Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Costco to Take Food Stamps? oh SNAP!

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 Queens will accept food stamps, bringing the wholesale prices that middle income families currently enjoy to those who need it most. The new store opening in Harlem will hopefully take them as well. (Doesn’t sound like Staten Island will though)

Food Stamps have been helping or hurting people in America since 1939 When Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Administrator Milo Perkins first implemented a program. It was, and still is, a limiting system. In 1939, customers could buy $1 orange stamp and receive with it a $.50 blue stamp. The orange could be used to buy anything while the blue was useful for government surplus items only (these items have never been nutritious).

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 Midwest were so ill that children would die of starvation while parents remained to prideful to seek public assistance. The culture would not permit it. An African American woman in the South had fertile growing land that she was not allowed to farm and could not afford Food Stamps. In order to receive the price breaks afforded by Food Stamps, she and her husband had to save up enough money to purchase a booklet of them. That lump sum was higher than they could possibly make in a month.

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).

Someone at Murray’s told me once that the average income of a Costco membership-holding household is $99K. Because only people who can afford a house big enough to stash all of the huge containers, would shop there. I cannot find anywhere to prove this, but it is an interesting concept. With the new allowances for Food Stamps…c’mon folks. We know all about SNAP now…with the new allowances for SNAP program consumers to purchases at Costco, I would say that progress is being made. Why shouldn’t SNAP shoppers have a right to buy in bulk? (Interesting to note that SNAP funds cannot be used to buy the $50 Costco membership)

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.


  1. People call it food stamps and not SNAP because SNAP and the ebt cards that come with it are just new ways of disguising what was once an embarrasing program. The same happens when they call a waitress a "server". People are only trying to glorify the program. Now with ebt cards it is less obvious who is using someone else's paycheck to pay for their food in addition to calling the rose by another name. In addition, just to let you know, some states DO still use the term "food stamps" and not SNAP, so perhaps take that back to your food policy class. But, more importantly, you need to understand that this is a controversial program. Are there people who really need the help? Yes. But are there still others who abuse the system? Absolutely. And this is why some people are so angry and don't feel the least bit sorry for those who "run out" of food stamps three weeks into the month. Those of us who pay a majority of our check to taxes hate to see someone with name-brand clothing, hair and nails professionally done while buying name-brand ice cream with their ebt card and yelling at the other patrons in the store who are in actuality paying for her groceries with their tax dollars (actual situation I witnessed @ Wal-mart). I also don't feel too bad that there are some places that food stamps/SNAP cannot be used. I have a Costco membership. Costco products are, for the most part, premium price products. Whole Foods was wrong to accept SNAP, as this is also a place that has premium products at a premium price. If you are on food assistance, please do everyone a favor and shop less expensively so that your feeding off others is not a total slap in the face. Even when I was not on assistance, but had a medium paying job instead of a higher paying one, I would still use coupons and buy generic, because that was what I could afford. Why should someone using someone else's money be able to afford more than those who work?

    1. You sir, are completely ignorant and should think about some things before going on an assinine rant. There is no glorification to accepting welfare. Nobody wants to have the stigma on their shoulders whether or not they need or abuse the system. As a single mother of two, I worked 2 jobs to keep my head above water and avoid having to stoop to the level of needing help. Couldnt swallow my pride. As a married mother of 3 my views have changed. My husband lost his job 6 months ago, along with it all benefits and insurance. He has turned in many applications, attended multiple interviews, and is an educated man with experience in his field. All to no avail. I cant work, I have a medical condition that prevents it and with no insurance thats a slight problem. These days the economy has knocked many people off their feet. After all this time we have wiped out our savings and maxed our credit cards. Up until this month even our mortgage has stayed up to date. As an upper middle class family we have probably paid more in taxes in the last year than a minimum wage imbecile like you made the whole year. We had no other choice but to turn to assistance and someday your time will come. I hope at that point you can apologize for being so rude and close minded. I will be back on my feet supporting you shortly have a nice life living in your bubble of dillusional superiority.