Chris Mueller
IT SEEMED LIKE a great idea when the Oregon Food Bank tapped District 2 Adult and Family Services (AFS) director Jerry Burns as a participant in this year's Walk-A-Mile program. The program attempts to immerse public officials in the reality of life at poverty level by matching them with low-income families. The premise is simple: Live off a food budget equal to that of a food stamp recipient.

"I was really enthusiastic about trying," Burns says. But then came the real challenge: Living on a food budget of $76.15 a week per eligible family member through the holiday season from mid-November to mid-December.Burns sits atop of the agency that ultimately is responsible for doling out these very benefits to families throughout Multnomah County. The reality of living on the food stamp allowance, however, hit home when Burns discussed the program's requirements with his wife. Along with their four kids, the Burns home is open to a steady stream of at-risk youth as an ad hoc neighborhood drop-in center. "We rarely have a dinner with less than nine people," he explains. "We just walked through it and decided 'I don't know how we'd ever do that.'"

Tina Kotek, a policy advocate for Oregon Food Bank and organizer of this year's Walk-A-Mile program, says that finding the food stamp budget unworkable is a typical response. "Living on the food stamp budget is difficult for many of the legislators. At minimum we like them to reflect on why they can't do it or what it would mean to eat on a food stamp budget."

Facing the same dilemmas of illness and additional mouths to feed, a family on real-life welfare--as opposed to the virtual, voluntary poverty--doesn't enjoy the choice of opting out. According to a U. S. Department of Agriculture report released in 1999, Oregon has the dubious honor of being the hungriest state in the nation. That same report ranked Oregon sixth in the nation in "food insecurity," which means that a household has limited or uncertain access to food. The Oregon Food Bank estimates that this means 11,370 families in Portland fall into this precarious category.

Another participant, Margaret Carter, State Senator-elect for District 8 (North Portland), flatly states, "I could not do it! I tried for two days, but my little 8-year-old granddaughter is used to leaving my house with a Pop-Tart and other treats. It just did not work for my family." Carter did acknowledge that Walk-A-Mile served as a real eye-opener to the plight of populations they have served for years in their respective public careers. "Not only do I feel ashamed," says Carter, "but I feel ashamed for the people who have to do this on a daily basis."

In January, Carter will begin her first term as a state senator (she served three terms as a state representative from 1991-1997 before being termed out). She promises to take what she has learned to the Oregon legislature.

For his part as director of a chapter of AFS, Burns points to on-going reforms in his agency: extended office and intake hours and abolishing of zip-code zones requiring applicants to report to specific offices. But Burns acknowledges that more must be done. "The reality is, I don't think any family can live on a welfare grant. Everybody has got to have some level of additional support," says Burns. "My God, that's the only way you can survive."