Almost 30 members of Congress are taking the SNAP challenge, which is eating on $4.50 a day, the amount upon which, they say that food stamp recipients–oops! Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the current name–must feed themselves.

Many other high-profile non-members of Congress, including Senate hopeful Cory Booker and former congressman from New York and current mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner have also taken the SNAP challenge. Goal: to help taxpayers realize how mean and ungenerous we are to the nation’s 47 million food stamp recipients (up 70 percent since 2008).

It must be fun to embark on the SNAP challenge and even more fun to brag about it.

Unfortunately, as pointed out by none other than Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, the whole thing reeks of phoniness (Kessler doesn't put it qute that way):    

The average monthly benefit for one person is $133.44, which is where the $4.50 a day figure comes from. But note that the name of the program refers to “supplemental” assistance. SNAP is not intended to be the only source of income for food. According to the USDA, about 75 percent of SNAP participants use their own money, in addition to SNAP benefits, to buy food.

USDA data show that only 20 percent of SNAP participants have no income, while the rest either earn wages or receive government assistance. (The SNAP benefits are reduced according to a formula that lowers the maximum benefit by 30 percent of net income; about 32 percent of households with children receive the maximum benefit.)

The data also show that SNAP recipients spend a larger share of their overall income on food than nonparticipants with a similar income.

Moreover, the maximum monthly benefits can quickly climb as the size of the household grows. A family of four, for instance, could receive as much as $668 a month for food. Indeed, households with children receive 71 percent of all SNAP benefits.

Food stamps may be justifiable as a way to help the poorest of the poor, people who really can’t take care of themselves.

But are there really 47 million Americans who can’t feed themselves?

Call me cruel, but I would also say that, if you are really unable to buy food for yourself, you should be pleased to have that $4.50 a day and explore ways to spend it wisely.

Kessler may not be as hard-hearted as your humble blogger, but he veers dangerously close to it:

Judging from the lawmakers’ tweets, some are assuming the $4.50 means that just $1.50 can be spent per meal. That certainly might be difficult with take-out food, but SNAP generally is intended to be used to buy food for home-cooked meals. The USDA has created official food plans that represent what it describes as “a nutritious diet at four different cost levels.”

The maximum SNAP benefit is intended to cover nearly 114 percent of the “Thrifty plan,” the lowest-cost option, which for a family of four would cost between $551 and $632 a month. The three other plans cost progressively more.

USDA also publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal. A search for dishes costing $4.50 or less turned up 444 options, many of which were for eight or more servings. Dishes costing less than $1.50 produced 116 results.

One of my favorite books is Angela's Ashes, by the late Frank McCourt. It recounts growing up in Ireland in desperate poverty. It is so well written that I found myself comparing McCourt to Charles Dickens. The McCourts were forced to take charity. But the charity wasn’t so generous that they wanted to settle down and make a life on the dole. They also hated being charity cases, lining up to receive food or clothig from the Vincent de Paul Society, which is not the case with Americans who receive food stamps, an entitlement program, and regard it as a right.

I'd also like to reveal that I took the SNAP challenge in my twenties, before it became fashionable. Only I called it being a freelance writer. When I embarked on freelancing, a friend of mine gave me some sage advice: "Buy a sack of Irish potatoes." No, it wasn't a gourmet experience. But I did it–as long as I could put up with it. It was the difficulty of making ends meet that forced me to do the unthinkable, become a full-time newspaper reporter, possibly the best decision in my life.

What will increasing the amount of money a family on food stamps can receive do?

It will serve to make many families content to live long term, if not permanently, on the program.