On a recent weekday morning, Eileen Sklaroff rolled her shopping cart through a well-stocked produce section at an enormous local supermarket. Despite the plentiful selections, her options were limited by her meager budget.
The bag of potatoes Sklaroff held cost more than $4 — too much.
Then she looked closer and realized that the item was certified organic. Fortunately, she found a sack of non-organic potatoes for $2.69 and tossed it into her cart.
The Center City resident was facing a severely limited food budget by choice, not by necessity.
The president of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society — a more than 100-year-old group devoted to aiding poor Jewish women — was among the more than 130 elected officials, religious leaders and others, who took up the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge this week.
The public awareness campaign is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
The weeklong challenge that began on April 23 aims to focus attention on the difficulty of eating a balanced meal while relying upon the federal government's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP — what food stamps are now called — which is facing potentially drastic cuts.
The idea behind the challenge is for participants to spend no more than $35 for a week, or $5 a day, on food; that's the average amount of benefits that Philadelphia-area residents receive on the SNAP program. The challenge calls for participants to refrain from eating previously purchased food in their homes or accepting free meals from friends.
"I'd like to see the Jewish community embrace this," said Sklaroff, who sat on the committee overseeing the initiative and attended its launch event Monday at a ShopRite in West Philadelphia. She's taking the challenge along with her husband, Cantor Mark Kushner.
An organic and natural foods connoisseur, Sklaroff said the challenge has made her think hard about how the fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods she stocks in her kitchen and fridge are out of the economic reach of so many families.
The challenge has been timed to call attention to the new asset test in Pennsylvania, which goes into effect on May 1. In order to receive SNAP benefits, most households with residents under 60 years of age will be required to have their assets limited to $5,500; it will be $9,000 for households with individuals over 60.
Homes, some automobiles and retirement benefits won't be counted toward the asset ceiling.
Federation, which has publicly opposed the new requirements, has argued that the new policy will especially hurt seniors who have little to no income and may have saved a meager amount for emergencies. Gov. Tom Corbett has defended the policy change, calling it a needed reform that will eliminate fraud in the system.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Congress are pushing to cut $13 billion a year from the $400 billion federal SNAP program, which, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, could result in a family of four losing a total of $60 per month in benefits.
Mayor Michael Nutter and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-District 1) were two of a number of elected officials who attended the launch of the event at ShopRite. Nutter said during a news conference that he came armed with a grocery list totaling $34.19, which he said would feed him for the week.
"It's mean-spirited to attack children, to attack seniors, to attack the most vulnerable populations. Why in the world would we cut funding for people to eat good food in America? That makes no sense whatsoever," he said.
A handful of rabbis and synagogues have also gotten involved in the challenge. On May 7, Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park will host a recap discussion about the challenge and also screen the movie Food Stamped.
Federation is hosting a closing event at the Jewish Community Services Building at 8:30 a.m. on April 30 which is open to the public. To attend, email Brian Gralnick at [email protected]
Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, a Reform congregation, is one of the local rabbis who is publicly taking the challenge. For the week, his diet is consisting largely of rice and beans, he said.
Rigler said he decided to take part when he heard that 1 in 7 people in the greater Philadelphia area rely on the SNAP program.
"People are talking about cutting these benefits all the time without even thinking about it," said Rigler. "This reminds me that we are talking about people who depend on this system. It is really connecting me with how difficult it would be to live a life on food stamps."