Food is a basic human right, not a privilege.
Because I believe everyone deserves to have enough to eat, I wholeheartedly support legislation that increases SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) benefits and other supportive programs that help out families in times of need.
There are a lot of negative things said about SNAP and the families who use it. In actuality, fraud only accounts for a very small percentage of the benefits that are distributed, and it's extremely unfair to put the burden and stigma of that on the majority: people who are doing their best to get by, and also need some help right now.
I fully admit that I don't have any personal experience with using SNAP benefits. However, while my brother was living with us last year, he qualified for SNAP, so I've seen how limited the benefits can be. I've also witnessed how it can sometimes be really difficult to receive benefits in the first place (even when you have $0 income).
For instance, one of the things you're not allowed to purchase with the SNAP card is ready-made food, which means that while my brother could purchase raw chicken, he could not purchase a cooked chicken from the deli. These kinds of limits assume that people receiving SNAP have resources available to them (an oven, toaster oven, or microwave; sufficient dishes and cookware; sufficient time available for food prep; etc.) to safely cook raw foods. And this is one of the many reasons why it's easier to purchase less healthy foods when using SNAP benefits. Plus, you can buy 4 packages of Ramen noodles (sometimes more or less, depending on where you shop) for $1, but you can only buy one organic yam for the same price. Which gets you more calories? More food in your belly? Ramen may not be the most nutritious food, but when you have such limited resources to pay for food, the choice in that moment is simple.
(For more reading on nutrition as it relates to being poor, I highly recommend If only poor people understood nutrition! from Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist, and 5 Reasons Poor People Don't Eat Healthy from Jupiter at Crazy Dumbsaint of the Mind.)
Another thing you can't buy with SNAP is anything that isn't food. I know: obviously, right? But if you have no income and your unemployment has run out (or you didn't get any in the first place) how are you supposed to get personal care products? Fortunately, many household cleaners and personal hygiene products can be made out of items which can be purchased with food stamps, but that doesn't mean it's always easy.
Many people don't realize that participation in SNAP actually benefits communities economically. Of Americans who qualify for SNAP, only 75% participated in 2010, and participation rates vary widely from state to state. Every $5 in SNAP participation generates $9 in total community spending, and a well-fed worker is more likely to be healthier and take fewer sick days which benefits the economy even more. Learn more about the economic benefits of SNAP here and here.
I asked a few people I know to share some personal thoughts and experiences with food insecurity, SNAP, and hunger.
Here's what they had to say:
P.P. of Missouri:
I do not qualify for SNAP. I fall through the cracks, and disabled and diabetic, dealing with major health problems because I cannot afford proper nutrition. I have been advised by several people as well as got a mutual "understanding" that I should separate from my husband so we can qualify for SNAP. I took a "preregistration" quiz and found out if we were separated, my daughter and I would get $273 in SNAP benefits. To me, this is ruining marriages: to separate families just because we are about $100 over [the income] guidelines.
J.A. of Oklahoma:
I haven't felt judged [when using SNAP to buy groceries] and they're on a bank card now, so people don't even realize you're using them (I've been on the actual paper version - 22 years ago) but it is certainly a lot of work to get on them! I had to provide a huge amount of documentation, proof of all kinds of things. ...
I think food distribution has maybe gotten less shaming...or I've just grown up. I went to Catholic Charities when I was 17 and on my own as a single mother, and the people there were really hard up. I felt bad taking the food; I was ashamed, but no one was actually shaming me. No one was judging me but me. Now? We have gone to [our local] food distribution and you see people in nice cars and nice clothes. I remind others: in this economy, someone might have a big house, nice car, nice clothes—and then lose their job and not be able to replace it. That doesn't make them any less in need of food.
R.O. of Missouri:
Our local Food Bank has staff and volunteers to help people through the SNAP application process, it makes it much less daunting for those applying. Since people have to bring in their income information, and info on the people residing in the household to qualify to "shop" at [our onsite food pantry]. ...
I agree that food is a basic human right and the United States is a country of "privilege" and as such, what does our country do to supply/protect the rights of all citizens and those living within its borders? There should not be this projected world image of a "rich" country with the same hunger issues as a third world country: very hypocritical in my opinion. SNAP is a government program that has a direct, almost immediate, positive impact on our economy. You give a person SNAP benefits and they will buy groceries; most people do not carry a balance on their SNAP card from month to month. So if a person who had limited funds to purchase food with is given the opportunity to go shop for food with SNAP, they boost the economy because they put those $$$ back into the system. One of the best stimulus plans out there!
What can you do to make a difference?
Here are just a few of the many ways you can pitch in to help fight hunger in America:
Sign this letter asking your representatives in Congress to protect federal programs that feed our nation's hungry children, then share it with everyone you know. We all deserve to have enough to eat. Period. No kid should go hungry.
Support local efforts to grow food not lawns. Many cities around this country have laws and ordinances against growing (food) gardens in front of residences for purely aesthetic reasons. But gardening is possible even in urban areas, and it's one of the most economical ways to provide food for a family. Growing food shouldn't be against the law.
Like The Giving Table on Facebook to follow along with the participants of FBAH today and also to keep up on all the ways you can make a difference in our food system and do good with food.
Follow the #takeyourplace hashtag to get involved with the discussion on Twitter.
Follow the Food Bloggers Against Hunger board on Pinterest.
Watch this new documentary from Participant Media (the makers of Food Inc.) called A Place at the Table (trailer below), which follows three families struggling with food insecurity and outlines the very real problem of hunger in America. Check the listings to see if the film is screening near you. If not, it's also available on demand through Amazon and iTunes.
Most importantly, keep being vocal about food scarcity and the ways we can work to relieve hunger. Don't rest until no one goes to bed hungry at night. It's really the very least we can do for our fellow human beings.