Food Assistance: Challenging Assumptions (and Recipients)

AmeriCorps VISTA members receive a living allowance equal to 105% of the national poverty rate, marginally adjusted for geographical location (rural vs. urban cost of living). Since VISTA members are prohibited from having additional sources of income during their year of service, this stipend generally allows members to meet the financial qualifications for federal food assistance. Though their county of residence members can apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which provides recipients with a monthly allocation for food, generally through an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card. This EBT card looks like a bank card, requires a PIN, and can be used at grocery stores, gas stations, and now even some farmers markets in Minnesota! The EBT card represents an an intentional shift away from the old format, language, and persistent stigma of "food stamps".


The SNAP program helps millions of Americans provide food for themselves and their families and supports the service commitments of many national service members. However, the process of applying for and relying on food assistance can be challenging, in more ways than one might expect. To begin, the process of applying requires an appointment at the county (necessitating transportation and flexibility during regular working hours), original proofs of expenses and income, multiple pieces of paperwork (requiring a computer and printer), and a permanent home address and contact information. Once you have an EBT card it is up to you to track your remaining balance and budget carefully. After housing, utilities, healthcare and transportation expenses, many individuals and families rely on the stability of food support but struggle to make benefits last until the end of the month.


Food assistance can be used for groceries and some packaged food, but not usually prepared or hot deli food. It cannot be used for household goods, fast food, or alcohol, and cannot be transferred between roommates or family members. Healthier food options often cost the most, and it can be a challenge to come up with consistently affordable and nutritious meals. Additionally, many SNAP recipients face the social stigma of receiving welfare, and often have to audibly identify their use of food assistance to the cashier in order to check out. Among recipients and the general public alike, there is much confusion, assumption, and lack of information surrounding the issue.


In 2006, the FRAC (Food Research and Action Center) organized a "SNAP Challenge" in Philadelphia, urging people to commit to living for one week on the national average food stamp allowance (currently around $30/week or $4/day). FRAC urged the public to consider what life is like for millions of low-income Americans trying to stay healthy, avoid hunger, and eat balanced and nutritious meals. The idea caught national attention in 2007 when four members of congress took the challenge, pledging to raise awareness about the difficulties of surviving on current food support levels and starting an informational campaign about what this form of welfare really looks like. Since then, Minnesota leaders such as Keith Ellison (U.S. House of Representatives), Tony Lourey (State Senate), four State House of Representatives officials, and three mayors have taken the challenge. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the latest to accept the challenge (this past Tuesday) and National Public Radio will be reposting his Tweets and reflections on the challenge.


As an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving in communities of poverty, what are your thoughts on the SNAP Challenge? Do you think the public's perception of food support is positive, negative, or ambivalent/uninformed? Have you ever felt compelled to raise awareness about the challenges of living around the national poverty rate and trying to stay healthy and well-fed? Share your experiences with us and others and start a conversation about resources in your county, community, and country!

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