State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier looks over the nutritional value of juice as she does her shopping.
Editor's Note: This is the start of the challenge and we will be following the Legislators throughout the week.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier spent an hour and a half Monday morning browsing the supermarket shelves looking to feed a family of five on $127.
She even had some help. Big Y provided her with a dietitian to help find healthy food that fits into the budget. Farley-Bouvier has a large garden at home in which she can get fruits and vegetables and she spent 45 minutes clipping coupons and studying the sales flyer to get the best deals.
After spending $105.17 with three chickens and cheese not crossed off of her grocery list, Farley-Bouvier left Big Y shaking her head saying, "there is no way my family can live on this."
"This took a lot of time and I certainly didn't buy the healthy foods that I usually do," she said after the shopping trip which begins the SNAP challenge. "This budget is too low to adequately feed a family of five."
Farley-Bouvier and the rest of the Berkshire delegation is spending the next week living on the average food stamp disbursement. For a family of five, that is $127 just for food. For individuals the disbursement is $31.50.
"This is what we expect people to be able to get by on," said Sen. Benjamin Downing, who spent Monday morning spending his $31.50 allotment at Price Rite with state Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Paul Mark. "It's important to walk a mile in someone else's shoes."
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is going to soon become a hot topic on both Beacon Hill and in Washington D.C.
On the federal level Congress is currently debating a farm bill, which sets the SNAP benefits budget for the coming years and the most recent version calls for a $20 billion cut to the program. Multiple Congressmen have taken the challenge as well and the goal is to spread awareness of the challenges those who need the benefits have.
On the state level, an amended budget calls for photo identification be added to benefit cards, the removal of some foods from the eligibility list has been debated and state Auditor Suzanne Bump filed a report recently claiming more than $2 million in benefits were inappropriately distributed.
The Berkshire delegation is joining federal leaders in trying to illustrate the problem of poverty and the need for the program.
"We are not trying to live like we are poor. Living in poverty is much, much harder than what we are about to do," Farley-Bouvier said, outlining an array of other challenges they will not be facing.
Typically, the representatives say they try to eat healthy - and Farley-Bouvier challenged herself to continue that even with the limited budget - but the focus changes in a shopping trip. Downing said the first focus was cost, then he considered the difficulty in preparation before thinking of the health benefits.
"I tried to do it as healthy as possible but it is tough with a limited budget," Mark said. "The main focus was to make sure you have enough for the week."
For Mark, the $31.50 figure isn't so daunting because that is what he typically spends. However, now he has to cut out all of the supplemental foods he eats on the road. That budget is usually supplemented with prepared food during the days he is working in Boston, which he won't be able to do this week.
"A tough thing for me, with my job, is finding the time to prepare it," Mark said. "But everyone who works multiple jobs is facing the same problem."
Mark didn't even spend the time preparing for the trip like Farley-Bouvier had, saying that those who work three jobs don't have the time to plot out a shopping trip either.
State Reps. Paul Mark and William "Smitty" Pignatelli shopped with with state Sen. Benjamin Downing Monday morning.
For Pignatelli, the shopping trip was "the first time I had to pay attention to what I was buying."
Pignatelli says it is typical for him to do his shopping and return home wondering how the bill added up so quickly.
But on Monday, he didn't have the freedom to wonder, he had to know - knowing so well where he stood that his bill came to $31.41, the closest any member of the delegation came to spending their entire budget.
"You have to be very aware of what you are buying. You have to put things back on the shelf," Pignatelli said. "I certainly have a better understanding, just in shopping, of what some folks are living on."
In North Adams, state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi took on the challenge that she said many people face.
"You just see people of all ages really just struggling to make sure they have enough to eat," Cariddi said, as she did her shopping at Price Chopper.
She entered the day with a budget of about $24, accounting for leftover food from a share at Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg. Cariddi browsed the store quite extensively, weighing in choices between brands, cost per volume and mixing and matching meal options for the week, noting that one of the biggest challenges is to be your own nutritionist. She ended the trip spending $23.90.
Cariddi said she hopes for healthy eating education efforts to expand.
"Can we do better?" Cariddi wondered.
The representative said about 3,700 families and 4,800 individuals in the first district receive assistance from SNAP, costing about $700,000.
"It's really alarming," Cariddi said, noting that the area needs more and better jobs.
And while the state officials Legislate the program, local clergy have a stake in the issue too and have joined in the effort.
Quentin Chin of the First Baptist Church of Pittsfield has teamed up with leaders from five other churches to take the challenge and are asking the community to join them.
"I just hope this will raise the awareness of hunger in Pittsfield and Berkshire County," Chin said on Monday. "There are 50 million people in this country who are food insecure... this is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and we're letting 50 million people go hungry."
Chin said that churches and other institutions had put in place an "emergency food network" but that has grown into becoming just another part of many people's food ratios.
The clergy — including Rev. Jennifer Gregg of St. Stephens Episcopal Church, the Rev. Tim Weisman of Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. James Lumsden of the First Church of Christ Pittsfield, UCC, Pastor Barbara Rice of South Congregational Church, and President Sheila McKenna of the Unitarian Universalist Church — will take their challenge during any seven day period from July 8 until July 28.
On Sunday, July 28, anyone who took the challenge is invited to a community dinner to share their experiences.