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Getting A First-Hand Taste Of Hunger

May 6, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

In April, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, was among 2,000 Oregonians who participated in the state's Food Stamp Challenge. For a week, participants - including the Democratic governor and his wife, Mary Oberst - lived on $3 for food a day, about the amount the average food stamp recipient can expect to get in that state.

One of the stipulations was that participants stick to their small budget and accept no freebies (office coffee, the occasional hand-out). To stay within his budget, Kulongoski turned down pizza at a bowling alley and innumerable slices of birthday cakes scattered around the marble capitol in Salem during the week of April 22. Instead, he brown-bagged it and snacked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Fortunately, said gubernatorial spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor, Kulongoski likes PB&J.

During his week, Kulongoski learned how repetitive a sparse diet can be, and when people accused the governor of indulging in a publicity stunt, his reaction was, "I'm doing this. I don't care what they call it."

Taylor said Kulongoski has made eliminating hunger in Oregon a focus of his administration since he was elected five years ago. The food-stamp idea came, Taylor said, from staffers brainstorming on ideas to put "hunger in the laps" of citizens. While spit-balling ideas, someone on the staff might have read about Hartford's similar, earlier project started by Donna Berman, executive director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center. In March, Hartford's Food Stamp Project encouraged participants to live on $4 of food a day (Connecticut's average food stamp recipient receives more than Oregon's), with no freebies.

The 100 or so of us who took that challenge - for a week or a month - got a small glimpse of a life we'd just as soon not lead.

Surviving on a small food budget in the land of plenty takes planning and careful calculations. You can skip that favorite latte at the local upscale coffee shop. Ditto with the fat expense-account lunch. Think rice and beans and water.

Some participants got sick. Some lost weight. Others gained weight; the tendency on a scant food budget is to eat filling, though not nutritionally sound food. Connecticut State Sen. Jonathan A. Harris, co-chairman of the General Assembly's human services committee, planned to participate in the project for a week. Instead, he went for three. He said he participated because he wanted to know how his decisions as a senator would affect the part of his constituency that doesn't fit the wealthy Connecticut stereotype. He offered his support to Kulongoski.

Maybe that's what we need, more politicians (like our own governor) who will go without in order to understand the have-not part of the population. So many resources are going to efforts like the war in Iraq. Consequently, the basic needs of the folks at home is not a popular topic in Washington these days, says Kathy Cooley of Center City Churches.

"A lot of programs we offer are always tipping in the balance, based on the amount of support we can garner," said Cooley. Over the years, organizations like Center City have had to cut back even while demand increases.

Today, she and others will participate in Foodshare's 24th annual Walk Against Hunger. It is the regional food bank's largest fund raiser, and the goal is $430,000. That the organization reached its goal last year is laudable. That the amount of money needed to feed the state's hungry has increased this year is not.

If you can't walk, you can still donate (www.foodshare.org). If you can't donate, you can contact your state or federal senator and representative. In Washington, legislation that affects the food stamp program - the nation's largest defense against hunger - is up for reauthorization. In Connecticut and Oregon, people are going hungry. In the Hartford area, 100,000 people rely on emergency food programs every year; 40,000 of them children. In Oregon, emergency food distribution is at an all-time high. Thirty-seven percent of food program clients are children, most of them from two-parent households. If a stunt gets those numbers out there, so be it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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