By Suzanne Strassberger
Food generosity is grounded in the goodness of the world. So, why is it that SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, was cut in November and will likely be cut again? One reason is that spending for SNAP has grown over the past four years as more Americans became poor. Also, the Farm Bill, including SNAP, is up for reauthorization this year and has become a target for budget hawks. Finally, there is a public perception that the program is too generous.
I am testing out that theory by taking on the Jewish Community SNAP Challenge.
A week on the SNAP Challenge means shopping in the neighborhoods where the only available discount grocery stores are stocked with sad vegetables and junk food. I would have had to skip my stockpile of coffee beans, wine, and frozen chocolate chip cookies, a dinner party, and two work-related meals.
Shopping for a family of three on a weekly budget of $94.50 ($31.50 per person) equated to rice, potatoes, oil, generic peanut butter, mac and cheese boxes, frozen OJ, milk, eggs, cheap bread, and elderly-looking carrots. Dinner is built around what the Dining section of the newspaper calls comfort dishes. Six days into SNAP, we are gaining weight. Maybe that is why so many people coming out of the discount grocery store are obese. And yet at times, I’m still hungry because I can’t afford a snack in between small meals.
My dad grew up poor in the Depression. He never talked about those days, though it seemed to be the reason he always chose the cheaper option: a secondhand car or a small house with one bathroom. But his cardinal rule was never to skimp on food. For him, being rich meant rich enough to buy whatever food he wanted.
The almost 48 million children, seniors, disabled, and working poor Americans who rely on SNAP will never be “rich enough” as long as they depend on SNAP. Even in families where the adults are working full time, SNAP isn't enough because their food allotment is carefully ratcheted down for every extra dollar earned. And even with SNAP benefits, many families run out of food early in the month, which means one or two weeks of food pantries, soup kitchens, and empty stomachs every month.
Food insecurity, buried deep in their consciousness, will always be part of their psyche, just as it was for my dad.
Those who say that the SNAP program is too generous should try it for a week.
Suzanne Strassberger is the Associate Vice President for Government & Community Partnerships at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.