The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still referred to by some as “food stamps”, is a federal food assistance program that offers benefits usable as cash for the purchase of food by lower-income families and individuals. First piloted in 1961 by President Kennedy and later signed into law by President Johnson, SNAP is a vital federal program addressing food insecurity in our nation. In 2014, more than 46 million lower-income individuals received SNAP benefits. Approximately 70% of these recipients were families with children.
What does SNAP mean to families?
Between 2011 and 2012, I conducted 13 focus groups across five North Carolina counties with 105 lower-income individuals. Most were African American women with a high school education or less. More than half (56%) received SNAP and 49% received other government assistance.
I asked focus group participants about their food shopping behaviors and how the SNAP program impacted their healthy food choices. While most women agreed that SNAP was an important and necessary program, some participants reported financial constraints when purchasing healthy food. As one woman said, “I do receive public assistance, but my food stamps are limited so I have to budget so they last from month to month.” Some women felt like they could not afford to shop at grocery stores with a greater variety of fresh and healthy foods. When talking about an organic grocery store a woman commented, “They accept food stamps but they’re very, very expensive.” Another woman said, “I would love to be able to shop there. Unfortunately, I only receive sixteen dollars a month in food stamps.” The SNAP program distributes benefits based on household size and income and there are monthly caps on how much individuals and families can receive.
Participants also recognized that more and more people are now on SNAP since the economic downturn of 2008: “There are quite a few families out there on SNAP. Used to be it was just a few people, but it’s a lot now.” One woman even commented that SNAP benefits are used by all races and ethnicities: “Not all black people get food stamps, there are white people too. Because of the way the economy is now, a lot of people are still unemployed and they don’t have the money and transportation to get what they need.” That woman was right—individuals from all backgrounds use SNAP.
The benefits of food assistance programs
I’m no longer conducting focus groups with lower-income families about food assistance, but I still see the benefits of these programs – even among individuals I work with—every day. Recently, I sat down with Daniel Brito, UCS Senior Washington Representative, to talk about his experience with SNAP and similar programs growing up in Arizona. Daniel’s interview is part of a greater initiative to highlight the benefits of food assistance programs in America.
You can listen to Daniel’s complete interview on StoryCorps—a free mobile application that allows anyone to upload and archive their stories to the Library of Congress. During the interview, I asked Daniel what food struggles he faced growing up, to which he responded:
“My mom had a lack of resources—money with which to buy food. We had to use the resources that were available to us. But in some ways they were struggles we avoided; basically we just didn’t buy fruits and vegetables.”
Later in the interview I asked Daniel what his current hopes and dreams were for his family (including his two little girls):
“I want my daughters to have a good relationship with food. To eat enough fruits and vegetables and understand where they come from—understand their environmental implications.”
To learn more about the importance of food assistance programs in America and to raise awareness about hunger go to www.storycorps.me and search “End Hunger”.