This week, four members of Congress will skip Starbucks lattes and turn down chilled shrimp at swank receptions.
It's not a diet -- the politicians are trying to spend seven days in the life of someone living on food stamps to highlight the difficulties of eating healthy while stretching resources.
The bipartisan group started the Food Stamp Challenge, and they are urging their colleagues to join in and feed themselves until Monday for $21.
"It's a way of saying that as Americans we need to do more to eliminate poverty and hunger in our country," said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, who had consumed nothing but a banana, lentils and tap water as of 1 p.m. yesterday.
The lawmakers are pushing a $20 billion bill to increase the benefits provided in the food stamp program over five years and want the issue addressed in the upcoming farm bill. The average monthly benefit in 2005 was $94.05, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which estimates 25 million people nationwide live on food stamps.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican, bought six chicken breasts and boiled four to make chicken salad to last the week -- complete with one stick of celery. She aims to increase participation in the program by making it easier to enroll and noted that only 60 percent of those eligible now get food stamps.
On a typical day on Capitol Hill, Mr. McGovern would be eating lunch with the Democratic caucus, enjoying a sandwich, a soda, some chips and even a "nice dessert" like a brownie. When he dines tonight at a sit-down fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, he'll be bringing a sandwich.
For lunch, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, had tuna fish -- no mayonnaise -- on white bread bought for 89 cents a loaf.
"I couldn't afford the mayo," she said, adding that she sliced tomatoes she bought razor-thin to make them last but "splurged on some broccoli."
The lawmakers joked they would save the one onion or the 23-cent clove of garlic they bought for later in the week when they really needed some variety and lamented there would be no coffee or snacks.
"I'm grumpy already," Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat, complained after doing his shopping, during which he spent $20.66 on groceries for the week. That purchased two loaves of bread, two jars of strawberry preserves, angel-hair pasta, sauce, cottage cheese and one bag of cornmeal to make polenta. He'll stretch 12 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over seven days, he said.
"On a dollar per meal, a person can't buy fresh fruit and vegetables. The kids across the country who go to bed hungry on nights when the budget is stretched too thin deal with the reality of poverty every day, and I want them to know they aren't forgotten," he said.
The four members -- some rank-and-file, some holding minor positions in leadership -- said they want to pressure their leaders to take action quickly.
"There's an urgency to this issue, and it needs to be front and center as we talk about the farm bill," Mr. McGovern said. "It's not enough to say there is no money. You've got to find money. People should not be hungry in the United States."