Friday, April 13, 2007

Governor will live on $3 per day: challenges others to do same

Consider yourself challenged.

No matter where you live, or what are your circumstances, do you think you could live on $3 per day for a week?

How about longer?

Unfortunately, for people on food stamps, that is the average amount of money they receive, and the challenges of affording food stretch much longer than just a day or a week.

Sometimes people can understand a situation better by walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Or in this case, sitting down at someone’s kitchen table.

One of the people who has decided to do more than just discuss this situation during Hunger Awareness Week, which runs April 23-29, and actually experience this firsthand is Oregon’s Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

He announced that he and his wife, Mary Oberst, will live off $3 per day, $21 for that whole week.

“I challenge all Oregonians to experience first-hand what thousands of Oregon families go through every day,” he said in a press release. “Budgeting just $1 a meal each day for food, and trying to make that food nutritious, is a difficult task that sadly is a reality for too many Oregonians and their families.”

The press release said more than 425,000 Oregonians use food stamps for meals. This helps support $855 million of economic activity, from grocers to farmers’ markets.

(Comparing another place in the West, Idaho had 155,000 people use food stamps last year. One of the challenges Idaho had was a large error rate, more than 11 percent when examined four years ago. Since then, the state has made a lot of changes, and finished 2006 with a less than 5 percent error rate, compared to the national average of 6 percent, and making it the second most improved Food Stamp program in the country.)

Food stamps are currently receiving a lot of debate as changes are being made to the Farm Bill this year. Many people are watching closely or attempting to influence what will be in the final version that is adopted.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, in an earlier speech to America’s Second Harvest Food Research and Action Center National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference Washington D.C., outlined how the government plans to cover food stamps under the proposed Farm Bill being worked on: “We’re recommending spending an additional $500 million over the next 10 years specifically targeted to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for these programs. And we’re recommending spending $2.75 billion over the next 10 years to buy fruits and vegetables for our nutrition assistance programs.”

For the West, any program that is encouraging more fruit and vegetables be purchased is good news for farmers.

Johanns went on to explain how much of the USDA budget goes to food assistance programs.

“I believe that these proposals make effective use of taxpayer dollars while strengthening and improving our food and our nutrition programs… Food assistance is a very large part of the USDA budget; 59 percent of USDA’s budget goes to these programs.

“I often comment that I think people sometimes look at the USDA and say, well that’s where the farmer programs are at, and that’s what they do over there. Well, we do that. And it’s very important to our mission. But far and away the largest piece of our budget would go into our food and nutrition programs.

“The President’s 2008 budget continues to strengthen the nutrition safety net by increasing funding for these programs by $2.5 billion for 4.4 percent,” Johanns said.

It’s fine to promise money for programs in the future, but many people are struggling to survive day-to-day now. They need guarantees, not promises, and their kitchen tables are empty now.

“Many of us will never know what it’s like not to know where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll have enough food in the cupboard to make it through the week,” Governor Kulongoski said.

“My hope is that participating in the food stamp challenge, Oregonians will gain a better understanding of what hundreds of thousands of Oregonians experience each month as they try to afford their families’ basic needs — transportation, housing, child care, health care — and food.”

Prior to his week of modest meals, Kulongoski planned to be in Washington, D.C. lobbying Oregon’s congressional delegates to fight to reauthorize the Food Stamp Program.

Perhaps it’s ironic that he’d visit there — at a place with some of the most expensive restaurants, hotels and other services — before settling down back at home trying to figure out his $3 days in Salem.

Curiously, the press release didn’t mention what the governor’s itinerary will be like the week of April 23-29: how much will he be at home, versus being on the road for work? Or attending business meals to make speeches? Will he plan to do any entertaining, and if so, how does he plan to feed his guests?

Hopefully Kulongoski can later share how he planned his meals, and gives us a glimpse of how they survived.

One big issue being addressed during Hunger Awareness Week is there is a need for food stamps. People are starving. Schools are trying to feed kids at least once a day to help them survive.

But Hunger Awareness Week should also be used to seek more solutions rather than just showing how tough things are and begging for more food stamps.

For people who can do so, teach them how to grow food, preserve food, invest their time and energy into some more sustainable way to provide for themselves and their neighbors.

Community gardens are one of the ways this can be done; perhaps there are other alternatives to help those people in such great need.

For the very young, the elderly and the ill, maybe there are other ways to ensure they do not go hungry but continue to have access to the safe, nutritional and healthy food American farmers and ranchers provide to the nation and the rest of the world.

For now, Kulongoski will help educate people who are more fortunate in life to understand the challenges faced by those who need help.

Now the challenge is for all of us to do more than just sympathize.

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