As families face cuts and other changes to the federal food-stamp program, Philadelphia-area residents are learning what it's like to live for a week on $5 a day, the average benefit for an individual.
On Monday, elected officials and community members were to take up the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Allotted just $35 for a week of food, participants will learn firsthand the anxiety-driven calculus of finding nutrition with nearly no money.
"The benefit is being cut in draconian ways, and we're hoping to make people aware of how limiting the benefit already is," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Coalition.
As of Friday, 110 people had signed up for the challenge, and more were expected. Many were scheduled to begin their food-stamp week by shopping together for their $35 in groceries at ShopRite of Parkside in West Philadelphia at 10 a.m. Monday.
Nationwide, about $14 billion will be taken out of the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That translates into up to $15 a month being excised from an individual's monthly benefits. The average monthly benefit per person in Pennsylvania is $113. In New Jersey, it's around $133.
The cut was originally made in 2010, and unless Congress restores the funding, it will go into effect in fall 2013.
Last week, the House Committee on Agriculture indicated it not only supported the $14 billion cut, but wanted to slice an extra $33 billion from SNAP.
But anti-hunger advocates and others said the latter decrease would never be realized.
"That's going nowhere," said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), who also planned to take the food-stamp challenge. "It won't get through the Senate, and the president won't sign it. And there aren't enough votes in the House to override a veto."
Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) could not be reached for comment.
Brady said it was "ludicrous" for people to have to eat on $35 a week, adding, "I'll see what I can get for that money. You can buy a lot of rice, but it's not the healthiest thing to eat. It's pretty difficult."
For Brady and others taking the challenge, their food struggles end next Sunday. But for people like Michele Adams, living with hunger and SNAP cuts is an ongoing worry.
"Any cut would be devastating to us," said Adams, 33, a part-time cashier in Hunting Park who is married with three children. The family takes in around $18,000 annually, about $8,000 below the poverty level.
Adams said she and her husband, Don, 35, a part-time sorter for UPS, eat little if anything by the end of the month, when the food stamps run out.
"The kids eat Oodles of Noodles and cereal," Adams said. "No milk, no bread, no juice. Food stamps should be the last thing they talk about cutting."
SNAP recipients in the commonwealth will face even more challenges when the Corbett administration's new asset test goes into effect on May 1.
To retain SNAP benefits, households with people under age 60 will be limited to $5,500 in assets. For households with people 60 and above, the figure is $9,000.
Houses, retirement benefits, and one car would not be counted as assets. Any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would be counted.
Critics have labeled the asset test unnecessary and harmful. The Corbett administration calls it an important reform.
In looking to cut SNAP benefits, House Republicans have alleged the program is rife with fraud, waste, and abuse.
But SNAP's error rate was 3.81 percent in 2010, the latest available federal figures show. That's among the lowest of any federal program.
Anti-hunger advocates say SNAP has helped thousands in the area, keeping many people out of poverty.
There are 474,448 people in Philadelphia receiving SNAP benefits, up 45 percent since the recession began in December 2007, according to coalition figures.
In Bucks and Chester Counties, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits increased 113 percent during that same period.
The number went up 116 percent in Montgomery County and 59 percent in Delaware County.
In New Jersey, 759,136 people receive SNAP benefits, up 83 percent since the recession began, according to the Food Bank of South Jersey.