Congress members attempt to live off gov aid

(CNN) - With Congress focused on cutting the deficit, more than 50 religious groups around the country have challenged congregations, activists, lawmakers and others to live on what food stamp recipients live on for one week in an effort to raise awareness and prevent cuts to a program that serves 45 million people across the country.

More than 45 million people received food stamps in July, nearing record highs. The average recipient gets about $133 a month or $4.50 a day.

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee is one of a dozen Congress Democrats taking part in the challenge. Lee is no stranger to the government's food stamp program. Years ago, as a single mother, she lived off the program.

"I thank my country for giving me that helping hand when a needed it," Lee said. "What I'm trying to do is develop a balanced meal or balanced three meals for today for $4.50."

Advocates say the program works well, but that benefits should be raised by 20 percent to better meet families' nutritional needs.

"It's good enough to keep people from being constantly, desperately hungry, which is a good thing," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. "But it's not a good program for people's health and productivity, and children's learning in school because the benefits are just too small."

Washington D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is also participating in the challenge.

"What I'm really learning is that it's impossible to buy nutritious food on $31.50 a week," she said.

Program critics like Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions believe the amount the government spends on food assistance has sky-rocketed in part due to fraud.

The USDA estimates fraud accounts for no more than one cent of every food stamp dollar and advocates say the increased demand is a result of the sluggish economy.

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