Last week I spent $80 on groceries, and that’s including many a Safeway club-priced sale item. I’m not saying that I bought the absolute cheapest items imaginable, or only bought necessities, but as an unpaid intern I was definitely making a conscious effort to keep my costs down. And it was with that number still fresh in my mind and bank account that I learned this week of the House debates on the Farm Bill.
In response to proposed cuts in provisions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Food Stamps program, some House Democrats and a number of private citizens took on the SNAP Challenge–an awareness-raising project in which people lived on an average SNAP food budget and tweeted their efforts with #SNAPChallenge. On average a family receiving SNAP benefits in DC receives $138 a month, or $4.6 a day, so this dollar allotment served as the guideline for those participating in the program.
Participants documented their meals and thoughts on Twitter (a community in which sharing images of food needed a practical application, anyway), but the attempt which best proved the point of the challenge was from Texas Representative Steve Stockman. An aid in the Republican representative’s office took on the challenge in an effort to prove liberals wrong; he managed to keep his food costs for the week under the average SNAP budget and the office boastfully released press statements announcing such. Stockman’s office’s mistake, however, was in releasing the list of food the aid bought, because this information proved crucial in demonstrating that the SNAP benefit allotment is not actually sufficient to nutritiously feed anyone and has probably contributed to high obesity levels among low-income groups. The list does not include a single fruit or vegetable (the closest items are “eight cups of applesauce” and “24 servings of Wyler’s fruit drink mix”), but does include “two liters of root beer,” a “large box of popsicles,” and a “bag of cookies.” Unless I’ve missed a few recent FDA press releases, I am pretty sure the staffer missed the “Nutrition” part of SNAP, unintentionally proving that some changes do need to be made to the system in order to keep with its mission of providing nutritious food options for low-income families. (Plus, ThinkProgress reported this week that he ended up over budget, anyway.)
— Rep. Doris Matsui (@DorisMatsui) June 13, 2013
The #SNAPChallenge tweets also revealed many people’s complaints that the Challenge ignored the word “Supplemental” in the program’s name. Although SNAP is meant to be a “supplemental” aid for low-income families, looking at the numbers shows that for many families this is really just not the case. The median yearly household income for families receiving SNAP benefits in DC was $13,936, which comes out to a little over $1,100 a month. That means all housing, transportation, childcare, healthcare, education, AND primary food costs would need to be covered by an amount that would barely cover rent in many areas of DC.
I think the Challenge calls attention to the dependence many families have on SNAP and prompts some much-needed conversations about why such dependence exists. Hint: many below the poverty line do, in fact, go to work, so food stamp dependence cannot be blamed on laziness any more than (gasp!) governmental and societal failures.
— Rep. Mark Pocan (@repmarkpocan) June 14, 2013
The Farm Bill failed to pass this week in the House, so SNAP is safe now. However, a real discussion is necessary about the cycle of poverty and the existence of programs like SNAP because many lawmakers are still arguing for deeper cuts.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d love a world in which there were no food assistance programs. But as long as hunger and poverty exist in this country, food stamps are necessary and should provide enough support to encourage healthy living. Maybe instead of fighting over the amount of money going towards food stamps, congresspeople could begin talking about the root causes of poverty and how we can work towards eliminating the need for such assistance.