A conversation with three recipients of SNAP, a governmental food benefit program
By Alissa Tuggle
Many of us have probably opened the fridge and felt like we had nothing to eat, only to return five minutes later hoping for new and delicious food to appear. The only available food does not always sound appealing, but maybe coming back with a fresh mind will spark new ideas for something that can be made with those spare ingredients.
However, some people experience this to the extreme. Like the single mom who can only afford to feed her child, or the college student who can only spare their money on ramen.
Late evening rolls around and Bayley Boecker has two papers due the next day, but the lack of food in their pantry is beginning to take priority. Bayley sits down on their living-room couch decides to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also referred to as food stamps.
SNAP is a federal program that offers benefits to low-income individuals and families when purchasing groceries. Approximately 40 million individuals in the United States receive SNAP, and 890,000 of them live in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All food items except for hot or prepared food can be purchased on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which serves a similar purpose to a debit card. Participants of the program receive a monthly allowance put directly onto the card. The allowance is determined by factors such as income, family size and living expenses. SNAP is restricted to grocery items and cannot be used to buy alcohol, tobacco, toiletries or other household products.
Bayley is one of many who feel as though they have to choose between significant expenses, such as rent, bills and food.
“I think that food stamps are actually a really good service and resource. I believe that food and shelter and access to healthcare are all basic human rights. It’s a systemic issue and a class issue that people need food stamps in the first place,” they said.
In 2016, nearly 27,000 people in Whatcom County were part of SNAP, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The high cost of living in the area, as well as tuition for college students, makes affording basic needs difficult.
“I believe that a resource like food stamps is really important and really beneficial for a lot of people in the community,” Bayley said. “I think as a country, the wealth gap is increasing and we’re losing our middle class.”
SNAP aims to help individuals who are food insecure, which is characterized by a consistent limited access to food.
It’s no doubt that expenses can quickly add up and suddenly one can find themself on a miniscule budget. People living in poverty also appear to be at higher risk for mental illnesses, according to a report written by the University of Cape Town’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health. Further budgeting complications tend to arise when factors like mental health come into play.
“I started going to therapy, but I don’t have health insurance. So seeing a therapist raised my cost of living by about $200 a month,” they said. “I applied for food stamps to help out with that stressor in my life.”
A recent study done by Mathematica Policy Research found that there was a 38 percent decrease in psychological distress among those who had participated in SNAP for six months.
Bayley admitted that it had never really crossed their mind to apply, but once they were struggling to make ends meet, it seemed like the logical option to apply for SNAP.
“I feel very frustrated that I have to choose between mental health and my physical health,” they said. “I’m just doing my best.”
College students, like Bayley, are some of the least likely recipients of SNAP. Over 59 percent of SNAP recipients are families with children and 33 percent are families with either elderly members or disabled members, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. So why is it that college students, who have a reputation of living off of Top Ramen, are the least likely population to receive SNAP benefits?
Stringent requirements to receive funds may be the culprit. Students who are eligible must either be working over 20 hours a week, be part of a work-study program, or have a child dependent in the household.
Fortunately, there are resources at Western focused on helping food-insecure college students. There are two Western Hub of Living Essentials (WHOLE) food pantries, one located in the Viking Union and another in Birnam Wood. The pantries consist of non-perishable food items, personal care products and used clothing. Additionally, Western provides emergency food funding — temporary assistance to students who are in need of food.
Courtney Cooper is a college student and mother of two girls. It was while Courtney was pregnant with her first daughter that she qualified for SNAP and received it for approximately four years. During this time, Courtney was both employed and a single mother, who needed to do whatever she could to support herself and her daughter.
“I was working, but not making very much money. I still needed to be able to provide for my daughter,” she said.
Courtney and her husband currently make enough money to not need SNAP, but she said if she was ever in need of it, she would apply again.
“I think you do what you have to do to take care of your family. People get in situations all the time,” she said. “I think everybody’s a paycheck or two away from being in a bad situation.”
Because SNAP covers most food items, it covers what are considered “luxury items” like organic food, candy and seafood. Though according to the Food Research and Action Center, there’s an ongoing stigma around the program including these items.
“Do people not deserve those things because they’re on food stamps?” Courtney asked.
Zachary Haring is another student who has received SNAP. He attended South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia and was a recipient of the program for a year.
“I needed them because even working 40 hours a week, I could not afford rent, bills and everything else on a minimum wage salary while also being in school,” he said.
Zachary struggled to balance full-time work and school and ultimately lost sleep trying to juggle the two. He worked at the Safeway deli for approximately two years before moving to Bellingham.
“Because of food stamps, I was able to cut my hours to 30 hours a week which improved my grades immensely,” he said.
He now works 15 hours a week in order to focus on school. The decrease in hours means he is no longer a recipient of SNAP, as the program requires students to be working at least 20 hours weekly.
“The way I see food stamps is that it’s a helping hand meant to help people rise out of poverty, and not something to rely on forever. So, if I wasn’t making enough money to afford food, then I would go back on it. There is no shame in being on food stamps,” Zachary said.
Like other governmental programs providing assistance to those who need it, there are stigmas surrounding it. Courtney said that she has overheard various assumptions, that people sell their food stamps for drugs or are not motivated enough to get a well-paying job. However, the program requires individuals to be either currently working, actively searching for a job or engaging in employment and training programs.
“There’s a lot of unnecessary judgement,” Courtney said. “I think the majority of the people that are on it really need it and don’t want to be on it.”
To those who find themselves, once again, opening the fridge and thinking, “there’s nothing to eat,” take a moment to appreciate the spare ingredients you do have.