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Cook Awhile In My Shoes: Flirting With Food Stamps

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Hunger activists challenged New Yorkers yesterday to try spending only $3.50 on food, just for one day, to get a taste of what life is like for folks who actually have to rely on food stamps.

It's the latest installment of Let's Make a Meal, the "paltry pantry" game that started last month when the governors of Oregon and Utah took a "food stamp challenge" and tried to eat on a meager $3 a day, which the average food stamp recipient does by necessity, as opposed to novelty.

The concept caught on with other public servants, who took the challenge and found it hard to eat healthy on a dollar-a-meal diet. Or even eat at all: Eric Gioia, a New York City councilman, ran out of money before the week was up and had to turn to a food pantry. As he told NY1 news, "This is why by the third and fourth weeks of the month the soup kitchens and food pantries are literally bursting at the seams."

The number of American households experiencing hunger --or, as the USDA's rebranded it, "food insecurity"-- has been climbing steadily each year while wages erode, health care costs explode, and more people fall into the poverty pit. For these unfortunate folks, food stamps could be a lifeline, but of the 40 million or so Americans eligible for food stamps, only 60 to 70 percent apply. A bitter blend of bureaucracy, stigma and ignorance keeps others from availing themselves of this modest aid.

Not that $3 a day goes very far, anyway; you've got to get the maximum calories for the minimum price, which means filling up on cheap fats and carbs like peanut butter and ramen noodles. Fresh fruits and vegetables? Might as well be caviar. We subsidize commodity crops like corn and soybeans, keeping the price of nutritionally bankrupt processed foods artificially low, while doing nothing for the "specialty crops," which is what the USDA calls the fruits and vegetables it tells us we're supposed to eat five to nine servings of each day. Isn't that special?

For most of us non-rural types, the words "Farm Bill" go in one ear and out the other, leaving sepia snapshots of wizened guys in overalls in our heads. But food activists are trying to sweep those bits of straw from our brains and train us to think of this massive and momentous piece of legislation as the Food and Farm Bill, because more than half the nearly 90 billion dollars allocated every year for the Farm Bill pays for things like school lunches, food stamps, and WIC, the nutrition program for women, infants and children.

The value of the food stamp program erodes each year because it's not indexed to inflation. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has introduced an alternative to the Farm Bill that would peg the food stamp allocations to inflation, but it won't compensate for the declines of the past decade. And the Bush administration is looking to reduce the number of Americans who qualify for food stamps at a time when more people than ever are suffering from "very low food security."

Could I live on peanut butter and ramen noodles? Mmm, that reminds me of a great recipe for sesame-peanut noodles in The Food You Want to Eat, the cookbook from Queer Eye's culinary guy, Ted Allen.

You just need a quarter cup of peanut butter and a pound of ramen noodles. Oh, and some sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, peanuts, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, mirin or sherry, a few cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, an English cucumber, fresh cilantro, and scallions.

Yum! I can do this $3 a day thing! I'll just have to skip the seasonings, the seeds, the nuts, the cucumber, the scallions and the cilantro, not to mention the mirin or sherry. Hhmmm. Might be too minimal even for Mark Bittman.

I'm glad politicians are volunteering to venture beyond the Land of Milk and Honey to get a firsthand look at the food deserts so many Americans never see, even if it's only for a day or a week. Our awful agricultural policies have created a food chain that makes it possible, for the first time in history, for poor people to be both malnourished and obese. That's quite an achievement, and one for which we're all poorer, if you don't count companies like Cargill and ADM.

Well, at least agri-biz plows some of its profits into PBS and NPR. That's about the only by-product of industrial agriculture that contains any redeeming nutritional value.