Monday, April 30, 2012

It's back - fake Food Stamp challenges

Like a bad penny or a poltergeist, the fake Food Stamp challenge is back.

Our local newspaper, The Blade, is again participating, though they've added a modern twist by calling it the Blade 'Hunger Games.'

Could you live on a food budget of $23 a week? That's the question facing Blade staffers this week as they participate in the Food Stamp Challenge. Here you can read about our thoughts and experiences as my colleagues and I have a food budget of just $23 each to stretch over five days.

This year's challenge is sponsored in our state by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies. EOPA is our local Toledo member.

Here is the challenge:

In 2011, 1.75 million Ohioans received food assistance benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. Ohio’s Community Action Agencies are initiating a Food Stamp Challenge April 30-May 4 in honor of Community Action Month to give participants a view of what life can be like for these low-income Ohioans.

During the Challenge, participants will limit their total food purchases to the weekly budget of a typical food stamp recipient. The goal of the Challenge is to increase awareness around poverty and hunger in Ohio by facilitating a meaningful personal experience for participants. While living on a food stamp budget for just one week cannot come close to the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week and month after month, it does provide those who take the Challenge with a new perspective and greater understanding.

It all sounds good, but as I've written extensively, the devil is in the details.

In 2007, which I first started tracking our county commissioners' participation in this publicity stunt, the average benefit was $21 per person per week. This year's challenge has the rate at $32.31 per person per week. In case you're not good at math, that's a 54% increase in the amount of benefits over a five year span. However, since they're only asking participants to do the challenge over 5 days, the 2012 challenge is to live on a food budget of only $23/week.

But as I documented in 2007, no one is expected to live on only $23 per week:

The maximum amount of food stamps a person can get - having no other income or resources - is $36.57. Those who get "only" $21 per week have been determined to need only $21 based upon a comprehensive formula which shows other funds (up to 30% of wages/other cash assets) available to be devoted to purchasing food.

The challenge is seriously flawed in the dollar amount. But worse, it is designed with failure as the goal:

But this entire challenge isn't about honesty. It's about manipulation. It's about generating false data to prove a point. The $21 a week amount is so obviously bogus that there can be no excuse for our commissioners to not have questioned the amount. Such an error is further compounded by the fact that local Job and Family Services staff - who actually administer the food stamp program in Lucas County under control and direction of the commissioners - are participating. And they - more than anyone else - know that no one is expected to live on $21 a week for food.

Additionally, the challenge was accepted under false pretenses. They didn't accept the challenge with concept of actually succeeding. They're trying to prove it CAN'T be done. Commissioner Konop actually said, "The whole point ... is to fail." Well, obviously! Any success wouldn't look good to those using the 'failures' as justification for more funding. This was manipulation at its finest - or worst.

Just why are we doing such a challenge? I connected the dots in 2007:

A national non-profit begins a publicity campaign to draw attention to the food stamp program and calls it the "Food Stamp Challenge." National group links to local groups and pulls them into the stunt by getting them to enroll local elected and community leaders in the challenge. Local leaders 'prove' the point that you can't live on $21 a week and, even if you can survive, you can't do so in a healthy way. Local groups report back to National group who then uses all these local 'examples' and numerous media reports as evidence that the Food Stamp program needs more money. National group then testifies about the program and the need for more money, using the sympathy gained from 'challenges' across the country to urge Congress to act accordingly.

FRAC (Food Research and Action Center) is national non-profit doing the lobbying today, as it was in 2007. They are opposed to the 2012 Farm Bill because, they claim, it changes eligibility under the Heat and Eat program in states with that program. According to FRAC, some families reach a 'basis' under the LIHEAP program that "triggers" higher food stamp benefits. They estimate that proposed modifications to the basis will "reduce nutrition benefits for low income households living in Heat and Eat states. This cut is estimated at $4.49 billion over ten years."

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed the bill on April 26, hence the timing of this year's challenge.

Oh - and according to their 2010 Form 990, FRAC pent $366,206 on lobbying. Since 2007, they've spent over $1.3 million lobbying on behalf of the food stamp program.. The Form 990 also shows that they took in just under $8.4 million and spent $2.4 million on salaries, compensation and other benefits.

Sadly for those who are truly struggling in this economy, this fake challenge isn't about actually helping them - it's to lobby for more government spending at a time when the government is borrowing record amounts and spending trillions more than what it takes in.

What's worse is that this lobbying stunt, designed to provoke sympathy, ensnares good local organizations in the manipulative and false efforts. In a 2007 radio interview on AM 1370 WSPD, two local pastors, Reverends Kevin Perrine and Steve Anthony of Toledo Area Ministries' "Feed Your Neighbor" program, admitted as much:

"... I cannot decide if they are pawns in this nationwide publicity stunt to generate emotional support for an increased food stamp funding - or knowing accomplices who didn't expect their data to be challenged and then underestimated the reaction when it was shown to be incorrect. I'd like to believe they are just pawns, but some of their answers indicate that they were well aware of the appeal to emotion in order to influence the national legislation.

They acknowledged that the idea for the local challenge came as a result of an email from FRAC (Food Research and Action Center). When asked about the source of the $21 per day per person amount, which is identified as the average that a person on food stamps receives in benefits, they agreed that it was an average, but said that the actual amount was $23, but "they lowered it...but that's not the point of the challenge."

(Aside: so they knew it was more than $21 but they lowered it by $2 for what reason?)


... by saying that the point was to generate empathy, they are admitting that the underlying premise is to show this is not only difficult, but nearly impossible...which means that the challenge is designed for failure.

When Fred asked whether or not, then, the $21 was deceptive, they answered that the point with the commissioners was "to show them what they can do to get into action – what they can do with the farm bill at a national level and at a state level..."

So they acknowledge the purpose was to generate support for additional funding in the 2007 Farm Bill, and to enlist the help of the commissioners in doing so.

But just to be sure, Fred clarified the point. "So the bottom line is to get the commissioners involved … to petition the government to raise more money for the food stamp program?"

"Well, it’s not only that," was the answer, "but it’s also ... so they can also pass on what they see locally to the people they know."

So, again, we want the commissioners to prove this incorrect figure of $21 is just not enough and then tell their story to our Congressional representatives. Yes - it's all a well-coordinated national campaign to provide 'evidence' that the food stamp program needs more money.

When Fred asked them how they felt about being involved in program that would try to sway public opinion using lies and dishonesty as this one obviously does, they didn't answer the question.

They did say, " ... I don’t ... our motivation for doing this has nothing to do with deception or dishonesty – we’re calling attention to a problem and the problem is our food pantries are running out of food because the need is greater now than it has been and we’re just calling attention that."

In other words, don't question the facts, just look at the motivation...we're trying to do something good. Don't judge this by anything other than our intentions.


I think it's more likely that they understood the purpose was to influence Congress to put more money into the food stamp program, but they really didn't think about the political or public relations ramifications of someone pointing out that this was just a publicity stunt.

And then, when evidence was presented that the $21 amount was intentionally false in order to have more chance of failing the challenge, they did what most do when caught in a similar situation - they issued an emotional appeal to their INTENTIONS, implying that since the motivation was good, we should just overlook the falsities upon which the stunt is based.

Sadly, by not being honest about the intent and the goal of failing, and then asking us to just overlook those things because of the 'need,' they've done more harm than good to their stated intent of bringing attention to the plight of the food banks.

That was in 2007. Here we are in 2012 and they're still at it, enlisting the help of newspapers, organizations and elected officials in a publicity stunt that obviously hasn't worked in the past (oops...let's not mention that little fact) or else we wouldn't still be doing it.

As a matter of record, one person can succeed in eating for a week on $21 - and doing so in a healthy manner. I've proved it (go to link to see the photos referenced):

But, to prove a point, here's a photo of the 31 food items I was able to purchase for $21.28. (I was a bit over, but figured that if a person didn't have an extra 28 cents, they could have purchased one less Jello.)

And just to prove my cost, here's a photo of the receipt. There's nothing special in my purchases, but I was able to get canned vegetables and fruit, plenty of pasta, spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce, tuna fish, and even Jello. And, if I'd had the extra $14.67 that a food stamp recipient would actually have, I would have bought the following:

* whole chicken for $3.86 (good for several meals for one)
* one pound of ground beef for $2.79
* two pork chops for $1.50
* quart of milk for $1.49 (I don't need much)
* 5 bananas for $.88
* one head of lettuce for $.99
* one loaf of bread for $.92
* a dozen eggs for $1.49
* one pound of carrots $.75

...proving that one person can comfortably survive in a healthy way on the amount of food stamps benefits they receive. In fact, I'd have plenty of left-overs to allow me to shop for more fresh fruit, vegetables and cheese the next week. There's just no way that I'd use all of the pasta, mac & cheese, Jello, peanut butter or all-purpose flour/pancake mix in just one week.

And the fact that my purchases in the second week would give me greater flexibility in developing a healthy menu is a point conveniently overlooked in a one-week challenge.

This publicity stunt won't help people who are struggling to put food on the table, but my BETTER food stamp challenge will:

If the government takes an additional, say $21, for lack of better dollar amount, of taxes from each of us and dedicates that to the food stamp program, the end result, after deducting for bureaucracy and processing through the federal government to the state government to the local county offices, would certainly be less than $21.

So I challenge each and every one of you - take $21 and purchase appropriate goods and donate them to your favorite food bank or similar program. And make a commitment to do so on whatever regular basis you can. That's what I've done. Instead of just 'struggling' through a fake challenge, put your money where your mouth is. That will certainly do more to help those in need than some silly publicity stunt.

Don't be taken in by the fake Food Stamp challenge - and don't wait for government to take more of your taxes in order to feed your neighbors.

Do it yourself - your actions will be much more efficient and longer-lasting than any publicity stunt.

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