To be clear, Norman Solomon is not on Food Stamps. The American journalist, media critic, author and antiwar activist has a nice home in Inverness, a working wife, and is a current candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 2nd Congressional District.
But during this week the 60-year old candidate is staying within a “food stamp budget” of $31.50 for a week, . That comes down to about $4.50 per day, and that’s the limit Solomon has put on his food purchases to demonstrate the hardship that today’s economy places on low income Americans.
“People in public office should stay in touch with the human realities of this very grim economy,” Solomon said when we met at in San Rafael for one of his quick shopping trips.
“I’m looking for creative ways to dramatize the impact of cuts in social services” that Republicans propose, he said.
He credits his involvement in the issue to Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), whom he spoke with last month in Washington, D.C. “She told me about her plans to be part of the Food Stamp Challenge, and it made a lot of sense to me,” Solomon reported on his website.
Technically, nobody is on “Food Stamps” anymore. Gone are the booklets of blue-and-green tickets, not unlike Disney B-tickets, that many of us (including Solomon himself) relied on in decades past to supplement poverty-level food purchases. Today’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) issues food credits via debit cards, determining eligibility through a formula of household size and income.
But whether stamps or debit card, $4.50 a day is a pittance, as Solomon finds out every time he goes shopping.
“I spent $12 the first day, a bit of a splurge, buying potatoes, rice and beans to get me through the weekend. And bargain avocadoes,” he added.
“The next day, Tuesday, I spent $9, mainly on sunflower seeds and oatmeal. I think that might have been too much,” he said.
He didn’t do any shopping Wednesday, and even though he attended a breakfast for the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) he didn’t have anything to eat, staying true to his commitment to stay within a “food stamp budget.”
I asked him what was off-limits for him now that he would usually purchase. “Almost all fresh fruits and vegetables, for price reasons. Fish and chicken, dairy- they’re not very practical. And organics, which I usually prefer to buy.”
Before we began our shopping expedition, I asked him why he chose , with a just down the street. “It’s locally owned, and the people here are friendly.”
As we went into the market, he pulled out his “day’s allowance” – a $5 bill, which he mimed cutting with scissors. He strode past the bakery display bursting with frosted cakes and swollen pastries without giving them a glance.
In the produce department, he stopped in pleasure at an array of naval oranges, on sale at 48 cents a pound. “This is great – naval oranges and a napkin, what more could you want?”
He examined the avocadoes, clearly hoping for a sale price he could afford, but settled on a single pear for variety, 58 cents a pound.
Concerned about his protein intake, he began looking for bulk peanuts. I pointed out a display of nicely cleaned, and organic, bulk almonds and walnuts near the produce department. He shook his head. “Out of my pay grade.”
Finally, after asking several employees, we found Aisle 3, where the bulk cereals and nuts were. He considered the peanuts, the almonds, the granola, but settled once again on unsalted sunflower seeds, at $1.88 per pound the cheapest on the aisle.
While he was measuring out the seeds, I asked how the "diet" was affecting his weight. "I've lost some so far," said the trim-looking candidate. "But I imagine I'll be gaining it back this weekend with all the potatoes and rice."
At the checkout counter he was pleased to find his expenditures came to $2.87, putting his week’s total at $23.94 so far – leaving him with just $7.56 for the rest of the week.
Despite the bare-bones diet that SNAP allows, the Republican majority in Congress is still trying to cut the program's budget. “It’s not enough to defend against Republican attitudes,” said Solomon, in campaign mode again once we stepped outside.
“It’s also important to understand their discourse, and fight for a stronger safety net. Food, heath care, housing, education – these are all important.
“For instance, the federal budget subsidizes corn syrup. Lots of foods in the market have corn syrup in them, but it doesn’t add any nutritional value. Why are we subsidizing corn syrup? Why not local fruits and vegetables instead?”
You can track Norman Solomon’s daily purchases for the “Food Stamp Challenge” on his website.