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United Methodists take Food Stamp Challenge

Grocery shopping is difficult for the 26 million Americans relying on food stamps and an average weekly allotment of $21. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.

By Chuck Long*
Nov. 22, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

"It’s not a healthy diet at all, it’s just sustenance," says Sam Davis, a food
stamp recipient in Nashville, Tenn.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

For one week in November, the Rev. Sonnye Dixon lived on mostly hotdogs — not hotdogs of particularly high quality, either — in an effort to understand what it’s like to live on $21 a week.

The pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church, Dixon participated in the Food Stamp Challenge, living on the average weekly food stamp allotment provided by the U.S. government.

To draw attention to hunger issues, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs recently invited civic and spiritual leaders across the United States to participate. The exercise first started in the summer of 2006 in Pennsylvania when the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger asked local residents to take the challenge.

Dixon’s hotdog diet wasn’t particularly tasty, but it was illuminating for him in a ministry that includes many lower-income and impoverished people.

"Near the end of the week, because of the diet, I became irritable, my sleeping patterns became messed up, so the whole notion of what happens and the impact that the diet has on the individual, all were made very real to me," Dixon said.

"It sensitized me more to some people who are in my congregation and what they go through on a weekly basis in order to be able to find a good healthy meal."

Scant pantries

In the land of plenty, plenty of Americans are going hungry.

In the United States, more than 10 percent of adults and almost 17 percent of children live in "food insecure" households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Rev. Sonnye Dixon took the Food
Stamp Challenge recently, living on
mostly hotdogs for a week.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

One of Dixon’s congregants, Sam Davis, relies on government aid, and his story echoes that of countless food stamp recipients. When Davis was laid off from his job, he had no income and couldn’t afford to buy food.

Davis is a hulking, genial man who knows his way around his small kitchen. He also knows that the choices on his pantry shelves are limited.

"I get repetitious to what I eat. Basically, I eat the same thing every week," said Davis, whose menu consists of beans, spaghetti, high-fat hamburger meat and, if it's on sale, chicken.

"My steak is hamburger. With hamburger, I can make chili, I can make a hamburger patty or I can put hamburger in gravy," Davis said. "What I eat is a lot of leftovers. I cook up a chicken, well that’s going to be two meals."

An onion is a rare splurge. "Just the other day, I paid $2 for an onion," he said.

Davis is one of more than 26 million Americans relying on food stamps. Subsisting on $1 per meal presents numerous obstacles. Food stamp recipients' diets consist mainly of rice, beans and low-cost starches. There’s very little room in the budget for most meat, dairy products, fresh fruits or vegetables.

"Grant you, it’s not a healthy diet at all, it’s just sustenance," said Davis. "I could go into a store, and I could only buy the sales items and I could only go down certain aisles."

People often suggest that Davis take advantage of free meals by going to Nashville missions, but he doesn't own a car. "In order to go get a meal, it would cost me $5 to ride the public transportation to get the free meal, which is only going to last a big man like me a couple of hours," he said.

Building awareness

Avi Poster, a member of the Nashville Food Stamp Challenge planning committee, is pleased with conversation coming out of the exercise in learning to eat on next to nothing.

"I want people to remember what compassion means," says the Rev. Becca Stevens after participating in the
challenge. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

"So many people have said, 'Thank you for doing this.' It’s something good for every community to be made aware of," Poster said.

The Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who is pastor of St. Augustine's Chapel at Vanderbilt University, is among those who took the challenge. She says everyone can benefit.

"I want people to remember what compassion means," said Stevens. "Before you’re judgmental about somebody on food stamps or about what somebody is buying or how somebody is living, take a minute to realize just how difficult it is to try to navigate the systems in this country for a poor person."

Food stamp benefits have not been adjusted for inflation in more than a decade. However, legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., would add $4 billion annually to the program through a reauthorized farm bill. Last year's budget was $33 billion. The proposal is currently stalled in the Senate.

*Long is a freelance writer and producer in Nashville, Tennessee.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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