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Cut Food Stamps? A Food Writer Knows That’s Wrong

Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, California. Credit: Elaine Corn

Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calf. Credit: Elaine Corn

As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.

But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.

Tom Colicchio, a New York City chef who’s around the good stuff all the time but who believes that no one in America should be hungry, is co-producer of the documentary “A Place at the Table.”

"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon

More from Zester Daily:

» The politics of the plate

» Fixing school lunches

» Time for a food bank deposit

» Farm bill anxiety

One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.

It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.

Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.

And that’s the good news.

The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.

Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.

Hard times can happen to anyone

I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had 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.

Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)

I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.

I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. 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, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.

Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.

I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.

In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, 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. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in 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’s education funding had already been cut.

Food stamps benefits multiply

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

Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.

If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.

Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and The Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.

  • happymom 6·17·13

    Elaine, I do think that food stamps need to be cut. Why should I pay for your leg of lamb from Whole Foods? Why should anyone on food stamps shop at whole Foods. it is a very expensive store and your food dollars don’t go very far. I rarely shop at Whole Foods because it costs too much. People on food stamps should be very frugal with their money from the government. You do not get something for nothing.

  • michlhw 6·18·13

    2 points. 1: sorry, I too was surprised when I read that you went to wholefoods for lamb and cheese. you could have gotten the same products or decent substitutes for much less at budget supermarkets. i think your actions are pretty controversial, especially in a society where you know that there is widespread discontent regarding the program. unfortunately, you have proven all its hater right.

    2nd: while I have not participated in any food stamps or have lots of knowledge on the system, if you say “food is food”, then you are accepting those who spend their allowances on “soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted.” like you said, ” Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.”

    nutrition here is key– i’m sure the govt created the program to ensure citizens in need were getting their nutrition, not to watch them eat junk food. but many of them grew up without family members to encourage them to spend time in the kitchen, and we cannot discount those who simply do not have the confidence to, the time to, or simply know how to cook. this is their only way of survival at this point in time. We need to have some empathy.

    But I do think the food stamps program should hold mandatory nutrition classes– you don’t just give people money and say “here, go find something to eat” and expect them to fill their trolleys with peas, carrots and whole grain bread.

    so in all.. i feel your article and some of your points are controversial, but this conversation has swirling around for ages and is in desperate need of being addressed at a higher level.

  • I own a restaurant 6·18·13

    Happymom – you do not get to make choices for the food stamp recipient. When you give a gift, you give it. SNAPS is a gift, a gift from those who have to those who don’t so that they can take care of themselves and not break into you house to find something to eat which is what happened in our town recently. Or just out and out revolt as in Brazil.

    Elaine and Happymom – if the recipient blows it on chips instead of high quality food so be it. Doesn’t mean that they can’t be educated, however first you’d have to nutritionally educate teachers and doctors and nurses. I mean if they aren’t nutritionally educated why would you expect all people on welfare to have nutritional sense? I was on WIC at one point in my life. The kinds of foods I received were limited and not necessarily of the best quality in my opinion. Why prepared cereal? I thought.

    To Happymom – where else can you buy a leg of lamb but Whole Foods? I don’t ever see one in my other neighborhood stores? A leg of lamb can be made to go very far if used wisely. It’s a far better investment in one’s nutrition than many other apparently cheaper food items. (and may I say – prepared cereal is quite expensive considering it’s nutritional value). Many items on the approved food lists for food assistance programs are there not because they are good but because some industry lobbied for them to be on that list.

    One other point, there are several small towns around here who have one grocery store. A majority of those towns’ residents receive food assistance. They go to the one grocery store which has a monopoly because said residents can’t afford to drive 30 miles to a different city to shop. They may not even have cars. There is no public transportation. So they and therefor the taxpayer get ripped because the grocery store can charge the max. These stores are way more “expensive” than Whole Foods. And don’t get me started about farm subsidies…paying farmers (actually I prefer to use the term land owners since to be a farmer you have to actually farm) to not grow something.

    I can’t tell you how irritated I get when those who have start telling those who don’t have that they can just shove it because they are stupid enough to buy potato chips and coke. If only these same people would apply the same standard to, oh I don’t know, the defense industry??? Are we really getting a good return on our money when we poke guns in the face of half the world? Are the results what we thought they would be?

    A nutritional defense against the angry hoards is a far better option than a police/military defense. Even the Romans knew that it was easier to sedate the have nots with bread and circuses. So happymom you are getting something valuable for your money whether the recipient spends her food stamps the way you think they should be spent or not. Poor people are so easy to pick because they have no power to fight back unless they turn into the angry hoard. Consider it part of the nation’s defense budget.

  • C. Venzon 6·18·13

    One of the smarter moves by lawmakers here in my home state of Illinois has been instituting a “double coupon” program for SNAP clients, allowing them to get twice the face value of food coupons for approved foods at farmers markets. Good for their health, for the farmers, and for local economies.

  • Manny 6·18·13

    I worked at my last job for 3 years and never missed a day, then one day we were shut down permanently by the government (Florida and the strip mall casinos deal). Not many jobs in Florida to be had. I need the SNAP to get by. I only buy what’s on sale at the supermarkets, that’s how I take advantage of this to stretch my dollars. I’m sure this is not close to a perfect system but imagine how worse it would be with less or little assistance. I think there would be a rise in crime, jails and prisons would be fuller, etc all in the name of food or the next meal.

  • Kelly 6·22·13
  • Elaine Corn 6·23·13

    Thank You, Kelly. You get it. And thanks for the link. Everyone should give this a read. I have no retorts or comments for readers who think a food stamp recipient should not buy a leg of lamb that can morph into 3 meals. It’s quite an elegant system, if you stop to examine its design.

    • Michelle 6·24·13

      Wow, some really defensive comments here. Just to be clear– I don’t think happy mom had anything about buying lamb. I think i speak on her behalf when i say that the suggestion is that you purchase it at a cheaper location. And there are plenty of alternatives to whole foods for lamb. Halal butchers for example? There will be one where there is muslim population– practically everywhere. Don’t forget also that lamb, pound for pound, is a pricier protein than chicken or pork. Those food stamps you bought could have gone a longer way than the way you used it. And food stamps is not a gift to go crazy however you want by the government. It is a provision to ensure that you do not go hungry.

      • Kelly 6·25·13

        I’m just not sure why this matters to those of us not living on food stamps. No one tells you where to buy your food or what to cook. Is it possible, in this country, that those who are eligible for assistance receive it without having the entitled make assessment of whether or not their decisions are wise or frugal? The program itself hardly one these days that would keep a family from malnourishment as funds are being cut 30% to 60% statewide. I may live closer to Whole Foods; pork may not be part of my religious diet; maybe the lamb purchase was split between myself and another family.

        My point is that this country should be more concerned with the fact that we have a population of impoverished adults and children that grows significantly every day. Shouldn’t we be questioning the system that is allowing this to happen instead of questioning the food stamp shopper who buys the lamb and not the chicken?

      • Kelly 6·25·13

        I apologize if my comments sound defensive and not passionate, which is the way I intend them to sound. Recipients of “entitlements” in this country have had to hear a lot about how the country is broke due to all the “social programs” that take care of “the poor” – the only difference between me and you is a couple of paychecks. Believe me. It happens real fast.

  • michlhw 7·2·13

    Kelly– i see your point, and i have read the article you posted. what is puzzling to me is the author’s desire only to respond to those who agree with her and not those who question her actions that she has made public by writing about them. here’s another great article that talks about both sides of food stamps:

    nobody should be humiliated for their food choices, and no-one should hold others to their own ideals, but you must agree that some restraint and responsibility should be had. that’s all i’m arguing for, and through her writing tone, it didn’t seem like she realized that or wanted to convey that. I commend the author for being honest and truthful with us on how she spends her food stamps, but i question her defensiveness to an open conversation.

  • michlhw 7·2·13

    and on “- the only difference between me and you is a couple of paychecks. Believe me. It happens real fast. ” I totally believe you– there is nothing to dispute that.

  • Kelly Ray 7·2·13

    Couple comments from the state rep make the article less credible for me (something to the effect of “they’re buying filet’s and we’re getting by with ground beef” and “…buying booze,,,and even cars with food stamps”). I’ll just comment on the second since the first is just a re-run and highly improbable that a rep has ground beef. No one has ever bought a car with food stamps and you can’t purchase booze or cigs. You can, however, purchase hundreds of cans of soda, empty them, turn them in for cash, and buy yourself some liquor.
    12% of our federal budget dollars goes to safety net programs which includes SNAP and a lot of other programs. I pay federal taxes, so I’ve paid for my share of stamps. You’ve paid for yours. When the crisis hits, you’ll have them. Think of them as insurance. That’s what I tell anyone who says “Why should I PAY FOR YOUR FOOD?” As the economy began to improve in ’11-’12, SNAP was reduced, and will be cut for all benefits in November 2013. Two million more (nation wide) will be cut if the House Agriculture Committee gets their say.
    I am employable, I have a degree, I’ll find my way around. I’m worried about our state’s children. Two million of them are supported by SNAP benefits. Sure, Suzy needs to be guided and educated about eating smart. Let’s teach her.
    Oh, wait. She hasn’t eaten for a day and a half and can’t stay awake during classes.
    I was refused a drink purchase the other day with my SNAP card because I put my straw in the cup. According to SNAP, if the straw is in the cup, it becomes a “prepared meal” and you can’t purchase anything prepared. So I have to get a new drink, new straw, new purchase.
    You can buy a pound of coffee that isn’t brewed. But you can’t buy a cup of hot coffee if it’s freezing outside and you have to wait an hour for one of your three buses to get to work.
    We got ’em.
    Feed a family of four for a month with $280 of SNAP. Celebrate two birthdays. Keep personal dignity. And tell me how that works out for ya.

    I am totally open-minded. But in this day and age of citizens who want to judge the poor and marginalized (and the majority of them are hard-working, genuine, grateful beings) and a government who continually creates and endorses policies that oppress them – I’m fed up.

    Mad enough to have lamb.
    From Whole Foods.