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Living on $1.48 per meal: Mario Batali protests cuts with food stamp challenge

Can celebrity chef Mario Batali survive on food stamps for a week?

Can celebrity chef Mario Batali survive on food stamps for a week? That’s the challenge he and his family took on to protest potential cuts to the food stamp program. 

Batali joined The Last Word Thursday during the last 20 minutes of the test, saying that he while he wasn’t starving or “withering away,” he was very much looking forward to dinner.

Batali is the owner of Babbo and Lupa, among other popular New York restaurants and is co-owner of Eataly, a high-end Italian food market. He is also on the board of Food Bank for New York City, which issued the dare to its celebrity supporters as part of a hunger-awareness campaign.

For the challenge, like most food stamp recipients, Batali had $31 per person per week for his family of four, which includes two teenagers. He budgeted about $1.48 per person per meal.

He says the key to living on SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is stretching the dollar. “You have to give yourself over to the stores and allow them to dictate your menu. You buy what’s on special this week,” he says. Batali points out that scoping out grocery deals, while possible in New York City, isn’t easy for all food stamp recipients as there are “food deserts” in America where options are limited.

Batali says that his family has now thought and talked about food in ways they never have before. “Food has always been a gift for us, something we always appreciated, and not things we thought about in terms of budgeting.”

Batali had to stop buying organic produce due to the expense. His family substituted and ate more rice and beans.

The SNAP spending cuts Batali is protesting was advanced by the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee in late April. While the proposal is expected to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the vote emphasizes the political preference for domestic spending cuts over defense cuts or tax hikes ahead of the automatic cuts that take effect in January.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the current House proposal would cause 2 million Americans to lose eligibility for the food stamp program entirely. The remaining 44 million individuals would see their benefits cut. 

"How exactly do you cut $1.48 [per person] per meal?" asked Lawrence O'Donnell.

Households who participate in the program include 4 million seniors, 4 million adults who receive disability benefits, and 23 million children. Some kids who receive free school lunches might no longer be allowed to do so since their families would no longer qualify.

“About 75 percent of the food stamps go to families with children,” Batali points out. “The idea of not investing in human capital is the most preposterous of all ideologies. Certainly giving children enough food so that they’re not hungry… is what this country should stand for.”

Emily Stephenson of Reuters contributed to this report.