The ethos of food assistance

Food stamps are now called SNAP and are distributed electronically, not in the booklet form pictured above.

Gina Wilson stretched up on tip-toes to hang her coat on her office door. With a little hop, she managed to secure her coat on the inconveniently high hook and then turned around with a laugh.

“I’ve been meaning to do something about that,” she said. “Or else do my best to grow.”

Gina has worked on hunger issues since ’85 and it’s hard to imagine she’s lost any spunk in those 28 years.

On her office wall hangs a huge map with tiny FoodShare cards and shiny birthday cake confetti strategically ticky-tacked into place to help her keep track of outreach and food collection efforts. The map covers the 16 counties that are Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin’s territory; Gina is their director of agency programs and services. She and Michelle Kramer, Second Harvest’s FoodShare outreach manager, sat down to chat with me about promoting and administering food assistance programs last week.

“There’s a lot of shame about asking for food. Lots and lots of shame attached to it,” Gina said. Michelle coordinates Second Harvest’s efforts to encourage everyone in their territory that is eligible for FoodShare, Wisconsin’s name for SNAP (formerly food stamps (yes, there’s a branding problem)) to sign up. Convincing eligible people to sign up for food assistance is not an easy sell.

“Sometimes we have to speak with a potential applicant four or five times times before they’ll feel comfortable enough to apply,” Michelle said. Another challenge in their FoodShare outreach efforts, surprisingly, is convincing food pantries to spread the word about how to sign up.

“They’re happy to hand out a bag of groceries but there are many who do not believe in government assistance or don’t want to talk about it,” Gina said. “I started out telling people it helps families get food on the table. No light bulb.  Then I said, it eases the burden on you. Because maybe the families that qualify for FoodShare won’t have to come to pantries for assistance and it leaves you the opportunity to assist people who aren’t eligible. Still no light bulb.”

Over the last four years, she’s crafted a layered message and eventually got most people to buy in when she started talking about the economic benefits of FoodShare. “For every $5 spent on FoodShare, $9 goes into the local economy,” Gina explains to people. And she’s right, Moody’s Analytics found that each food stamp dollar actually generates $1.72 in economic activity.

“These are dollars that leave our paychecks, go away, and, the most compelling argument is it might even go to Illinois. People in Illinois could be claiming our Wisconsin tax dollars because they’re helping they’re people sign up for benefits and we’re not,” Gina tells people, laying on the state rivalry as thick as possible. “Bing! Light goes on.”

Both Gina and Michelle told me that food assistance isn’t an easy topic for people to talk about, and when I brought up policy initiatives to restrict the types of food that can be purchased with SNAP, they weren’t pleased.

“We’re dealing with a people who have a high level of food insecurity and poverty, and you’re going to put more restrictions on them?” Michelle asked. Incentives for healthier purchases are a much better idea than restrictions they told me. Both women agreed that the food system is just as much at fault as individuals in promoting patterns of unhealthy food purchasing.

“If we’re going to try to change the diets of Americans, let’s have a broader approach,” Gina said. A broader approach is what organizations giving SNAP recipients incentives to make healthier purchases are trying to implement.

Fair Food Networks’ Double Up Food Bucks program in Michigan, for example, matches individuals’ federal food assistance dollars when they spend them on local fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. The program’s manager, Rachel Bair, told me requiring food to be local in order to qualify for a Double Up incentive is a really important piece of accomplishing the program’s goals. Double Up Food Bucks wants to help people afford fresh fruits and vegetables, but it also wants to begin reshaping local food systems.

Michigan residents, Rachel said, receive $3 billion in SNAP each year and barely any of it goes to local food producers. Fair Food Network takes the idea of incentives for healthier SNAP purchases, that Gina and Michelle endorse, beyond influencing an individual’s purchases. Rachel wants to make sure Double Up Food Bucks has a larger effect, the broader approach that Gina suggested.

“We want to help local food producers gain a stronger hold in the business scene, so that they can counteract some of the cheeseburger forces,” Rachel explained. Cheeseburger forces is how she refers to all of the marketing efforts influencing people’s unhealthy eating decisions.

“An incentive on its own won’t do a whole lot. We need to direct the incentive to shape the food environment so that it will be more conducive to health eating,” Rachel said. “We got here little by little and we’re not going to get out of it any other way.”

If anyone can testify to chipping away at hunger issues bit by bit, Gina can. She’s worked in several organizations focused on impacting food security issues, ridden the tide of changing policy interests, and still sees reason to be enthusiastic about future progress. Policy discussions appear esoteric at times but if people are persistant enough, she seems to think momentum shifts in the right direction eventually.

Foodbanks are traditionally engaged in moving surplus food around, Gina said, but they are looking more at providing access and not just actual food. According to Gina, that’s a change people have been working on for a while and it finally caught on in the last ten years.

“People say you can’t eat policy, but in fact policy feeds a whole lot more people than foodbanks do,” Gina said confidently. “Policy is a way to help people access food all month instead of just when the food pantry is open.”


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