Views on Food: Why we need food stamps

03/31/2013 12:00 AM

03/31/2013 7:14 AM

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A record 46.6 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users have Ph.D.s. And in Sacramento County, nearly a quarter-million people benefit from a program that keeps people from going hungry.

Instead of trying to figure out why so many people are in need, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said this month from his perch on the Senate Budget Committee that food stamps are immoral.

Sessions attacked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for encouraging people to enroll in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. Sessions says people would rather have jobs, a viable point. But if those jobs pay minimum wage, which Sessions is opposed to raising – a stance many would also classify as immoral – the result would be even more Americans on food stamps.

Sessions had a hard time with the government spending a trillion dollars a year on federal poverty programs (his estimate), yet poverty keeps growing. For Sessions, it's a real head-scratcher.

"Something is wrong," he said.

Anyone who has ever been on food stamps in California finds out quickly that much is right with the program.

Eight years ago, I was one of those people, along with my husband and our middle school-age son. We'd lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle-class, closer to upper-middle-class growing up, I'd never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind – food stamps.

I wasn't in the slightest embarrassed to enter an enormous Sacramento County building crowded with the very poor, the homeless, vagrants, immigrants and their interpreters, and several laid-off teachers. Armed guards manned a desk.

I was interviewed in a room as bare as an interrogation cell. Even though I owned a home and car, it looked like I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was incredulous that people obviously in poverty were punished if they had a car to get to work or to look for a job.

Yes, people on food stamps work. But a 40-hour week at California's $8 minimum wage keeps one easily eligible for assistance. A family of four in California making less than $1,800 a month is eligible for benefits. The maximum can be as high as $668 a month in food stamps, but the average is about $97.

Our family of three was approved for what I recall thinking was a generous $390 worth of food stamps a month. Then I got fingerprinted.

How many in society make the leap from no job to future felon? I wondered. Remembering the armed sheriff's deputies a few feet away, I kept my mouth shut and rolled all my digits over the ink pad. No tissue was offered. I went home with stained fingertips. Only last year was the fingerprinting step eliminated.

I was issued not the clumsy paper coupons that once choked lines at the grocery store, but a debit-like card loaded with funds every month. It's called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT. At the checkout, no one in line knew I was using food stamps.

I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry – vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn't squander precious food stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunch meat or cookies – all permitted. I always had a few dollars left over at the end of the month. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry Mans burn through their balance sooner.

Once I got the hang of it, I was going to Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. We ate a lot of risotto during this time, so I'd pick up a small wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano for a few dollars and grate it myself. Sometimes, I spent part of our allotment on salmon, about 4 ounces for each of us.

At a lower-priced IGA grocery store, I went into full strategy mode. I bought exactly 15 green beans that weighed one-quarter pound and took only 18 cents off my balance. I bought Andy Boy brand cauliflower that I could stretch into two or three meals for 99 cents, but which cost $3 at Whole Foods. In those days, I could buy whole chickens for as little as $3.50 each. I butchered them myself. If you want to save money, you've got to do a lot of prep yourself – make your own bread, wash loose lettuce instead of buying bagged greens and cutting up a chicken that, if precut, costs more per pound.

Food stamp users also learn what they can't buy – alcohol, cigarettes, and nonfood items, like soap. Also disallowed: rotisserie chicken and other hot prepared foods. The thinking here is a $7 cooked chicken is a poor value. Buy a raw one for half the price and cook it yourself.

The program allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden. I was eating the tomatoes from the plants I bought with food stamps long after we left the program.

Our life on food stamps ended in six months. I thought that being on food stamps was glorious. But it's not perfect. Aside from fraud, the most imperfect thing about the Food Stamp Program, begun in 1939, is its message about health.

It changed its name in 2008 to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. Only problem here is that the N-word in SNAP – nutrition – doesn't mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?

But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. It gave up when it entered the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP-Ed funding's been cut.

For me, SNAP is an elegant system that overrides serial moochers and the white-bread-and-bologna crowd by sending federal dollars to local economies while preventing millions from going hungry.

Every time a CalFresh card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. Using an 89-cent head of broccoli as an example, the federal reimbursement for the full 89 cents benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli's nutrition.

This is Sen. Sessions' main objection. He can't fathom food stamps as an economic stimulus, even though that's the way it's designed. Meanwhile, GOP cohort Pat Roberts, R-Kan., wants $36 million slashed from SNAP. This may starve the government beast, but it's going to starve actual human beings, too.

With food stamp numbers rising, it is difficult to regard all of those in need as "takers," as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dared to call me.

If the minimum wage is not a living wage, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day. It's a reminder that when things went wrong I was able to seek help from food stamps and with great humility accepted it.

Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor. She reports about food for Capital Public Radio, 90.9 FM in Sacramento. Reach her at ElaineCorninForum@gmail.com

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