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Public officials begin Walk A Mile journey today

Joyce Rogers usually spends about $550 a month to feed herself, her husband, Kenneth, and the couple's two beagles, Trevor and Trixie.

This month, the Rogerses' grocery budget will drop to $224 _ the same amount that a two-member family on food stamps receives.

The drastic change comes because Rogers, the Inverness mayor, is among the public officials participating in the Walk a Mile program that starts today and runs through the month.

The program asks Florida policymakers to "walk a mile" in the shoes of people who receive public assistance. Participants will be paired with a welfare recipient with whom they will communicate at least weekly through November.

The policymaker also must accompany the recipient to the grocery store or an employment program and bring the recipient to an official event in which the policymaker is involved.

Most important, the program asks policymakers to make do on a "food stamp" budget. That includes Thanksgiving.

"This is a great opportunity for policymakers to watch history unfold at a very personal level, by following the progress of a family that is living welfare reform," Department of Children and Families Secretary Ed Feaver said in a statement.

Rogers is not the only local official participating. Also signed up are state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon; County Commissioner Vicki Phillips; Inverness City Council member Jacquie Hepfer; Kevin Cunningham, who heads the local work force development group; and one public official who asked that his or her name not be disclosed.

Rogers said she and her husband are ready.

"We're going to be preparing more frugally," she said Friday. "Just go back to basics."

That means more egg and rice dishes and probably a temporary halt to their practice of eating one restaurant meal a week.

When she was caring for four children, and her household income was much lower, Rogers was adept at stretching a dollar. On Friday, Rogers said she was looking through some of her 1960s cookbooks and dusting off the old recipes.

"It's easy to forget those times," she said.

The welfare recipients, meanwhile, are not hand-picked by the Department of Children and Families. They will be free to offer their opinions and insights of the welfare system.

"They stepped forward and volunteered to do this," said Blake Harding, the department official who is organizing the program in Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

Harding's department is sponsoring the program, along with the Department of Labor and Employment Security; the local Health and Human Services boards, which oversee the Department of Children and Families districts; and the state and local WAGES coalitions. WAGES is an acronym for Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency, which is the state's new public assistance program.

In June, the latest month for which statistics were available, some 7,911 Citrus residents were receiving food stamps. That amounted to $529,896 in benefits.

Of those recipients, 44 percent were children age 17 or younger, and 8 percent were age 65 or older, state records showed.

Rogers said the program should help the people who make welfare policy.

"This program is going to give people first-hand knowledge," she said.

The Walk A Mile program has been conducted in nine other states. During this month, five other states will join Florida in participating.

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