Food stamp cuts come close to the bone

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Full freezer: The food-stamp recipient, living in a Slingerlands senior apartment complex, stocks up on specials, consulting several supermarket advertising circulars. She prefers frozen and fresh foods to canned foods, having read studies that they are more nutritious.

For Nancy, grocery shopping is all about research.

At 71, she is a Slingerlands resident who receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. To make the most of the $74 she gets monthly, she reads three circulars to find the best prices.

“You need to make the most of what you have, and stretch it as far as you can,” said Nancy. She continued, “I have to do my homework.” (The last names of SNAP recipients in this article are being withheld because they preferred anonymity.)

While she said this, Nancy leaned back in a tan, well-worn recliner, in the center of her apartment’s living room. Her home is part of a senior housing community, and neighbors frequently knock on her door. Nancy participates in her community, and was playing pinochle the night before.

Because Nancy is afflicted with autoimmune diseases, including Sjogren’s syndrome and systemic sclerosis, she is careful about staying healthy. She keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer by her telephone, and lines one side of her living room with green plants.

With grocery shopping, location matters as much as price. Nancy can go to Hannaford only on Sundays, because it’s on the way home from the Methodist church she attends in Voorheesville. “I can’t waste the gas,” she said.

Nancy remembers always going to church as a kid.  She was raised on a farm in West Sand Lake and says she felt different from her sisters growing up. “Never the bars and the boys and the booze. I perceived the world a little differently,” she said. She wouldn’t miss a Sunday at church now.

Nancy used to get $85 a month, but last November, the 2009 Recovery Act’s boost to SNAP ended, reducing benefits for all recipients. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Nancy is one of 3,185,000 SNAP recipients in New York State.

“This is the first time in the history of the program that cuts have been made across the board,” said Lua Wilkinson, a graduate student at Cornell University, who is also a nutritionist and ethnographer.  According to Wilkinson, cuts are typically made in the upper tier or by modifying the formula that determines allotment.

The recent monthly cuts range from $11 for a household with one person, like Nancy’s, to $36 for a household of four, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“That can make a big difference for those who live under an extremely tight budget,” said Wilkinson.

Accepting and using SNAP benefits

Nancy realizes that her health depends not only on her medication, but also on what she eats. She doesn’t buy snacks or sweets, and her monthly splurge is a loaf of Heidelberg bread. The base of her diet is fruits and vegetables. Nancy eats only fresh and frozen foods because canned foods are usually less nutritious.

“I need to make sure the nutrients in my fruits and vegetables are as good as I can get,” she said. Recently, she has been cooking them in a Crockpot, an electric pot that slowly cooks food for hours at a time.

Nancy can eat only grass-fed meat due to the antibiotics that commercially-raised animals are given, so most of her proteins come from legumes. “I’d say if I had pork two times a month, I’d be lucky,” she said.

To pay for her groceries at the store, Nancy swipes an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. The card is loaded monthly and is connected to her EBT account, which is separate from her personal bank account.

An EBT card looks like a normal debit card to the next person in the checkout line. “Nobody can tell unless they’re reading the card with the emblem of New York State,” said Nancy. “That aspect of a stigma for some people has totally been eradicated.”

When asked if she feels shame accepting SNAP benefits, Nancy said, “Absolutely not — I figured I’ve earned it.”

She was a 40-year volunteer for Red Cross, a phone leader for the Samaritan Suicide Hotline, and most recently a coordinator for the New Scotland food pantry.

“I’ve donated enough to the state,” said Nancy, “between the volunteerism that I have done in so many capacities.”

For Nancy, it was much harder accepting help from her kids. “I get unsolicited donations,” said Nancy, “so I don’t feel like I’m desperate for it. My kids were giving me money for milk or bread, just to make sure I could tide it over.”

Nancy tries to remember that she has sacrificed tremendously for her children, from raising them as a single mother after her husband died young of a heart attack, to taking out loans for them to go to college.

“I told myself, ‘I have to let go of that feeling,’ that I feel uncomfortable with their help,” said Nancy. “As long as I know that they’re not taking from themselves and I know that they can help me out without causing a hardship.”

“I was not going to say ‘Thank you but no,’ not when I honestly could use it and needed it,” said Nancy. “But it was hard getting over that.”

Barb, a 64-year-old resident of New Scotland, used food stamps about 20 years ago, when her three children were young.

“Back then, you actually had paper, and you had to rip it out and hand it to the cashier,” she recalled. “So people knew you were getting help, whether you wanted them to know it or not.”

She went on about the stigma,  “I didn’t like it, but I did it because my children needed to eat,” said Barb. She never thought she’d have to accept food stamps, but, at that time, her children were young and her husband was disabled from an automobile accident. “So I had to go down and get the help,” she said.

Since the 2008 recession, the government has been making an effort to make receiving aid more socially acceptable, says David Kircher, Deputy Commissioner of Department of Social Services in Albany County. This effort ranged from promoting Medicaid, to campaigns featuring families using SNAP.

The EBT cards, which were implemented nationwide in June 2004, have made a significant difference, said Kircher. At the check-out line, he said, “People are able to complete business transactions without the person behind them knowing.”

All this has led more eligible people to apply for and receive SNAP benefits, “people who, at the time, would have never considered using food stamps,” said Kircher.

Are SNAP benefits enough?

Since the November cuts, Nancy’s kids have been chipping in more to make ends meet. “It’s towards the end of the month that I really appreciate it because, boy, it doesn’t seem to like to last,” said Nancy.

When Nancy volunteered at the New Scotland food pantry, she remembers families getting desperate the last week of each month, just as she is now. Families were allowed to use the food pantry only once per month, and Nancy urged them to wait until the last week. “But understandably, they couldn’t,” she said.

Because the 2009 boost in SNAP benefits was part of a federal stimulus plan, “the cuts are going back to what the formula says participants should receive,” said Jamie Dollahite, a professor at Cornell University and Director of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program for New York State. However, Dollahite says that families, in fact, needed that stimulus boost, and food prices have since gone up.

Dollahite and Wilkinson believe that SNAP benefits everyone. “It’s not money that’s saved,” said Dollahite, “it’s money that’s immediately turned back around and spent. And therefore, it is well known as an economic stimulus.”

“We know that, if we provide good nutrition, and we provide good food to people in poverty, they’re more likely to get out of poverty,” said Wilkinson.

One year ago, the National Academy of Science and Medicine published a study on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which estimates the cost of adequate nutrition and is the basis of SNAP allotments.

“While the study certainly did not say the benefits were inadequate,” said Dollahite, the study suggested that the formula did not take into account factors that prevent a family from stretching its money, such as food prices due to geography, or unstable employment.

Wilkinson says the TFP is tailored for the ideal family, not real families on SNAP. Most SNAP families are not like Nancy, who no longer works and has time to compare food prices, plan meals, and cook them from scratch

“The problem is that these people have families, they have jobs, they come home tired. Sometimes there’s just not enough creative energy to make a healthy meal from scratch every single day, which most Americans aren’t doing,” said Wilkinson.

“So you put the poorest in that situation and it’s even more difficult because, not only do they have to be creative, they have to be creative on a really tight budget,” said Wilkinson.

Food pantries, soup kitchens, and other emergency food agencies in New York have been running out of food since the November cut, says Dollahite, a sign that families do not have enough. Neither Wilkinson nor Dollahite has an easy solution.

“If you have inadequate resources,” said Dollahite, giving the ideal solution. “I don’t know what else you do.”

But Dollahite says that one thing low-income people can do is speak up and “show that they’re using the benefits to the best advantage.”

“Most of the people who are receiving SNAP benefits are not somehow gaming the system, that they in fact need the benefits for food,” said Dollahite. Barb wasn’t gaming the system 20 years ago, and Nancy isn’t gaming it now.

Nancy says that winter has been hard, because, without farmers’ markets, it’s harder to keep up with the fruits and vegetables. And on April 1, her secondary coverage for her medication is set to increase by about 50 percent.

But Nancy chooses not to worry. “I know that, somehow, it is going to work out. I have no idea how,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

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