Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

Archive for the tag “safety net”

A Primer on SNAP

SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Until 2008 the program was known as Food Stamps. It is the largest program in the United States’ hunger safety net. Others include WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and SNAP Disaster Response.

In 2012 there were an estimated 47.5 million SNAP recipients. In my Congressional district, I found that of the 5,291 families receiving SNAP, almost half of them had one employed person in the last 12 months, and 38% of them had two or more income earners in the past 12 months (2010 numbers).

As its name implies, SNAP is supposed to supplement whatever you already spend on groceries. But it doesn’t cover many of the things I consider grocery essentials, such as paper products, cleaning products, or personal care items such as shampoo, tampons, or diapers. So, after buying all those items out of pocket, many SNAP recipients have little money left for food, so they have to depend on SNAP. And food closets, toward the lean end of a 31-day month.

Speaking of food closets, I learned this from an article my friend Adlai Amor wrote for his organization, Bread for the World: only 4.16% of all food assistance received in the United States comes from food closets. So they represent maybe only one or two strings of the safety net, which is less than I had imagined. Click on the infographic to read the rest of the Bread for the World article.

Grocery bag infographic from Bread for the World

Infographic from Bread for the World

Nutrition benefits come in the form of a monthly sum of money loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card that you swipe at the grocery store, on the same machine used for credit or debit cards.

Some farmer’s markets accept EBT. Most that offer this will have a kiosk where you swipe your EBT card and get scrip–plastic or wooden coins–that you use to pay for food at that market only. Vendors who receive scrip get reimbursed at the end of the day.

One of the things Ivan and I are mulling over as we lay out our “rules” for the SNAP challenge is whether or not to use our local farmer’s market, which does not accept EBT. There are a few markets in Sacramento County that do accept it. These are farther away than we’d like to go, so we’ll have to weigh whether spending extra time and gas money for trips out of our neighborhood outweighs the benefit of fresher food (cheaper food, too, in the case of vegetables but not necessarily for fruit).

Well, those are details that we will explore later. If you want a more comprehensive overview of nutrition benefits offered in your state for people in various circumstances (or to find out what you might qualify for), I recommend using Benefit Finder. I plugged in a fake income and some other true data into the Benefit Finder and turned up several food-benefit results, which included free school breakfast and lunch in addition to meals for kids when they are out of school for 15 or more consecutive days, such as during the summer. Even though we actually make more than the $25,000 figure I entered in the tool, I still felt a sense of relief to know that help was there.


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