Lentils, cereal, starch — lots of starch — was the dietary advice Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., got from members of Congress who have already done the “Food Stamp Challenge.”

Van Hollen will live on $21 worth of food for one week in October to experience the hunger hardships of an average food stamp recipient and to “raise awareness of the difficult condition people live in,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “It is part of a much larger battle of poverty.”

It’s the first time joining the challenge for Van Hollen and two other members of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. The challenge, issued by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, kicked off its multi-year poverty awareness campaign, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the council.

The council’s goal is to boost the $5.8 billion increase for nutrition programs, including food stamps, contained in the Senate version of the Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007. The bill comes up for reauthorization every five years, and Congress has not raised the $21 per week food stamp benefit since 1977, he said.
According to the Census Bureau, more than 36 million people lived below the poverty level in 2006. That’s an income of less than $20,444 for a family of four. Maryland’s 2006 poverty rate was 7.8 percent, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin.

“We approached the folks who represent the people on food stamps in this country to call on Congress, and the country, to take a long, hard look at poverty,” said Hadar Susskind, the council’s Washington director, after the conference.

Members of more than 20 Jewish communities across the country will also join the $21 food challenge from Sept. 15 to Sept. 21, the week between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, is doing the challenge for the Baltimore Jewish community. She is eating mostly bean and potato soup this week, but said, “I don’t even begin to pretend that this theatre is in any shape or form close to what people on food stamps feel.”
Members of all faiths are taking the challenge, said Ellison, the only Muslim member of Congress. He is in the middle of his week, which falls during Ramadan.

“We are in solidarity with the poor because we don’t drink or eat during the day.”

“I am eating starch (this week) because it gets me through the day,” he added. Someone had offered him water at the conference, but he refused. “When I can drink, I will drink water,” he said. He could not afford to buy juice.

Van Hollen could not do his challenge during the same week because he is traveling on official congressional business. Living on $21 a week is virtually impossible when traveling, he said.

“At least I have the ability to choose which week,” he said.

“I am taking the challenge this fall, postponing it to focus the mind,” Van Hollen added. He will work with colleagues, look at diet proposals and plan it out.