The man in charge of administering much of the social services system in Massachusetts is trying to live for a week on a food budget equal to what is provided by a federal assistance program. It is part of a national campaign by anti-hunger groups to highlight the importance of the program at a time when it is threatened with deep cuts.
Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz and his wife Kathleen arrived at the Save-A-Lot grocery store in Springfield on Wednesday with a shopping list and a limited amount of cash to spend for a week’s worth of food.
As they went up and down the aisles filling their shopping cart with a dozen eggs, instant oatmeal, a bag of potatoes, some apples, carrots , a loaf of bread , peanut butter and jelly they were careful to choose store branded or generic items over national brands that typically have a higher price.
This shopping trip could not cost more than $31.50 per person, which is the average weekly benefit under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as food stamps. Polanowicz and his wife were shopping for themselves and their daughter, who is home from college.
The total grocery bill came to $53.41, which left them with more than $40 to spare. Polanowicz said he hopes the experiment will give him some perspective.
Polanowicz is one of many public officials and other people across the country who have participated in the SNAP Challenge, a campaign by anti-hunger advocates to promote the importance of the program. Participants can eat only what they purchase on their food stamp budget and cannot except free food such as from the buffets often found at government functions, or let someone treat them to a dinner out at a restaurant.
The SNAP program is facing billions of dollars in potential cuts as the U.S. House debates the Farm Bill. Critics say food stamps foster a culture of dependency.
Polanowicz said one in eight people in Massachusetts, or about 880,000 people, receive federal SNAP benefits that average $237 a month. Thirty-three percent of the recipients have jobs. Fifteen percent are over age 60.
Polanowicz , who lives in Northboro, a suburban bedroom community between Worcester and Boston, said he choose to shop at the Save-A-Lot in Springfield to credit the national discount grocery chain for locating in so-called “ food deserts,” which are typically low-income areas lacking sources of healthy nutrition.
Chon Tomlin, a spokesperson for Save-A-Lot said about 15 percent of the chain’s shoppers use food stamps
Tomlin said prices in Save-A-Lot stores average 40 percent less than other supermarkets. The stores stock fewer items and don’t have such supermarket staples as on -site bakeries, delis and already cooked meals.