There are all sorts of ways in which I could start writing about SNAP benefits, formerly food stamps. I could draw you in with a statistic. I could try to describe a situation in which someone who is on SNAP might find themself. I could horrify you with stories of need. All of that takes away from the fact that there are people who rely on SNAP benefits to feed themselves and their families. These people have different experiences, have varied situations, and are, first and foremost, people. Making the idea of hunger dramatic serves to shock. I’m not here to shock you. I’m here to talk about reality, and that is sometimes shocking.
SNAP was designed to satisfy a need within the United States. But before SNAP, there were other kinds of welfare programs. These programs have been in place since English settlers first arrived and soon after independence it was decided that the United States’ welfare programs would be locally run, just like the English poor laws. The recipients of welfare would be stripped of their right to vote and often had their children taken away to work or be put in orphanages. In the early 1800s it became clear that the poor laws were not effective because they often led to worse conditions as opposed to the recipients’ improved quality of life. The federal government remained uninvolved in welfare programs (with the exception of several natural disasters) until the Great Depression. Many farmers were still producing enough food, but the general public didn’t have the funds to buy the food. By instituting a program that bought surplus food from farmers and distributing it to low-income households, it was possible for everyone involved to benefit and there to be some stability in the economy. Before SNAP, there were food stamps. This system is very similar to SNAP, but involved physical vouchers (stamps) and was fairly inefficient. Since its institution in 1964, the food stamp program has constantly been changed to try and end recipients’ dependence on the program through limitations on how long one can receive benefits if unemployed. In 2002, each state was required to begin using EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, making the program more efficient, less susceptible to theft, and easier to monitor. In 2008, the Food Stamp Program was renamed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to reflect the change to EBT cards.
The creation and re-imagining of the federal food assistance programs makes it easier to see how the program was designed and how it is supposed to work. To reiterate, this program is not supposed to provide all of the food for the recipient. Additionally, the way that farmers are also protected is a key point in the program because there are overall negative economic patterns that SNAP was trying to correct with food surpluses and a lack of consumer buying power. If food benefits did not exist in these times, farmers would have faced financial issues and lead to a further depression and a harder economic recovery. In fact, SNAP is, in part, legislated by the congressional Agricultural Committees tying it into a larger political framework in which tradeoffs are necessary for committees to function.
In addition to SNAP, there are programs run by government agency WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) focusing on low-income women who are pregnant or/and have children under the age of five years old. There are a variety of child nutrition programs both during and outside of the school year. In many places there are CSA (community supported agriculture) shares available on a sliding scale depending on the recipient’s income level. Food banks and food pantries also offer another option for food supplements. Soup kitchens offer yet another option. The caveat to all of these programs is that, for one, anyone who wants to benefit must go through (sometimes lengthy and taxing) application processes. Not everyone will be eligible for every program. Each program is designed to be supplementary; neither WIC or SNAP intend to provide all of a recipient’s food individually.
In a perfect world, the program would be neutral in the minds of the retailers (incurring neither a loss or a substantial gain), allowing for the largest amount of aid to be given to the recipients and farmers it was designed to impact and benefit. But that’s not how it really works. Each state is responsible for the contracting of a bank for its EBT program. Three big companies are contracted by most states, a subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase, a subsidiary of Xerox, and eFunds. While exact numbers aren’t available, it seems to be that these contracts are huge money makers. It is in the best interest of these companies for the number of recipients to increase. So, why would they do much to stop the problem in the beginning? After all, they’re just facilitating a government program, not responsible for way that the program works or doesn’t (so, why shouldn’t they outsource their call centers to other countries where they are cheaper to run, decreasing employment opportunities in the United States, potentially ones that could be filled by SNAP recipients; are we starting to see the problems?). Food manufacturers, who compete for SNAP recipients and other consumers alike, oppose any proposed restrictions on the types of food products that can be bought; soda companies want SNAP recipients to be able to buy soda. As people have noted before, the best interests of these food producers isn’t always the same as the interests of the SNAP recipients.
Unfortunately, the food manufacturers have a lot more money and power, making it easier to make themselves heard. Food retailers are in a similar position. The vast majority of SNAP benefits are redeemed at supercenters and supermarkets, like Wal-Mart or Kroger. Again, because the numbers aren’t reported, it’s impossible to know just how much profit these retailers make from SNAP transactions, but it’s likely that they make quite a bit. Wal-Mart was one of over 300 organizations that registered to lobby for the 2012 Farm Bill, which includes legislation supporting SNAP.
So, how does one actually redeem SNAP benefits? While some of the details vary by state, it’s pretty simple. Once a month a balance is loaded onto an EBT card. The balance on this card can be used to redeem groceries. SNAP excludes alcohol, cigarettes, any product not intended for human consumption (like dog food), hot foods intended to be eaten in the store, vitamins, medicines, and household products (paper towels, cleaners) from the items that can be bought with the benefits. While SNAP doesn’t have any nutritional restrictions, other programs do. For instance, WIC has much more strict requirements; peanut butter is allowed, but it cannot contain any additional ingredients such as honey, jelly, chocolate, or marshmallow. While the intent is understandable, it also means that certain kinds of peanut butter that are sweetened with honey instead of refined sugars cannot be bought.
Some of the problems with the programs are that they fail to give people the necessary amount of money for food. The programs are supposed to be supplementary, but people are in all sorts of situations that makes it impossible for them to use more of their money on food. Additionally, the existence of food deserts, places where there is no access to healthy and affordable food, makes it difficult to get decent food for many recipients. A lack of transportation or the cost of public transportation can also be inhibiting. The time it takes to cook food from scratch can make things even more difficult. The fact that the benefits are only given out monthly can demand recipients to buy inexpensive, self-stable, highly-processed foods that are calorie dense. The structure of the program makes it more difficult for recipients to adhere to the dietary guidelines put forth by the government.
The SNAP challenge, popularized by Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow (among others in 2015), fails to capture the reality of relying on SNAP or how the program was designed. The Challenge works as follows: you get $29 per person (or $1.38 per meal per person) for 7 days. You can’t use any food you already have in your kitchen. You have to make sure you share your experience throughout the week and, at the end, challenge a friend. OR you can just donate money. What usually happens? The challenger only is able to go through a few days before going over the limit. Some politicians have explained how they have lost weight while participating in the challenge and others explain that they felt lethargic and unable to focus (which would make it pretty difficult to work hard and get yourself to a better situation, no?).
While these are valuable ways to acknowledge to problem of hunger within the United States, the SNAP Challenge does not explain the program or provide a solution. Often celebrities will participate in the challenge, make their donation, and then never come back to the issue. Been there, done that, They’ve said their piece, it’s over.
Gwyneth Paltrow is a great example of this. She was challenged by Mario Batali to take on the challenge and subsequently posted a picture of the groceries she picked out for $29 dollars. In the caption and post detailing the challenge, she does not explain how many people this $29 should feed and if she used any additional ingredients she already had in her kitchen, including spices and seasonings.
By poorly explaining the challenge, Paltrow had already failed. So maybe, as has already been suggested, Paltrow could have given her platform to the voice of someone who relies on SNAP. There aren’t a lot of interviews or accounts from SNAP recipients, i.e. not celebrities who participated in the challenge, about their experience. The point of the SNAP challenge is to educate your audience on the program and what relying on it is like in practice, is it not? Additionally, the premise of the challenge is kind of messed up. We shouldn’t talk about eating the way so many people eat as a “challenge” that you can take on. Hunger isn’t a game. You don’t get to reward yourself after eating the way some on SNAP benefits eat.
Or instead of participating in the challenge, you can buy your way out by donating to a food assistance program. Quite the privilege to be able to buy yourself out of this kind of challenge. That’s not to say that if you have money that you would like to donate to a food assistance program you shouldn’t, but using a donation in place of doing the challenge is a little bit odd. While well-intentioned, the SNAP Challenge doesn’t do anything to promote or change the problems and difficulties with SNAP benefits.
SNAP is a vital program to so many people in this country. It safeguards farmers and the people consuming their food. There are obviously numerous problems with the program, but just like the SNAP Challenge, it’s well-intentioned. Intent isn’t the only way to assess something, though, and it should be noted that there were 45,188,655 SNAP benefit recipients in December of 2015. SNAP helps a lot of people. It might be able to help more people, more significantly.
I could write a recipe that features inexpensive, calorie- and cost-efficient ingredients. Something that freezes well and can be reheated easily. But, when it comes down to it, who am I to tell someone how to live their life? I could explain how to make your own bread, but that assumes that whoever making it has enough time to wait while it rises but still be home. I could talk about making rice and beans that freeze well and is a cost-effective dish, but that assumes that whoever making it has an hour to spare, more if you use dried beans. I could talk about storing fresh vegetables but that assumes that the recipient has enough access to fresh vegetables. No matter what recipe I write to accompany this topic, there are assumptions implicit about the recipient which I am uncomfortable with making. I’m not in the business of assuming things about people and I don’t want to be.
If you are looking for recipes here are some resources that might prove helpful.
Alviola, Pedro A., IV Rodolfo M. Nayga, Jr., Michael R. Thomsen, And Zhongyi Wang. “Determinants of Food Deserts.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 95 (2013): 1259-1265.
Bever, Lindsey. “A Hungry Gwenyth Paltrow fails the food-stamp challenge four days in.” Washington Post, April 17, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/04/17/a-hungry-gwyneth-paltrow-fails-the-food-stamp-challenge-four-days-in/.
D’Addario, Daniel. “Why Gwyneth Paltrow’s Food Stamp Challenge Is So Valuable.” Time, April 15, 2015. Accessed March 6, 2016. http://time.com/3822709/gwyneth-paltrow-food-stamp-challenge/.
Dorsch, Amy L. “Food Stamps in America: How an Octogenarian Program Can Still Meet the Country’s Needs.” University of Louisville Law Review 52 (2013): 199-223.
Goldstein, Jessica. “Seven Limes Was Probably Overkill, And Other Lessons From Gwyneth’s Failed Food Stamp Challenge.” Think Progress, April 17, 2015. Accessed March 6, 2016. http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2015/04/17/3648437/seven-limes-probably-overkill-lessons-gwyneths-failed-food-stamp-challenge/.
Gregory, Christian A. and Alisha Coleman-Jensen. “Do High Food Prices Increase Food Insecurity in the United States?” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 35 (2013): 679-707.
Paltrow, Gwyneth. “My $29 Food Stamp Challenge-- and the Recipes (& Brouhaha) That Ensued. Goop, Accessed April 1, 2016. http://goop.com/my-29-food-stamp-challenge-and-the-recipes-brouhaha-that-ensued/.
Sanders, Katie. “Fact-checking Gwyneth Paltrow’s $29 weekly food stamps budget claim.” Politifact, April 22, 2015. Accessed March 6, 2016. http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/apr/22/gwyneth-paltrow/gwyneth-paltrows-29-weekly-food-stamps-budget-flaw/.
Weatherspoon, Dave, James Oehmke, Assa Dembele, and Lorraine Weatherspoon. “Fresh Vegetable Demand Behaviour in an Urban Food Desert.” Urban Studies Journal 52 (2015): 960-979.
Zhang, Qi, Zhuo Chen, Norou Diawara, and Youfa Wang. “Prices of Unhealthy Foods, Food Stamp Program Participation, and Body Weight Status Among U.S. Low-Income Women.” Journal of Family & Economic Issues 32 (2011): 245-256.