Comment: Food stamps provide vital support

September is Hunger Action Month and, appropriately, Congress is debating whether the federal government should help keep its citizens' stomachs from growling.

Democrats say yes, Republicans say not so much.

An estimated 48 million Americans get help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- the food stamp program's formal name.

Conservatives want to cut the $74 billion program nearly in half.

Regardless of what legislators decide, SNAP benefits will be reduced in November when 2009 stimulus money dries up.

Here are several things to consider.

1. Let's start with two common complaints from those who would kick millions off the SNAP program or reduce the dollars on their electronic benefit transfer cards: "I've seen folks buy steaks, soda or junk food with their EBT cards! And they trade them for cash!"

First, I'm not going to police the food choices of people who often have little agency over the rest of their lives.

Secondly, the amount of SNAP fraud is about 1.3 cents of every dollar spent. That's down from 4 cents on the dollar in 1993.

2. Before you judge someone, it's often said, walk a mile in his or her shoes. Or a week behind the person's grocery cart, like Panera CEO Ron Shaich is doing.

"For one week, beginning Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, I will live on just $4.50 a day, the average daily (SNAP) benefit per person," Shaich said on LinkedIn last week.

I know what Shaich won't be eating: Much from Panera.

3. In 2009, my brother and I made up a "Survivor" version of this experiment. We called it the "Eat Cheap Challenge." The objective: to see how little we could spend for a week. I won by 11 cents, spending just $4.85.

"What you can't eat on the cheap: Whole grain bread. Fresh meat," I wrote.

"Milk. Real cheese. Good coffee (my brother's weakness) or bottles of Diet Coke (my weakness).

"What you can eat: Processed meat. Bananas, if you can find them on sale. Oatmeal. White bread. Beans. Lots and lots of beans.

"What you must do: Get creative, my brother's specialty. Take a leftover packet of Taco Bell sauce and a mustard packet from a Chinese take-out and you've got condiments for hot dogs.

"What you must surrender: the notion that every meal will be what you had a taste for."

4. As my colleague Kevin McKenzie recently wrote in the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal, the money spent on food stamps finds its way into stores, supermarkets and communities, so the impact of cuts would be felt broadly.

5. Any cuts to the SNAP program will make it harder on food banks.

"Any reduction in food stamps will result in an increase in needs at our partner agencies," Mid-South Food Bank President and CEO Estella Mayhue-Greer told McKenzie. "It would cause a greater stress at food banks across the nation."

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