New York City Councilman Eric Gioia is being written about in virtually every New York City newspaper this week.
The Queens Democrat is the subject of so much attention not because he's announced he's running for president or because he is pushing through a piece groundbreaking legislation, but rather for putting his money where his mouth is -- literally. Gioia is participating in the national food stamp challenge.
On May 10, Gioia put himself on a weekly food budget of $28, the average food stamp allotment for a single recipient. Do the math, and that comes out to a little more than $1 for every meal. Now on the final day of his week-long challenge, Gioia, to be frank, is hungry.
"It's been terrible," said Gioia of his food stamp experiment. "I feel lousy. I'm tired, irritable. I'm hungry all the time, and I just don't feel like myself."
White Bread, Cheese and Ramen Noodles
Like roughly half of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 60, Gioia quickly discovered the near impossibility of surviving on the $28-per-week quota.
In his first trip to the grocery store at the start of the challenge, Gioia walked away with a supposed week's supply of food: two loaves of white bread, processed cheese singles, Ramen noodles, peanut butter and jelly, pasta, tomato sauce, a cucumber, a bunch of carrots, six ears of corn, seven bananas, five oranges and a stick of butter.
Reflecting on his supermarket purchases, Gioia said he ignored nutritional content as well as brand names and simply looked for the cheapest items on the shelf.
"Within a half hour of being in that store, I was no longer looking at calorie content. I wasn't looking at fat. I was looking at the price tag," said Gioia. "What I learned so quickly is that when you walk into the store and you only have $28 to spend for the entire week, the choice has been made for you before you even walk through the door. You've got to pick up the circular, find out what's on sale, and make the best deals you can."
The councilman's haul may left him with a paltry $3.65 in change but, as it turns out, loaded him up with unhealthy amounts of salt, fat and calories. After just four days, the food stamp diet left the normally energetic, 169-pound politician not only "lethargic, irritable and bloated" but also a few pounds heavier. "You realize pretty quickly that you can't make healthy choices on this budget," said Gioia. "It's virtually impossible to live a healthy lifestyle."
Over the past week, Gioia has discovered that not only is it difficult to make healthy choices, but life on food stamps is also more time-consuming and stressful. "It's so time intensive. You need to plan your meals out for the entire day. It's very stressful, actually," he said. "If you work 14-16 hours a day, you need to bring your lunch with you, you need to bring your dinner with you, and carrying around a soggy peanut butter and jelly [sandwich] all day is not the most appealing option. So, you've got to figure out how to get home and make yourself dinner. For me, I work long days, it's difficult, but for a working mom or someone working two jobs, it's a huge struggle."
Bringing Politics to the Diet
Gioia is not the only one who took the food stamp challenge. Over the past few weeks, politicians across the nation have participated in this experiment to raise awareness for the 2007 farm bill, which Congress begins debating at the end of this month.
Due to program cuts made in 1996, food stamps' purchasing power has decreased by $480 per recipient annually. These cuts leave food stamp users with two options, as Gioia and his peers discovered: either run out of money by the end of the month or buy less-expensive, less-healthy food.
An outpouring of support for the food stamp challenge has come not only from the New York City's councilman but from politicians in Texas, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah. With more than 26 millions Americans relying on food stamps in the United States, these officials signed on to raise awareness of the upcoming bill and as a way to identify with their voters and gain an understanding of what it's like to live at the poverty line.
"I did this to draw attention to the issue ... but it's been far more difficult than I thought it would be," said Gioia.
Many of these senators, representatives and council members hope that their efforts this month will amount to more than just increased publicity. By walking a mile in someone else's shoes, so to speak, these officials hope they'll begin to rectify this issue by instituting new measures and initiatives through the 2007 farm bill.
"We could end hunger in New York City and America by taking some simple steps, but what we have to do is build political will, show politicians of all stripes that this is something people care about, that this is a real issue and a solvable problem," said Gioia.
As of today at 1 p.m., Gioia officially completed his challenge. "So today my life goes back to normal, but for a lot of people this is a never-ending struggle," he said. "This shouldn't be a Democratic or Republican issue. This isn't about politics, it's about what's right."