Understanding Poverty: Food Stamps

Overview of the Food Stamp Program

Photo of canned goods in grocery store
Creative Commons Public Domain

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is commonly known as “food stamps.” It is virtually impossible to find nonpartisan information about the food stamp program. Here are a few things you may or may not know:

  • While food stamps is a Federal program, states may increase eligibility requirements. Federal eligibility requirements can be found here. States may not invalidate any Federal eligibility requirement (for example, they cannot decide to provide food stamps to undocumented workers who are ineligible Federally).
  • The food stamp budget is part of the Farm Bill which also subsidizes agriculture in the U.S. This complicates the process of managing the food stamp program through legislation.
  • The average monthly food stamp benefit per household is $252.64. The average monthly cost of food for a family of four on a “thrifty food plan” is $559.39 (calculated by the same agency).
  • There are specific guidelines for what can and cannot be purchased using food stamps. These guidelines are determined by a food/non-food designation rather than a nutrition designation.
  • Most people who receive food stamps who are able to work do work within one year of receiving benefits.
  • Most SNAP recipients are white. Only about 1% of food stamp benefits are traded for cash. Great report on these misconceptions can be found here.
  • Every state has its own application form and process.

From My Perspective

When I was a kid, food stamps came in stapled booklets and were their own kind of currency. Trading food stamps for cash was fairly common not so much because people were too lazy to work, but because cash assistance was harder to get, harder to keep, and food stamps wouldn’t pay for things like rent, electricity, water, or even important personal hygiene products. While it’s true that some people I knew would trade food stamps for cigarettes or alcohol, most were just trying to make ends meet the only way they knew how.  When you’re poor, there are no good choices, and the “Do I pay my rent or electric bill?” vs. “Do I buy food?” choice is a shining example of that.

Today, food stamps are paid out on a debit-like card called an EBT card. There is less stigma when you go to the grocery store and food stamps are harder to trade. Cash benefits are still harder to get and keep and food stamps still don’t pay for rent, electricity, water, or personal hygiene products. The value of food stamps hasn’t kept up with inflation and we use an outdated poverty line to determine eligibility.

The average appointment time for a food stamp application or renewal for my family was 2 hours. That’s 2 hours away from work or looking for work. 2 hours of child care if you don’t bring your kids with you and probably an added half an hour of appointment time if you do. If you have transportation issues like many people in poverty, you can tack on another hour at least for getting to and from the appointment.

Complicating all this, the use of food stamps is still determined by a food/non-food guideline and the amount of food stamps you get is deliberately less than the amount of the cost of food (as an incentive for working instead of relying on benefits). What this means is that no matter how many coupons you clip and how many stores you go to for sales, you are still relying heavily on processed, unhealthy foods for no other reason than they are cheaper than unhealthy foods. In some cases, fresh produce isn’t even available to people in poverty because they live in what is called a “food desert.” In other cases, convenience foods are the norm because people in poverty often work in jobs where they don’t get to be at home at meal time to cook for their kids. Kids have to cook for themselves, and if parents don’t have time to teach kids how to cook, convenience foods become the only way those kids will get any food. Again, there are no good choices.

Today, food stamps can be used to purchase seeds and plants that produce food, which is awesome and helps with the lack of produce available to some. However, apartment-dwelling folks may not have anywhere to put these plants and may lack the know-how to grow them (or, sadly, to cook them and maintain their nutrition). Food stamps still cannot be used to purchase vitamins and Medicaid/Medicare also does not cover vitamins unless they are prescription-strength.

While some people are complaining about what people on food stamps are buying, people on food stamps are complaining that they can’t buy the things that will keep their families healthy.

So What Do We Do?

Food is a right-now need, but it has long-term consequences. Undernutrition has significant long-term consequences that can keep someone from moving out of poverty due to chronic health conditions, increased stress on both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, mental health strain (your body is consistently in fight-or-flight mode), cognitive impairment, and other factors. In the U.S., it is also a problem because many people, including physicians, don’t recognize it as a problem. At the height of my physical impairment, I was low on Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium–years after I ceased being “poor.” My early childhood years were relatively stable where food was concerned, but the years that weren’t stable had a long impact. Even now, my body does not process vitamins the way it should.

Here are a few things that you can do to help:

  • Support your local food bank. Food banks often not only provide food boxes, but also provide nutrition education.
  • If you donate food to a food drive, be conscious of the nutritional value of the food you donate.
  • For every 3 food items you donate, donate 1 non-food item (toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, toothpaste, etc).
  • Donations come in fast around Christmas time, but people are hungry year-round. Summers are especially difficult for families because children who might usually get free or reduced lunch at school aren’t getting it. Fall is a hard time of year because families have just paid for school supplies. Add a date to your calendar in the late spring, mid-summer, and early fall to donate.
  • Volunteer for a gleaning organization. Gleaners pick up leftover crops from fields so that people have fresh produce. People with disabilities and many senior citizens rely on volunteers in order for them to participate in these activities.
  • If you have some garden-able land that you aren’t using, consider allowing some families to set up a community garden on it.

Have other ideas? Email them to me at larinamichelle(at)gmail.com and I will add them to the list.