Congressman Tim Ryan is putting his mouth where he claims the money isn't. For the past week he has been eating on a supermarket budget of $21. That breaks down to $3 a day, $1 a meal. No cheating.
"Peanut butter and jelly really saved me," the congressman told MTV News during a visit to his office on Friday. That was day four of the House of Representatives' Food Stamp Challenge, which ends Monday night (May 21). Four members of Congress are spending the week on a food-stamp diet, eating only the food they manage to eke out of the $21 per week that 25 million Americans who receive food-stamp benefits receive. Governors from Utah and Oregon, along with scores of other politicians across the country, have also taken the challenge.
"We are doing this to raise awareness," said Representative Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio. "When we are dealing with trade agreements and societal problems, many times the basic problems — like hunger — get overlooked." He's blogging about the experience and has even posted his Safeway receipt totaling $20.66 (he had to borrow an intern's club card to come in under $21).
So what has the 6-foot-2, 33-year-old Congressman, who likes a good steak, learned from his shopping experience?
"It's easier to buy food with low nutritional value, empty calories, than it is to buy items high in nutrition," he said. After four days of PB&J, cottage cheese, pasta and sauce (not from a jar: he is, after all, proudly half-Italian), Ryan thinks he's lost a few pounds. He's also exhausted.
"It's difficult to afford fruits and vegetables and proteins," he said.
A researcher at the University of Washington recently figured out how many calories a dollar can buy in the average American supermarket: It turns out that buck can buy 1,200 calories of junk food, but only 250 calories of carrots.
So what can a Congressman do about calories? A lot, Ryan claims. It's the government's subsidies of crops like corn (for corn syrup) and not fresh vegetables (like spinach) that make unhealthy eating the easy way to get by on food stamps.
"This may be the first generation that doesn't have the same life expectancy of their parents because of this problem," Rep. Ryan said.
The solution, he says, is to change how the government funds food, and to increase food-stamp benefits.
"We have a bill called Feeding America's Families that will increase funding to the Food Stamp Program by $4 billion a year — which happens to be [the budget for] about nine days in Iraq," he said.
It's important to note that food stamps are intended to supplement one's food budget, not pay for it entirely. Some columnists and commentators on the congressman's blog have deemed this a flaw in his "stunt," but he said things have changed.
"[Food stamps are a supplement] when gas isn't $3.19 a gallon," Ryan said. "Energy costs are eating up disposable income and forcing people to rely solely on food stamps. It used to be a supplement, but it's not anymore."
We checked in with the congressman's blog on Sunday night to see how he's been doing since our interview on Friday. Not so well, it turns out: Airport security confiscated his peanut butter and jelly at the airport.
"I've got 33 cents and a bag of cornmeal to last today and tomorrow," he blogged on Sunday.
At least once it's all over he can go back to his regular diet. He told MTV News he's still debating between sushi and a steak for Monday night's dinner.