Massachusetts lawmakers in the Berkshires are the latest politicians participating in a national anti-hunger campaign to raise awareness about what people on the Federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program face.
The entire Berkshire statehouse delegation, including Representative Gail Cariddi of North Adams, Representative Paul Mark of Peru, Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lenox, and State Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield, are all currently undertaking the so-called “SNAP challenge.”
The lawmakers began this week with a shopping trip to purchase the only food they’ll eat for the following seven days with an amount of money equivalent to a seven-day allowance of dollars from the Federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs, formerly referred to as the Food Stamp program – about $31.
Senator Downing, whose district covers all of Berkshire County, and portions of Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, said that poverty in rural Western Massachusetts is more pronounced than in other parts of the state. Downing also said that 15 percent of residents in Western Massachusetts have sought emergency food from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts or its partner agencies in the past year.
"31 percent of the households that have sought emergency from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and their partner agencies have at least one working adult in that home. So talking about not just the poor but the working poor in particular," said Downing.
According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the amount of households below the poverty level is 10.7 percent in Massachusetts, below the nationwide average of 14.3 percent. However, Downing said that two of his district’s communities, North Adams and Pittsfield, have poverty rates at or above the national average, at 17 and 15 percent, respectively.
State Representative Paul Mark, who said he grew up in poverty, said the experience of living on $31-worth of meals for the week so far has been “eye-opening.”
"I bought spaghetti and I bought some rice because I figured, 'well, spaghetti, that's something I used to eat when I was a kid and we were poor,' and that's something that's pretty cheap and nutritious and you can eat it over a couple of days - and so far I haven't had a day yet that I've actually had the time to be able to go and cook that spaghetti," said Mark. "So I've been bringing a loaf of bread with me and some peanut butter and I've been making sandwiches for myself and I also brought a can of vegetable soup and I had to eat it cold last night because there wasn't any way to heat it at the statehouse."
State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier said that while the challenge the lawmakers are undertaking is in no way comparable to the struggles low-income households encounter in their daily lives, she said that the challenge has already taught her a few lessons including budgeting for fresh produce.
"I had to really change how I looked at things because it costs more to buy healthy foods," said Farley-Bouvier.
Massachusetts lawmakers in 2012 passed a bill to expand electronic use of EBT/SNAP cards at farmers’ markets. Farley-Bouvier said that while the bill is a help, she’d like to see a shift in policy at the national level that would further help SNAP beneficiaries access fresh produce.
The lawmakers are also hoping the seven-day challenge will help bring attention to the federal debate over the Farm Bill, which failed to pass the House of Representatives in June with many lawmakers largely concerned over the proposed $20 billion in cuts to the SNAP program.
State Representative Paul Mark again...
"We need to obviously protect the integrity of the system, but we don't do it at the expense of the people in need," said Mark.