Diary of an outraged advocate: Nancy Amidei sets herself (and Congresswoman DelBene) a challenge

Nancy Amidei partners with the Coalition regularly to teach “Homelessness Advocacy 101” workshops, where her infectious enthusiasm and stories of how advocacy works never fail to engage participants. I call her a Cheerleader for Democracy.

Nancy Amidei has been an anti-hunger and homelessness advocate, a teacher, and a champion of people participating in democracy for more than forty years.

She is director of the Civic Engagement Project, and retired a few years ago from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, where I met her in 1993. I use the word retired with bemusement: Nancy’s schedule of workshops, guest lectures, meetings, and community events has slowed, but only in comparison to what it was a few years ago.  I am not sure she has ever declined to meet  with an interested student, or told a small group of concerned or caring people that she wouldn’t come speak for free.

Nancy and I often meet for a walk on the weekends, catching up on work and politics and sometimes tackling the Sunday crossword puzzle.  We spent the Sunday before the election talking about the $5 billion in cuts to food benefits that took effect on November 1st, and the terrible political state that leaves the Democrats proposing additional deep cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), just not as deep as the Republicans are proposing. Starting this month, 47 million people  in the United States will have less help to shop at local grocery stores and put food on their families’ tables. The cuts being debated now as part of the Farm Bill will be even more harsh, and last for ten years.

Typically, as Nancy turned this situation over in her head, she thought about what the advocacy opportunity might be. She suggested to national anti-hunger organizations that they call on all members of Congress who are making decisions about the SNAP program to eat on the same budget they were recommending for hungry Americans. By the next time Nancy and I talked, she had phoned local Congresswoman Suzan DelBene to ask her to do just this. As you’ll read, she is fair-minded enough to do the same.
Here is Nancy’s diary of her first week:

On November 17, 2013 I started trying to feed myself on the average food stamp benefit for an adult in Washington state:  $4.20 per person per day,  or $1.40 per meal.
I am doing this because 41 members of the U.S. Congress are meeting now in Conference Committee to decide the future of SNAP (aka Food Stamp) benefits.  One of those 41 is Representative Suzan DelBene, of Washington state.  Since food stamps were already cut on November 1 for everyone, it seems especially harsh that the Conference Committee members are debating whether to cut the program by  an additional $4 billion or $40 billion over the next 10 years.

I think it is reasonable to ask the members to feed themselves on $4.20 a day for the duration of their deliberations on the Farm Bill.  And, if I am asking them to do so, I am going to do it myself.  Despite having a long history with the Food Stamp Program, going back to the late 1960’s when I was a staff member at the (now defunct) U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, I’ve never personally taken the “food stamp challenge.”

Day 1: I know I start this challenge with many advantages. I have a car, so I don’t have to depend on a (higher cost) corner store for food.  I grow a few vegetables in my yard, and have a neighbor who gives me apples from her tree.  I subscribe to a newspaper, so I get lots of cost-saving coupons.  But right from the start I realize that just figuring out what I am spending per meal is a challenge.
Day 2: For the second day I’m having a lunch of half-a-bagel, plus 1 oz (sliced) of cheese, plus half a glass of V-8. I also had a few dried apricots that were in my cupboard. Without the “free” apricots, that’s a bit over $1.  Dinner is 2.5 oz of “manager’s special” (aka old) meat, some rice, and swiss chard from my garden.  Dessert:  half a large cookie.
Day 3: I realize I need to calculate the cost of my morning home-brewed coffee.  I don’t buy fancy coffee, but even so it comes to a whopping 40 cents: that won’t work. I’m now using the same amount of water, for half the coffee grounds.  By 10:40 a.m. my stomach is growling, and I am missing my usual caffeine hit.  Dinner:  same as last night.
Day 4: Probably should have thought of this before, but today I was grateful I wasn’t a growing teen, person with a high-energy job, or anybody bigger and younger than me. That realization hit me as I chatted with a grad student/veteran I know, who is about 6’2″ (I’m 5’5″, and a lot older).
Day 5: I haven’t mentioned this, but pretty much every day I’ve “cheated” a bit:  nibbling some chocolate-covered raisins that were in my cupboard, stretching my bought food with the last of my garden’s swiss chard, a piece of gingerbread from a friend, and  home-made applesauce that I found in my fridge (made earlier from my neighbor’s apples).  If I were in a low-paying job, living in an urban apartment, those things probably wouldn’t be possible.  Even so, this morning I had to “water” the milk in my breakfast cereal.  I am running out and can’t afford more milk.
Day 6: Today I head out for the holidays with various relatives.  I’ll still be at $1.40/meal for breakfast and lunch, but will be well-fed at dinner.  And, I’m going “off” the challenge for Thanksgiving week – a luxury low-income food stamp users don’t have. Over 90% of the people who use food stamps are families with children, or people who are elderly and/or with a disability. Virtually all of them who can work are doing so, or trying to find work in a time of high unemployment. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ll be trying again starting next week.
~ Nancy
P.S. For the record:  close friends have mentioned that I seem “crabbier” and I know that I have less energy — and it’s only been six days.

As you gather family and friends together this Thanksgiving, take a few moments to let Rep. DelBene know what you think about cutting food stamps. Representative Suzan DelBene‘s 1st district includes Kirkland, Bothell, Redmond, and Woodinville.  You can call her local Bothell office at (425) 485-0085 or use the form on her website to send her an e-mail. She tweets @RepDelBene, and her latest tweet is from the Sky Valley Food Bank in Monroe, WA. There are 22,000 people in the 1st district who use food stamps to eat.