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

by Rebecca Boehm

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series called “Justice On the Table.” To read Part One, click here.

Part Two: Serving the Nation on a Food Stamp Budget

Many students who attend the Friedman School have served as AmeriCorps Fellows working to address food security and hunger in rural, suburban and urban areas from coast to coast. As part of an AmeriCorps year of service fellows are usually eligible to participate in SNAP to help them meet their food needs, given the small stipend they receive from the federal government as part of the program.

One current first-year student, who wished to remain anonymous for purposes of this article, participated in SNAP during a year of service in the AmeriCorps program.   She also participated in WIC as an infant and toddler, while her mother finished college. “My family always clipped coupons, compared prices, planned meals, shopped sales and budgeted when it came to food,” she explained to me. “So meeting my food needs on the SNAP budget I got while serving in AmeriCorps wasn’t that difficult.” It was the process of signing up for the program, however, that was challenging for her.

After completing her state’s online SNAP application, she had to provide paper documentation to verify her income and housing costs in person. “This sounds easy, but I didn’t have a legitimate lease at the time,” because she had an informal housing arrangement through a landlord that was on the margins of unsavory. The student noted that this was the most affordable housing she could find in her area. “I can imagine this is a common situation for low-income households,” she rightfully noted. In addition to this verification process she had to wait for everything to be processed and be interviewed by phone. “If you miss their call, you’re out of luck. You have to wait another week or more for them to call you back again.” Applications are processed with the additional information provided in the interview, and then applicants receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which contains funds for food purchases.

For this student, the application process was long and frustrating. “It took three months from the time I started the application process to receive my EBT card,” she explained, clearly exasperated, over email. “You do get ‘back pay’ in a lump sum for the time between receiving the EBT card and the point at which you are deemed eligible. But that doesn’t do you any good during those months you’re waiting for approval. I knew fellow AmeriCorps members who said it took six months for them to receive their benefits,” she explained.

During her service errors in her benefits would arise, which took time to resolve. “One time I didn’t even receive a request for my six month re-approval until after the deadline had passed so my card was frozen until it was fixed. This took about a month”.

While the process was frustrating, this student noted that her diet actually improved while she was participating in the program. She experienced guilt when she purchased what she called “bad” foods. This was in part because she was fearful of how cashiers at stores would treat her if she bought these foods, but also a function of the amount of money she had to spend. “Being on SNAP helped me put a stop to my soda and candy habit, ” she admitted.

Unlike most households, this student received the maximum monthly benefit of $200 for a one-person household. “This was more money than I’d ever had before to spend on food, so I was able to buy a lot more produce than I had in the past”, she noted. After her year of service was over and she no longer participated in SNAP, she found herself continuing to shop and eat as she had while on the program. She recognizes though that if she needed to, she could spend more money on food or go out to eat more freely than other households who may solely rely on SNAP for their food needs. “There is a difference in knowing that I can spend more on food if needed, which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone.”

Upon reflection of this experience, this student noted that the most challenging part of being on SNAP was the application process and the associated stigma of using an EBT card in grocery stores. “You just can’t fully understand what it is like to be a SNAP participant until you stand in a busy grocery line with everyone noticing you’re using an EBT card, eyeing your purchases and your appearance.”

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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