Congressman Sandy Levin Learns to Live on $31.50-a-Week Food Stamp

Jun 14, 2013

Tuna in oil, crunchy peanut butter, sharp cheddar cheese and a single box of raisin bran cereal accounted for more than half of Rep. Sandy Levin's, D-Mich., grocery bill this week.

As I stood in the kitchen with him Friday, his meal wasn't what you'd expect a ranking member of the Ways and Means committee to feast on.

The 15-term congressman ordinarily fixes "excellent chicken soup" for lunch in his Longworth office kitchenette, but with just a $31.50 budget for provisions this week, white bread spread with just a small bit of crunchy peanut butter has to sustain him until dinner when he'll prepare pasta with tuna and grated cheese. It's raisin bran for breakfast. And if he gets hungry in the off hours, more bread, but with a little olive spread.

As he prepares his humble lunch, I ask the 81-year-old congressman if he is getting enough to eat. 'Are you hungry?,' I ask. Looking up from his small glass of milk, he immediately responds 'yes, especially at night.'

Even over the weekend, when he'll attend a family dinner and a wedding, Levin says he'll be bringing along his tuna pasta.

It's all part of a protest Levin is making, along with more than two dozen colleagues called the "Food Stamp Challenge."

As the House of Representatives prepares to debate a farm bill that would slash $20.5 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a handful of Democrats are living on $31.50, the average weekly benefit of a food stamp recipient, in hopes it might stop Republicans from voting for the cuts.

Levin says feeling the hunger of some of the constituents back home also puts the fire in his belly to keep up the fight.

"I met a woman in a wheelchair a couple of weeks ago in Michigan. She is on food stamps and many weekends she runs out of food so then she lives on bread alone," Levin says. "Does that motivate me? Surely. You have to try to get in the shoes of people and feel what it is like to be hungry."

Levin has a long history working on food access issues. He was one of the main sponsors of the FORK Act, a bill that included a provision to spend $10 million to educate poor Americans on how to access food stamps. Levin also sponsored a bill that allows restaurants and hospitals that donate food to food banks, to get a tax deduction so it is no longer cheaper to just throw the food away.

The food stamp reductions in the House farm bill would leave 1.8 million families ineligible for the SNAP program and curtail spending on school meal programs.

But for Republicans, the cuts represent a step toward curbing the country's debt byreigning in out-of-control government spending and trimming a rapidly-expanding food nutrition program that more than 48 million Americans are enrolled in.

Even the Democratic Senate's farm bill made $4 billion in cuts to food stamps. However, Levin says the House bill goes too far.

"I think it is a rigidity. It is kind of an ideology conquering reality," he says. "The reality is that there are some real needs there and all programs need to be looked at to make sure they are effective. But that is not accomplished by pardon the pun, a meat ax. And they are not axing very much meat. They are axing peanut butter and pasta."

Levin says one of the things he has discovered is that luxuries like chicken, beef and produce are simply too expensive for such a restricted budget.

"One of my colleagues bought some turkey and when he cooked it, it shrunk to a little turkey ball," Levin says.

Levin says that while he is hungry and he misses fruit, the hardest part about the food stamp challenge is that next Wednesday, when he'll throw an ice cream social for his interns and celebrate making it through the week, families who rely on the program will continue to go without.

"It's difficult, but what makes it even more difficult is I look forward to next Wednesday," Levin says. "I am counting the days. That just highlighted for me, what if I had to do it next week and the week after? How do you do this week after week. I just don't know."

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