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. Continue reading


The state’s broken record: food stamp policy waivers

Sometimes it starts with a state-level politician grocery shopping. 

“I was behind this lady with a shopping basket loaded with sugary drinks, potato chips, cookies and candy. She had nothing of any nutritional value in her cart and when it came time for her to pay, she pulled out her EBT card and paid for it.” Mississippi State Senator

“Several months ago, I was in line at a local grocery store when I noticed someone with children in front of me purchasing an entire grocery cart full of chips, soda, doughnuts, ice cream and other junk food. Unfortunately, she pulled out her EBT card, which carries her monthly Food Stamp allocation-and, swiped it to pay for all of that unhealthy food and off she went.” California State Senator

Other times political constituents complain about what they saw at the supermarket. Either way, it’s only going one place: a request from the state to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a waiver to restrict the type of food purchases allowed by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). That request will either die in discussion among state legislators or be rejected by the USDA.

How do I know this? It has already happened at least 11 times. Continue reading

A guide to understanding food stamp headlines in 2012

Food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have been in the news a lot lately. Here’s a quick guide on why you keep hearing about food stamps and why, after years of being politically innocuous, the program has become unexpectedly partisan.

More people are using federal food assistance than ever before. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the governmental body in charge of administering food stamps, the number of recipients is at an all time high. In 2011, 44.7 million Americans received food assistance in the form of SNAP. That number has increased by 4.3 million people since 2010 and doubled since 2003. The money distributed in SNAP benefits increased even more than participant numbers, tripling since 2003. This is in part due to changes enacted by the 2009 stimulus package, including a 13.6 percent increase in benefits and extension of benefits beyond a three month limit.  2008 programatic changes for food stamps also contributed to the increased 2011 SNAP participation and benefit distribution.

More people are using food stamps because of difficult economic circumstances, defined by sustained unemployment rates and high food prices. Rising food stamp participation in a time of economic hardship may be seen as proof that the program is working as intended, that struggling families are reaching out and receiving assistance. Besides helping food insecure families and individuals directly, SNAP is also indirectly helping the economy. Moody’s Analytics found that each food stamp dollar actually generates $1.72 in economic activity.

So, other than to remark on yet another indication of economic hardship for Americans, why have food stamps been in the news lately? There are three primary reasons: Continue reading