On a shopping trip Monday through a Capitol Hill grocery store, Missouri Rep. Jo Ann Emerson tried to figure out how to buy an entire week's worth of groceries, but spend no more than $1 per meal.
That's the challenge every week for some food stamp recipients who depend solely on the subsidy for their meals.
Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., volunteered to spend seven days on a food stamp budget to highlight the challenges low-income people face in eating a healthy diet at current benefit levels.
"Most people on a day-to-day basis don't think about the fact that there are millions of people in this country who have to make a choice every day about how much they're going to spend on food," Emerson said.
Earlier this month, Emerson and McGovern sponsored legislation that would boost spending for federal nutrition programs -- including food stamps -- by $20 billion over five years.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the average monthly food stamp benefit in fiscal 2005 was $94.05, or about $3 per day.
While food stamps are meant as a safety net to supplement a family's food budget, many who are unemployed or in financial trouble have to rely completely on government assistance. The "food stamp challenge," sponsored by anti-hunger activists around the country, encourages people to see what it's like to cap a weekly grocery bill at $21 per person.
Emerson limited her weekly budget to $33 because her husband, Ron Gladney, will participate for four days as well before going on a business trip.
Even after Emerson spent two hours preparing for the shopping trip by reviewing Safeway prices online, she had to make some tough choices. She loaded up on staples like chicken breasts, spaghetti and tuna.
But she had to leave favorite fruits and vegetables like strawberries and avocados behind. They were too expensive. And snack foods like Wheat Thins? Forget about it.
During the hour she navigated the store aisles, Emerson faced many of the issues that nearly 800,000 food stamp recipients in Missouri confront every day.
She bought hamburger meat higher in fat because it was less expensive than lean beef. She wanted more nutritious whole-wheat pasta, but settled on cheaper white flour pasta.
"I'll save over a dollar by blowing my low-carb diet," Emerson said.
Low-income shoppers face other hurdles, like not being able to buy sale items in bulk if they use public transportation, said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of the anti-hunger group D.C. Hunger Solutions, who accompanied Emerson on the shopping trip.
"A lot of people don't even live near a large grocery store so they can't go and take advantage of the sale prices," Ashbrook said.
Emerson's one splurge was a small package of blue cheese at $3.29 to toss in salads. She had to return a carton of eggs to work it into her budget.
Even with a staffer tracking her every purchase with a calculator and notepad, things were tense at the checkout line.
With the cash register showing $32.63, there was still a large bottle of seltzer water left on the conveyer belt. She had to return it.
"This is really a challenge," Emerson said with a sigh. "There are a lot of people in this country who go through this every day."