Getting by on a Food Stamp Budget: Stories from the Friedman Community

by Rebecca Boehm

The Friedman Justice League (FJL) has organized a week long Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Challenge starting Monday December 2 and ending Monday December 9 to show support for SNAP – an important social safety net program. Cuts were recently made to the program and Congress is currently negotiating even steeper cuts as part of legislation to fund food and farm programs operated by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In light of these events FJL felt it was important to discuss how these programs actually affect people’s lives. The Friedman School curricular focus is on on how food assistance programs like the SNAP or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs work in broad terms, which is crucial to our work as future food and farm policy experts.  At the same time, we should consider how these programs actually work for individual people and families. So, we decided to interview people in our own community to understand how these programs affected their lives. We hope that what you take from these stories is a sense of how expansive and far-reaching they are, and a realization that they even impact people in our own community. And, that they have real impacts not just on the food people eat, but how people make ends meet and get along day to day.

 Part One: Not All Infant Formulas Are Created Equal

When I think of Rachel Jarvis, I think of laughter and her enormous smile. There are certain people I know who have a laugh that I really like to hear. Rachel is one of those people. Rachel – not “Ray-chill”, which is what I always mistakenly called her (and, yes, she laughed at me every time I did this), left the Friedman School last semester to be with her family while pregnant with her son Caleb, and is now working full time as the Data Analysis Manager for a study on Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a job she took right after her son was born.  I remember hearing at school that Rachel was pregnant and leaving school. I was so excited for her and knew she’d be a great mom, but sad to see her leave Friedman. Her son was born on March 24, 2013, weighing 9 pounds, 8 ounces in Duke Regional Hospital in Durham, NC.  During our phone interview for this article I heard Rachel say “Hold on, Hold on, I need to handle Caleb!” and I could hear him screaming in the background. He sounded like the bundle of energy she said he was.

When Rachel moved to the Raleigh-Durham area she continued taking classes to complete here master’s degree through Tufts and then started her current job right after Caleb was born. When she gave birth to her son Rachel tried to sign up for the SNAP, WIC , and Medicaid to cover her pregnancy-related medical expenses and to ensure her son had adequate nutrition and medical care. On her first attempt, Rachel was deemed ineligible for SNAP benefits for reasons that are still unclear to her. She wasn’t working and didn’t have any income to speak of. When she gave birth to Caleb, she became eligible for all three programs and her caseworker explained to her that in most cases households with young children are never turned down, which is what changed her eligibility status.

She participated in SNAP until Caleb was about three months old, which is when she started her current job at Duke. She explained, “SNAP was so important for me and Caleb. It allowed me to keep up on the bills until the first paycheck came in at my new job.” As you might imagine, juggling school, a new job, being a new mom, and moving all in a few months time was a lot to handle. Having the SNAP benefits to help pay for food made life for Rachel just a bit easier.

Rachel started her new job as Data Analysis Manager at Duke after giving birth to her son, and decided to live with her mother and father to save money. At first, Rachel took Caleb to a local daycare center and then to a nanny. It became apparent very quickly that paying for these types of childcare was not sustainable long term. So, Rachel’s mother decided to quit her job to take care of Caleb so she could work and avoid the high cost of daycare.  The problem with having her mother take care of Caleb, however, was that she could no longer deduct daycare costs (a standard SNAP deduction) from her income, given the informality of this arrangement. Meanwhile, Rachel rightfully offered to pay her mother for her childcare services by paying household bills and buying food. Albeit a less formal agreement, Rachel felt that the service her mother was providing was very important for her son.

When the next recertification for SNAP occurred, Rachel found out that she was no longer eligible according to North Carolina’s state criteria. This was in part due to the income she was earning from her new job, but also because she no longer had childcare expenses to deduct from her income. She became ineligible for Medicaid, too, and both she and Caleb no longer have healthcare. I asked Rachel if she has plans to sign up for health insurance using Healthcare.gov, the website portal for the national healthcare exchange. She said, “I already signed up and am waiting to see what plans I can afford or if I am eligible for a free program like Medicaid.”

Caleb is now 8 months old, eats complimentary foods and drinks infant formula, and is a handful according to Rachel. She breastfed for the first month but could not continue given her job and everything going on in her life. She said laughing and recalling her knowledge gained from the course Nutrition in the Life Cycle, “He got all the colostrum, Rebecca, and that was important to me.”

She and Caleb are still eligible for WIC and Rachel uses the program to purchase infant formula for Caleb. Before Caleb turned six months old Rachel was able to easily shift between using the three different WIC food package: full-breastfeeding, partial breast-feeding and full formula. At first, she was on the full-breastfeeding package and then transitioned to the partial-breastfeeding package so that she could buy infant formula. She found that having the ability to switch between the three food packages was important for her as she navigated her way through early motherhood and breastfeeding. It also allowed her the flexibility to switch Caleb onto complimentary foods when he was ready for them.

“The major problem with WIC is that there is only one formula brand available through the program,” Rachel explained. Gerber is the only WIC approved formula that participants can receive for free. Rachel tried feeding Caleb all four of the Gerber formula types available through WIC. He “hated all of them”, Rachel said with a half-laugh, recalling how frustrating this aspect of motherhood has been. “He refused to drink one. He spit up another. One made him physically sick.” Finally, Rachel was forced to use her own money to buy a different brand and luckily, he was satisfied with all of these.

Now, Rachel pays for formula out of her own pocket, even though she is eligible for WIC. She can’t resell the formula or exchange it at a retail store because that is against federal WIC rules.  Now she has 14 cans of Gerber formula sitting in her garage and she has no use for any of them.

“At one point I even called the WIC Association in Washington, D.C. to explain my predicament,” Rachel told me. They acknowledged this issue but had no solution for her.

In a follow up email exchange between Rachel and me, she said optimistically, “I hope that my experience can encourage some changes to the program, or at least start a discussion.”

Editor’s Note: This is Part One in a Friedman Justice League series entitled “Getting by on a Food Stamp Budget” that showcases stories from the Friedman community members and friends about their experiences in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) programs.  Parts Two and Three will be published in the next two issues of The Friedman Sprout.  

Rebecca Boehm is a PhD candidate in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program.  To learn more about her, visit our Meet Our Writers page.

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