Crumbs and Cages

We have been reduced to a nation of crumbs and cages. The cages protect us from children at the border, the crumbs are what’s left to feed the children of our poor. There is a certain irony here. The cages are a component of Trump’s pesky border wall and his administration is trying to siphon the funds needed to build it from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP program.

In December, the administration was handed a resounding defeat when Congress rejected the President’s effort to strip millions of people of food stamp or SNAP benefits through the federal Farm Bill. Undeterred by the failure of the Farm Bill, the administration’s budget for 2019 proposed to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by more than $213 billion over the next ten years — or by nearly 30 percent. $30 billion of that reduction affects children who represent 44 percent of all SNAP recipients. Those numbers will shift if serious consideration is given to shifting some benefit dollars to food box distribution. It is quite possible that the government has forgotten the lesson it should have learned back in 1981.

In 1981 the USDA ruled that ketchup was a school lunch vegetable. The press, public and powerful had a field day at the agency’s expense. The regulation became an embarrassment for President Reagan when senators, including John Heinz, whose company owned Heinz ketchup, insisted that ketchup was a condiment not a vegetable. One month after it was issued the ruling was rescinded leaving many with ketchup as well as egg on their faces.

It pays to think things through and the effects food boxes would have on the federal budget have not been properly studied. As written, the budget would shift more than $260 billion in food purchasing from individuals to the government. That restructures how SNAP benefits are provided and changes the the relationship that the government has established with the quarter million grocery stores now accepting SNAP dollars. If accepted, anyone receiving more than $90 in food assistance would have 40% of their benefit held back and replaced with a box of non-perishable food items containing shelf-stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned foods. The cost of that box represents half the amount the government proposes to hold back. The USDA gets to keep the other 50% and claim that as SNAP savings. Here’s the problem.

Supporting individual households would require operational capacity and infrastructure that neither USDA nor states now have. Intended or not, the proposal puts access to food at risk for many SNAP recipients. Where will it be stored, how will it be delivered? How will it affect the bottom line of merchants who have supported the program? It is important to remember that the current program is working and it is not the free ride that some think it to be. The average benefit for an individual in the program is just $1.40 per person per meal. The program was never designed to be the sole source of food for its recipients. I can attest to that fact.

My husband and I agreed to accept the SNAP Challenge in 2012, and for one week, we intend to prepare all our meals on a food stamp budget. We both wanted to see if we could eat in a reasonably healthy fashion on a budget set at approximately $30 per person per week, the SNAP allotment for families in our geographic location.

Why participate? The SNAP Challenge gave us insight into the struggle millions of low-income Americans face when trying to obtain enough food to sustain body and soul. By living on the average food stamp benefit, we and other Challenge participants were forced to make food shopping choices on a limited budget, and learned how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy without adequate resources. While living on a food stamp budget for just a week cannot come close to the struggles constantly encountered by low income families, it did provide those who took the Challenge with a new perspective and greater understanding of what it is like to live on a limited budget. It was a rare opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.

At that time, I was a food blogger and writer, and my intent was to develop nutritious menus and recipes within the allotted budget and to share the results of the process with my readers and folks actually receiving SNAP benefits. I wanted my readers to know a little about the people for whom SNAP was a reality rather than a one-week challenge. A lot of people assume that the benefits we stuff into a category collectively called “welfare”, go to folks who are not working. That simply is not true. The minimum wage in the United States averages about $7.25 an hour. A minimum wage worker who does not miss a single day of work makes about $15,000 a year. That is enough to keep a family of two above the federally defined poverty level, but when that family size increases to 3 or 4 that income drops well below the poverty line. For 2012, the Federal poverty guideline was an annual income of $23,050 for a family of four. When a person has a full-time job but his income falls below the poverty line, they are what sociologists call the working poor.

I learned and shared that 76% of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or an individual who is disabled. They are considered to be vulnerable households and they receive 83% of all SNAP benefits. Most folks who are temporarily unemployed, move out of the system within 3 to 9 months and 40% of SNAP beneficiaries live in households that have earnings which are their primary source of income. Only 10% of participants receive cash welfare.

Most folks who receive SNAP benefits exhaust them long before the end of the month is reached. While many believe that’s because they’ve squandered their allotments, the brutal truth is the benefits provided by the system are not large enough to feed families or individuals for a full month. Fortunately, at least in most states, there are programs, usually administered by service organizations or groups with religious affiliations, that pick up the slack.

My husband and I spent a day visiting food pantries that provided emergency food relief for people in our area. Oregon is a state where chronic unemployment was a problem long before the great recession affected the rest of the nation. That means we had a workable distribution system in place when the rolls of SNAP participants exploded during the recession. While what is done here may not be elegant, the logistics are efficient and surplus food reaches the poor who need the safety net it provides. Our program may not mirror what is done in your state, but because it is the one I know, I want to share it with you.

The county in which I live has a large food bank that gleans and gathers surplus food from many sources and makes it available to food pantries throughout the area. Its operation is funded by the county and additional money that comes from fund raisers and individual donations. The pantries are responsible for getting food to those who need it. While they receive surplus food from the county, they are responsible for distribution costs to recipients. The county is divided into geographical distribution areas, and the size and hours of operation vary from one location to another. All, however, share a common distribution policy. There are no true means tests. Recipients must provide proof of an address and sign a declaration of need that is based on family income. There is no waiting period and once that document is signed they are eligible for emergency food assistance. That means they are entitled to one food box a month. A fail safe within the system gives participants access to four additional boxes every year. Recipients do not get to “shop” for the contents of their food baskets. The boxes are put together by agency staff and the contents depend on what is available at the time of the request and the make-up of the family. The value of the box falls within guidelines that depend on the size of the family. A box for one will contain food items worth $25. A box for two is valued at $40, while the box for a family of seven, the limit supported by the program, is $70. Obviously, the food pantries are one place where the system can be scammed. You must, however, remember that most are run by religious organizations and these folks practice the gospel that they preach. Rather than refuse one hungry person, they feed all who come their way. A recognition, perhaps, that hunger of the spirit is even more devastating than that of the body. Most SNAP participants supplement their allotments with food that is provided by food pantries and that makes them an important weapon in the fight against hunger. They are a godsend for the working poor.

My husband and I made it through the challenge. It was an exercise for us, but one we took very seriously. I think we were able to show it can be done, but it is important to remember that our situation is unique. I am retired and had no baby on my hip or toddlers pulling at my skirt. I had the gift of time and came to the challenge with years of kitchen experience and a background in logistics and planning. And despite my bravado, I always knew there would be a next meal. There is so much more I want to share with you. I wanted to answer questions and pose them as well. How do you build a functioning pantry? Why don’t you buy in bulk? How do you shop if there is no car? How do you explain all this to children who want in a land of plenty? Why did you do this? I can answer that last one for you now.

I was then, and am now, enraged by the proposed cuts to SNAP program. I was raised by parents and surrounded by neighbors who taught me that there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who see the world as it is, and those who see the world as it should be. I had a platform and chose to use it to highlight a problem that I feel is given only cursory attention. Hunger in our country is a problem that has an all too human face. Let’s not make their problems worse. Let’s not feed our children crumbs.

8 thoughts on “Crumbs and Cages

  1. Howdy Mary, Would you consider submitting this as an op ed to the Register Guard or other Oregon newspapers?

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. Love your blog Mary. It gives me here in the UK something else to think about other than the utter farce that is Brexit! Just a little something else to ponder on……what will happen to the poor in your country once your president has convinced our totally inept government to buy all the so-called surplus produce that he has at his disposal? Our poor will still not be able to afford it and you will have even less to distribute. I swear the world’s gone mad.

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  3. I so enjoy reading your articles your writing is articulate and eloquent. This topic saddens me and has bothered me for a long time,
    to live in a country of such disparity is I believe a disgrace in this day and age.

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  4. Ha, just found where I can leave a comment, the last post I looked at said comments closed, must have been an older one. Interesting reading and good luck. Have a good day, Diane

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