A taste of what it’s like to be poor -- Gazette.Net


It’s hard to be productive when you’re hungry. Your gut aches, and your mind drifts uncontrollably to the food you wish you had.

Recently, hundreds of people in Montgomery County experimented for a week to see what it’s like to scrape by on a meager food budget. It was called the SNAP the Silence of Poverty Challenge — SNAP refers to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

Participants were allowed to spend no more than $25 total on food and drinks for five weekdays. That amount — $5 a day — was chosen to approximate reality. The average monthly SNAP benefit per person in Maryland in fiscal 2012 was $128.46 — which works out to about $4.28 a day throughout 30 days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the end of the week, participants gathered in Silver Spring to share their experiences. Those whose food supply had run out were served soup.

Last week, Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, who spearheaded the SNAP challenge locally, told us about clipping coupons and using her grocery discount card to cut spending as much as possible during the challenge. She thought back to her childhood, when her mother bought in bulk and made casseroles to spread out among more than one meal.

Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring said the week of frugal shopping highlighted how important it is to plan ahead, especially for nutritious meals.

She realized, for example, if she wanted milk for her daily tea, she could afford a pint, but not a gallon, on that $25 budget.

Hunger and poverty in Montgomery County where, according to the U.S. Census, the median household income was nearly $96,000 from 2007 to 2011?

Yes, here. The U.S. Census also tells us that 6.3 percent of Montgomery County’s roughly 1 million people lived below the poverty level from 2007 to 2011.

Figures such as that make us think of Hildega Henderson of Silver Spring, who took three buses one recent Saturday morning to get to the Takoma Park Food Pantry. Undeterred by an injured back and knee, she picked up free chicken, eggs, bread and canned goods for her, her two children and her grandchild.

And of Noel Bailey, who was still trying to reach his goal of being “a working person.” He relies on the food pantry for himself and his two young children.

It’s easy to be skeptical of a made-for-media photo op of elected officials pushing grocery carts.

But Ervin and Navarro gave us some good comments about what else is happening to address hunger, poverty and related issues that are very real.

Ervin said she helped urge Gov. Martin O’Malley to devote more money to Maryland Meals for Achievement, a universal free-breakfast program. She said the additional $1.8 million, if it remains in the governor’s proposed budget, would help about 57,000 more students, many of them in Montgomery County.

Navarro said she is working on plans to take a deep look at Montgomery County’s future, in areas such as economic strength and transportation.

Of course, poverty is linked to many parts of daily living.

You can’t afford a full basket of groceries if you don’t have a job with a decent salary. You won’t have that job without a way to get to work, either by public transportation or your own vehicle. And if you’re knocked down by illness and have no insurance to cover medical care, your well being and your family’s are at risk.

It’s heartening that hundreds of people, both inside and outside government, wanted to simulate the lower class’ food-shopping struggle for a week before reverting back to their more comfortable lives.

It’s encouraging whenever people in power take the time to understand and experience, firsthand, their constituents’ frustrations and problems.

What’s more important, though, is what comes out of an exercise such as this.

Will there be a new stream of donations to community food banks? Extra supplies to feed needy children?

Will elected leaders focus on meaningful new policies to help the underclass?

The public will be watching, particularly tens of thousands of people for whom hunger and poverty don’t end when the work week does.