Local religious leaders take 'food stamp challenge'

Food stamp challenge
Lutheran pastor Deborah Hutterer, left, and Ahmed Rabi, religious director at the Islamic Center of Minnesota, pack up groceries and talk about the foods they bought with a $31.50 budget, the national weekly average a person on food stamps receives, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 at Cub Foods in Minneapolis. They are part of a group of religious leaders and others who want to raise awareness about hunger in Minnesota by eating on a food stamp budget for a week.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Could you eat on a food stamp budget?

About a dozen Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Minnesota are joining others across the country this week to find out by spending $31.50 a week on food, the average food stamp benefit in the United States.

By participating in the "food stamp challenge," the religious leaders hope to increase awareness about hunger in the state and encourage Minnesotans to support local food shelves and advocate for government food assistance programs, including food stamps.

Food stamp challenges have grown in popularity across the country. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who works with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas, said the exercise gives people a sense of what it's like to shop on a very limited budget.

"The purpose of the program is to have people who have the luxury of denying the problem of hunger, who can imagine that it's only in far-flung places elsewhere in the world, [that] it's only for people who are not like us, to break through that denial," said Eilberg, who organized the interfaith group.

A first test in their challenge was a shopping trip Sunday to a Cub Foods store, where the participants found themselves making tough choices. Lutheran Rev. Patricia Lull stood in the produce section, staring into her cart.

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"I chose only three apples, and carrots," said Lull, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches. "I may have to take the carrots back and just get one pound."

Food stamp challenge
Rabbi Harold Kravitz and Zafar Siddiqui, with his 14-year-old son Shoaib Siddiqui, left to right, get ready to do their grocery shopping for the week with a $31.50 budget Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 at Cub Foods in Minneapolis. They are part of a group of religious leaders and others who want to raise awareness about hunger in Minnesota by eating on a food stamp budget for a week.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A few aisles away, a Muslim leader calculated ways to save five or ten cents by comparing unit prices. He had already passed by many of the fruits and vegetables, unable to fit them into the food stamp budget allowed for a family of four.

"My kids generally love strawberries; we cannot afford strawberries," said Imam Tamim Saidi of the Northwest Islamic Community Center, in Plymouth, Minn. "My kids usually love oranges and things. Right now we can't afford most of those things. So we have to stick with apples and bananas right now."

There's no room in the budget for luxury items, said Saidi, as he turned down an aisle that contains salad dressings.

"I can't afford salad dressings," he said. "I don't think I can afford salads."

Food stamp challenge
A "food stamp challenge" participant's cart is nearly empty while shopping for a week's worth of groceries with $31.50 on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 at Cub Foods in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The faith leaders had an unexpected visitor while preparing for their shopping trip, when 55-year-old Dennis Boe of Minneapolis joined them.

Boe, who had read about the project in a local paper, said he survives on disability checks and about $20 a month of food stamps.

As leaders were discussing the challenge, he asked whether anybody else in the room was on food stamps. Not a single person raised their hand. Later, Boe said he didn't expect anyone would.

"This is just an experiment for them," Boe said. "It's a game. It's not real life. If they really want to learn, they should be going with someone who is actually shopping for their family."

Boe said he supports the effort, but wants people to remember that living for a week on a tight budget isn't the same as being chronically poor. Eilberg agreed.

"It's absolutely true," Eilberg said. "This is not enough time to really approximate the life of a poor person. Our hope is that people will learn something from this experience, that might have been more distant or more abstract kind of knowledge, that I understand the reality a little bit more deeply, and just a fraction more truly."

Eilberg wants religious leaders to do something with the understanding they gain during the week, by convincing their members to support local food shelves and speak in support of the federal food stamp program. She also hopes the challenge will convince more people to lobby against cuts in the food stamp program, and for increased benefits to recipients.

Mitch Pearlstein, president of the conservative Center of the American Experiement, praises the faith leaders for looking out for the poor. But he has one problem with the challenge.

"[It] leaves the impression that the person who is trying to live on the 30-some odd dollars has no access to any other income whatsoever," he said. "That might be the case in some instances, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is not."

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, is designed to supplement a recipient's food budget. Under complicated federal calculations, a person receiving $31.50 in food stamps should also have other money available for food.

But organizers of the challenge say some families rely entirely on food stamps.

At the grocery store, Saidi managed to stay within the budget for a family of four. He took home rice and other staples but fewer fruits and vegetables than he typically does.

"The sacrifice is that you have to skip on a lot of things that you really want," he said. "You cannot have cookies, you cannot have juice. You have to skip on the pop. You have to skip on all the extra things that you would normally enjoy."

For him, that includes the halal meat prepared under Muslim guidelines that his family eats.

"The kids aren't going to be happy not having meat in their diet this week," Saidi said.

Others in the group made it to the register with just basics but still selected too much. Ahmed Rabi, religious director at the Islamic Center of Minnesota, exceeded his $31.50 budget by $2.

"I'm trying to get some kind of healthy but kind of cheap stuff," said Rabi, who had walked forlornly through the store with minimal items in his cart before finally purchasing some basics.

He is confident he will make it through the week, but doubts whether he could survive on a food stamp budget for an extended period.

"It's very hard," he said.

The faith leaders will try to eat just this week on the food they bought.

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