter the temptation to do macaroni and cheese. “Boil some lasagna noodles and roll them up with some cottage cheese. It looks more filling and it looks like you care,” she said.
Another trainer questioned Coulter’s choice of hot dogs. “It’s a choice we see a lot of people make. He bought hot dogs for $1.99 or whatever, but he could have bought a couple pounds of ground turkey for $3.99. The hot dogs are 50% fillers and fat, and a ton of sodium. The turkey would make a few meals and you’re getting all meat. It’s much healthier and that makes a difference.”
Coulter said he was “adamantly opposed” to cutting the program and that he could not imagine trying to live with the tough choices families with food assistance have to make. “I was raised to believe that we will be judged by what we do for the least of our brothers. If we’re going to be a great country and a great city then we need to take care of those with the greatest need.”
If the cuts go through, 1.8 million Americans will lose benefits and 500,000 will see their benefits significantly reduced. Over 200,000 low income children will no longer be able to receive free school lunches.
In Oakland County there are currently 130,000 people receiving benefits. Benefit cuts also hurt local businesses. For example, Ferndale Foods management says 20% of their customers use a Bridge Card, which is Michigan’s way of delivering funds to needy recipients.
The cuts also affect programs that provide food such as soup kitchens and shelters. Susan Goodell of Forgotten Harvest explained how the cuts would harm the 260 soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters in SE Michigan.
“The impact of the governments cuts would be the equivalent of shutting down every Feeding America food bank and food rescue operation- over 200 of us – for 2 ½ years,” she said. “The charities are not in a position to fill this gap. I can tell you today there will be people turned away. There will be thousands of people in line at Forgotten Harvest programs and they will be turned away. This county cannot sustain the kind of losses that we’re talking about. It’s just unconscionable. The working men and women who are working low income jobs, the seniors who are living on very fixed incomes and the children who are born into poverty through absolutely no fault of their own – this is just appalling.” She also said that over the course of ten years, the $20 billion cuts would equal out to 8 billion meals that Americans would have to do without.
Stabenow praised the program cuts in a press release Monday. “By ending unnecessary subsidies, consolidating programs (eliminating over 100 programs and authorizations in all) and cracking down on abuse, the bill reduces the deficit by billions of dollars…These reforms will reduce the deficit while allowing for investment in initiatives that help grow Michigan’s agriculture economy…
“Reforming agriculture programs will save taxpayers billions of dollars while helping Michigan farmers, ranchers and small businesses create jobs,” Stabenow said. “Because we worked across party lines to streamline programs, we were able to save tax dollars while investing in initiatives that help boost exports, help family farmers sell locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries.
“Congress needs to work across the aisle to help spur job creation and reduce the deficit. I’m proud that the Senate was able to accomplish that with this Farm Bill,” Stabenow said.
To learn more about the SNAP challenge and how the proposed cuts can impact neighborhoods, visit http://frac.org/initiatives/snapfood-stamp-challenges/.
To learn more about Cooking Matters, including tips on eating well on a budget, visit http://cookingmatters.org/.