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Oregon Gov. Will Live On Food Stamp Diet

Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his wife, attorney Mary Oberst, have enough money to get by and meals are generally no problem.

But things will be different this week.

This is Hunger Awareness Week in Oregon, and for the next seven days, Kulongoski and Oberst will be cutting way back – down to the budget one would live on if relying on food stamps – a diet they hope others will also follow for a few days to better understand the plight of those who have no choice.

They'll spend just $3 a day apiece on their meals, $42 in all, to match the amount spent by the average food stamp recipient in Oregon.

"I'm gonna probably go back to what I remember in college, Top Ramen and hot dogs," said Kulongoski.

It won't be easy, but the less than bountiful fare is for a cause, reports CBS News correspondent Stephan Kaufman, as Kulongoski begins lobbying Congress against cuts in the food stamp program proposed by the Bush administration.

"The problem is we've just been reducing the money and the eligibility rolls of those who can get food stamps," said Kulongoski, who lived in a home for boys as a child and worked his way up, with a boost from the GI bill. "At the same time, those on food stamps are getting less."

The Oregon governor is also a strong advocate of school breakfast and lunch programs. "When the federal government cuts back on them," says Kulongoski, "you're actually depriving children of opportunity to basically have a healthy life and at the same time, to be able to learn while they're in school."

The Bush administration has proposed several cuts to the program, among them taking away food stamps from about 185,000 people who qualify only because they receive other non-cash government assistance. The Department of Agriculture budget, as proposed, would also eliminate a program that gives boxes of food to nearly half a million seniors each month.

The administration has proposed some changes hailed by hunger advocates, like excluding retirement savings from income limits, and setting aside money to encourage food stamp recipients to purchase more fresh produce.

Oregon's first couple are the most-high profile people so far to take part in a "food stamp challenge," a growing trend sponsored by religious groups, community activists and food pantries across the country. The goal is to walk the proverbial mile in the steps of those who rely on food stamps to feed a family, to kindle both awareness, and, hopefully, empathy.

"It really re-energized me to be so much more conscious of what people are going through," said Sister Mary Scullion, the executive director of a Philadelphia nonprofit that works with the homeless, who did the food-stamp challenge last year. "It's about understanding the limited choices people have, and how money gives you choices."

Those who've done the challenge say it can leave you both physically enervated and mentally exhilarated. They say shopping on such a tight budget requires plenty of planning, a reliance on inexpensive staples like legumes, beans, rice and peanut butter, and forgoing more expensive fresh fruit, vegetables and protein.

Meeting friends for a slice of pizza or a cup of coffee becomes a nearly unaffordable luxury. Cheating by using staples already on hand, like ketchup or olive oil, is discouraged.

"On the spiritual side, when I did eat, I was more present," said Connecticut state Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford, who just finished three weeks on food stamp funds. "Usually I'm watching TV, shoveling things in, not thinking that I am blessed."

Like Kulongoski, Harris said, he's lucky to have a car to get to a grocery store and a kitchen in which to prepare food. And like Kulongoski will have to do, he had to resist the free goodies at state receptions and business lunches.

The experience has helped him as a policymaker, Harris said, in discussions such as whether to expand the earned-income tax credit in Connecticut.

"I personally felt how a few extra hundred dollars in the bank to supplement my nutrition would make a major difference in my life," he said.

Hunger has been a major issue in Oregon, ever since the state was embarrassed by having the country's highest hunger rate in 2000. Hunger groups launched an effort to get more people signed up for food stamps, and the state's ranking fell to 17th.

Kulongoski, too, has made it a priority, regularly serving at soup kitchens and helping to unload donations at the state's food pantries.

Karen Wilson, director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition against Hunger, said Kulongoski's support of the food stamp challenge is particularly notable, given the time of year.

"People only seem to focus on hunger and food insecurity around the holidays," she said. "People are hungry year-round."