Last week, the New York Times informed me that Costco will join other large food retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in participating in food assistance programs. Costcos in Brooklyn and
Food Stamps have been helping or hurting people in
The program has undergone severe revisions over time. As definitions of “balanced diet” and “nutrition” shift and change, so too, do the “needs” covered by the Food Stamp program. Eligibility has been determined by employment, income, number of dependents...etc.
Users of the program have said for decades that the assistance carries them through three weeks of each month, leaving the fourth open for other arrangements. This is usually the time when soup kitchens feel burdened by patron counts doubling or sometimes tripling. Food pantries experience much longer lines, some staying open another day during that fourth week of the month.
A documentary in 1968 called Hunger In America profiled families across the country dealing with nutrition assistance and health problems. Native Americans in the South West were given government surplus’ of lard and corn meal week after week. They appear both overweight and malnourished because the neither of the two items provide appropriate nutrition. White share-cropping families in the
Regardless of its many limitations, the nutrition subsidies continued to be in demand. By August 2008, participation in the Food Stamp program had reached a high of 29 million people per month.
On October 1 2008, the Food Stamp program became known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Using the new program is supposed to be more simple now that it is all done through electronic cards, much like debit cards. Although the cards have a specific look, the hope is that stigma will be removed by changing the name and the methods of using the program. There is no bulky pad of colored tickets to give to the cashier. Instead, customers swipe and use a pin. There is also hope that the new payment system will cut down on SNAP allowances being used for alcohol.
In school, we talk about SNAP all the time. So when I was immersed in my Food Policy class, I would get frustrated watching the morning news. Perfectly high-up and intelligent officials would refer to the program as “Food Stamps.” And I would mumble all exasperated-like “it’s SNAP!” Jack turned to me one morning and said gently, “I don’t think anyone knows about it” (or cares, it has occurred to me).
And here is my question about that, if people knew it was called SNAP these days, would the new name/new program shoulder the stigma of the old? Should we keep calling it Food Stamps in public while needy members of society are swiping their electronic cards away? I’m starting to think yes. The longer Food Stamps carry the historical shame of needing help, patrons might be able to use SNAP freely and without scrutiny. Maybe.
Which brings me to another food subsidy question. Should there be limitations and rules dictating what people can buy with their SNAP account? Some say that sugary foods, highly processed foods, and nutritionally useless foods such as soda should not be eligible through the program. (we’ve heard similar things about Food Banks) While others think that if people want to spend their food dollars on cola or chips, they have a right to do that.
At the Politics of Food conference, Food Bucks were mentioned; special coupons available to encourage lower-income shoppers to frequent farmers’ markets. I think these are the best option. Governmental encouragement to visit markets and learn about locally produced ingredients would go a long ways towards helping both the hungry and the farmers. If the government is sending corn farmers money to keep growing corn, they can subsidize farmers through nutrition assistance for hungry people. And if we adopted such a policy, maybe we would not have to tell people what to do with their money (government given or otherwise).
There is no talk as of yet, for Costco to be accepting SNAP accounts in other locations. I hope that the opportunity spreads to other parts of the country.