Lawmakers live on food stamps for 1 week

Volunteers get a taste of how to live on food budget of $50 per week

Posted: Monday, September 21, 2009

FAIRBANKS - If Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, has been irritable this week, it's for good reason.

He's hungry.

The state lawmaker normally eats five meals per day, big and small, including meat, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. He's down to three meals per day. They're not exactly big and they're certainly not fresh.

For breakfast Wednesday, Kawasaki ate two hot dogs and two pieces of processed cheese.

"I'm getting lots of fat calories," the 34-year-old said.

He's one of about 50 volunteers, including five Alaska lawmakers, who lived on about $50 last week in an attempt to get a taste of how the 69,730 Alaskans on food stamps get by.

"It's harder than I thought," Kawasaki said. "I talk about food all of the time now that I'm really hungry."

The Anchorage-based Food Bank of Alaska coordinated the project, called the Food Stamp Challenge, as a way to raise hunger awareness. September is Hunger Action Month.

Kawasaki and others wrote about their experience on a group blog,

Anchorage Democrats Sen. Bill Wielechowski, Sen. Johnny Ellis and Rep. Lindsey Holmes as well as Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire took part in the challenge.

The rules were strict: no eating out, no alcohol, no deli purchases and no shopping at Costco or Sams Club.

They could accept one free lunch worth no more than $4.50.

In a normal week, Kawasaki, a bachelor, spends about $100 on groceries. He often eats out and buys a daily coffee-stand Americano, a habit he maintained despite the Food Stamp Challenge.

"The point is to simulate how other folks in Alaska are utilizing federal food programs, such as food stamps," food bank communications manager Marleah LaBelle said. "Hopefully, theyll have a better understanding of folks who do seek food assistance."

The agency conducts a hunger study every four years. In 2005, 83,174 people visited a food pantry or soup kitchen in Alaska, LaBelle said. A third of the households relying on a food pantry owned their homes.

Updated numbers are due out next month, LaBelle said.

Since starting the food stamp challenge, Kawasaki lost at least five pounds. He's worried about his cholesterol and said he feels sluggish. His gout flared up, and he's suffered through heartburn and indigestion from time to time.

"It's hard to eat right," the lawmaker said. "The stuff that you can afford is bad for you."

Kawasaki usually works out five times per week but skipped workouts because he lacked the energy, he said.

Here's one of the representative's blog posts: "I sat through an excruciating lunch (with) my legislative colleagues Senators Joe Thomas (D-Fairbanks) and Joe Paskvan (D-Fairbanks) and Representative Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks). We decided to have lunch at Big Daddy's BBQ, which is my favorite, during an all you can eat rib lunch. This must be what 'hell' is like! I am back in the office working on the last apple and a leftover can of vegetables - yum!"

Wielechowski said he largely lived off peanut butter and jelly and pasta, carrying them around in a suitcase because he'd been traveling all week.

"I'm starving," the 41-year-old Anchorage lawmaker said Friday. "I actually thought it would be easier. I didn't think I would be as hungry."

Like Kawasaki, Wielechowski found himself preoccupied thinking about food.

The challenge has made Wielechowski more appreciative of the abundance of food in his life, he said.

"It definitely opens your eyes to the plight of families who have to deal with food stamps and who have to deal with poverty." Kawasaki said.

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