Love People. Cook Them Tasty Food.

I haven”t been here in a while.  I think my pot boiled over, cooked dry, and got scorched.  I have been trying to figure out a way to clean my pot so that I can use it again, but nothing seemed to be working until recently.  Over the 3FCD4D4E-3FD5-4BB3-9E70-185F39772AD1past few weeks, when I wasn’t even looking, I may have stumbled upon a solution.  Isn’t that often how it works?  The solution came into focus as I thought about a story I heard this weekend, a true story, about a man who for years had ground wheat into flour so that his wife could bake bread.  His wife has passed away, but the man continues to grind wheat in to flour.  Now his daughter drives almost 200 miles round trip to collect the wheat her father has ground and to give him 4 loaves of bread made from the wheat she collected the previous month.  This story almost moved me to tears.  This man’s love for his departed wife, the daughter’s love for her father and mother, and her willingness to keep this tradition they established alive is beautiful and what is needed in our world.

I heard the story in my kitchen, as I was spending the afternoon cooking.  I was cooking for not only my family, but for a couple neighbors who for health reasons need some help with meals.  I cooked all afternoon and was exhausted when I was done, but my heart was also very full.  I love to cook for others, always have.  My husband and I recently had our annual Mardi Gras party.  Every year in the middle of the party I think to myself, this is the last year.  I do not do well in large gatherings, preferring instead smaller functions.  But each year as the time to start planning for the Mardi Gras party rolls around, I find myself excitedly looking forward to the party.  Sure I like to see the people attending the party, but what I am really excited about is the cooking I will do for the party and the pleasure I experience as our guests enjoy the food.

I find cooking restorative and I am not the only one.  My friend, Sharon, and I share a love of cooking, and recently she sent me a cookbook for my birthday.  In the letter, which accompanied the cookbook she told me to read the book from cover to cover.  While I have often looked at each page of a cookbook, I have never read a cookbook from cover to cover, but I trust her advice, so I started reading.  A few pages into the book the author talks about how she had fallen out of love with life, seeing only darkness on the horizon, resulting in her trying to take her own life by stepping into the path of an oncoming bus.  As she was talking to the psychiatrist shortly after the incident, all she can think about is baking a pie.  Once she returned home, she baked that pie, and even though she had never been much of a cook, she decided to continue cooking.  She says that cooking changed her life (I imagine she also got some psychiatric help too!).

I’m not certain why my friend told me to read this book from cover to cover, but I am grateful.  While I have not been suicidal, I have had a difficult time keeping my spirits up these past few years.  That is part of the reason I have stopped writing.  The subject of food insecurity was so depressing; it still is.  It actually may be even more so because I don’t see the problem getting better any time soon.  In fact, I think there is a strong possibility that it will get worse and sooner rather than later.  My heart was heavy and the act of writing this blog seemed futile, but these events of the past couple of weeks have cleared away some of the gloom.  They have also reminded me of this quote I so love, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”.  *

I have realized that cooking is my path forward.  I can not solve the problem of food insecurity, but I can cook for others and in doing so keep up my own spirits.  I love the act of cooking, all of it.  The finding of the recipe, the shopping, the chopping, the combining. Notice I didn’t say the doing of the dishes!  But more importantly than it just being an enjoyable pasttime, it feeds my soul by allowing me to help and bring pleasure to others.  Cooking is now and has always been my expression of love, for my family, friends, neighbors and even strangers.  It’s what helps me celebrate the good times and gets me through the bad.  And on that note I am going to close so that I can put the finishing touches on a meal I am delivering to one of my neighbors and start dinner for my own family.  Bon Appetit!

*I have always attributed this quote to the Talmud, but in searching for the quote I could not find it’s definitive source.




Who Deserves a Mental Health Day?

Recently I had a couple of rough weeks.  You know the kind where you feel like you are slogging through mud.  It seemed like, even though I was working really hard, I ended each day further behind than where I started.  So on a Friday, at the end of a week where I had a series of problems with several of my large appliances, I had had enough and red-winedecided to take a mental health day.  I only did tasks I wanted to do rather than needed to do, like baking banana bread instead of putting clothes away.  I took the afternoon off, enjoying a glass of wine at 4 o’clock, and fed my family fast food for dinner.

Most people I talked with about my mental health day and the reason for it, told me I was perfectly justified, even deserving.  In other words, I was given permission by my social group to practice some self care.  Taking some time to take a break from whatever problem is looming and treat oneself, allows a person to recharge and approach the problem or just a hectic life schedule with renewed energy and stamina.  Let’s face it, who among us hasn’t needed a day to regroup.  One might argue that occasional mental health days are necessary for one to be a productive member of society or a group.

But what about the person living poverty, who faces stressful situations at every turn?  You know the person I am talking about.  The guy whose car that won’t start, but he needs to get to work to keep that job.  Or the caregiver with a chronically sick family member, whose care drains her energy as well as the household savings account.  How about the single mom whose stagnant or shrinking paycheck must somehow cover the increasing costs of rent, utilities, and food?   Does society commiserate with these people and afford them understanding when they practice self care?  My experience is that society often judges those who are struggling in poverty severely for doing some of the same things it deems acceptable for me to do after a couple bad days.

Why is that?  Why as a society are we willing to condone my actions when I take a mental health day, yet condemn similar actions taken by a person living in poverty who faces soul crushing hardships on a daily basis?  I recently read an article in which a woman, who had lived for a time in poverty, decided to publicly reveal her situation.  Insteak the article, she discusses the shame and the stigma she felt due to her situation.  She said, “I felt like what most people considered self care was, for me, indulgent and even selfish.”  As I read this article, I was reminded of Simcha Fisher’s moving article, The Day I Bought Steak with My Food Stamps.  Both of these women evocatively write about the shame and judgement society placed on them when they dared to take some small action to make their desperate situations a little better.

To counter the shame that society asks people living in poverty to carry around, and to help brighten their bleak situations, is the reason we at the food pantry try and provide little treats whenever we can.  We regularly try to tuck special donated items, like Little Debbie snacks or lotions or Halloween relaxnapkins into the food boxes of those who are struggling with a particularly difficult time.  Similarly, this is the reason I have chosen the items I have–sweet treats and warm beverages like coffee, tea, and hot chocolate–for my special food drives.  Everyone who is dealing with a stressful situation deserves a treat or a pick me up without judgement.  Everyone needs to know that it is okay to take care of oneself, whether that means taking a few minutes to savor a cup of coffee, enjoying the smile on their child’s face when given a snack cake, or buying a steak for dinner.



Avenge Hunger

avenge hunger

This insert came in my last month’s cable bill from Armstrong, our local cable provider.  The insert alerts Armstrong’s customers about a food drive, benefiting local food banks and soup kitchens.  They are sponsoring this food drive during the month of September as part of Feeding America’s Hunger Action Month.  The nonprofit organization, Feeding America, started Hunger Action Month in 2008, in an effort to increase involvement nationwide in the fight against food insecurity in the United States.  On their website, Feeding America urges Americans to stand up and Pass the Plate, by pledging to take some action to end hunger and then sharing that pledge with friends and family.  The web page has a drop down menu of actions from which you can choose–donate, volunteer, contact legislators–or you can write in your own actions.

I like the idea, evoked by my cable company’s flyer, of inflicting harm on hunger on behalf of those who are hungry, and that this campaign will help individuals locally.  I also support the call to action encouraged by Feeding America, and that they provide more than one suggestion for how the general population can fight hunger.  One person may volunteer because he lacks the extra money to donate.  Another may donate money to an organization like Feeding America or items to a food drive, because she lacks the time to volunteer.  Charitable organizations who work tirelessly to assist those who are food insecure need both of these people and the resources they bring to bear in the fight against hunger.  But the one action we all must must take is the third option provided in the drop down menu–contact our legislators.

The reason all those participating in this Pass the Plate campaign must engage their legislators, at all levels, is because non-profit organizations, all of them combined, can not feed all of the hungry in America.  Nor can a cable company avenge hunger.  Hunger and food insecurity in the United States is as formidable a foe as any of the Avengers has ever faced.  As I have written before, charitable organizations alone can not solve this problem.  At best they can provide stop gap measures which only serve as a band-aid on the problem.  To really tackle hunger in America requires a strong social safety net and legislation which addresses the root causes of poverty in our country.  So continue to volunteer and donate, as what you give enables charitable organizations to provide the stop gap measures those who are hungry need immediately, but also take the time to contact your legislators to insist that the programs which strengthened our social safety net be enacted and that steps be taken to address the root causes of poverty in America.  Only then can we truly avenge hunger.


Do You Want Ketchup or Mustard?

The weather here in southeastern Pennsylvania the past couple of weeks has been beautiful, especially after our lingering winter and chilly start to Spring.  This time of year I love watching my yard go from a drab brown to I don’t know how many shades of green.  Every day they yard and woods look different.  Now everyone’s thoughts turn toward summer.  I have overheard moms starting to talk, with both relief and hamburgertrepidation, about the approaching end of the school year.  Other folks are starting to plan summer vacations or daydream about heading to the beach.  And if you are like me, you are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of summer fruits and vegetables, as well as foods cooked on the grill.

Due to the popularity of the holiday treats and warm beverages drives, both with those who have donated and our very grateful clients, I have been wanting to hold a summer food drive.  While trying to figure out what extra food item(s) we should try to offer for the summer, it occurred to me that summer foods require their own special condiments.  Fresh garden salads need salad dressings.  Hot dogs and hamburgers need ketchup, mustard, and maybe relish.  Then there is BBQ, which is in a category all its own.  Even though we get the occasional condiment donation, the food pantry does not supply any of these condiments on a regular basis, so I decided summer condiments would be the perfect choice for my food drive.  Thanks to a recent food drive sponsored by one of our local civic organizations, our food pantry is currently well stocked with a variety of salad dressings.  We do not provide ribs or other types meat one would BBQ, so not all of our clients would have a need for BBQ sauce.  That leaves ketchup and mustard.  We regularly provide hamburger and hot dogs as a meat option, so these condiments seemhot dog mustart like the perfect choice for a summertime food drive.

Starting June 1st I would like to be able to offer our clients the option to take home a bottle of ketchup and/or mustard.  We will need all size bottles of these condiments as we have households of one to nine and all sizes in between.  I would encourage you to stick to regular yellow mustard and plain tomato ketchup.  As with other food drives, I am happy to come and pick up any donations you would like to make.  In advance, I would like to say thank you to those making a donation–from me for helping to make this food drive possible and from our clients.  I am always humbled at the gratitude our clients express when they are offered these little extras.

Call to Action

I would like to share with you an email I got this morning from the Chester County Food Bank, which urged me to contact my Congressman today to tell them to vote NO on H. R. 2, also known as the Farm Bill.  Some of you may feel that I am sounding like a broken record and are wishing I would find another topic to write about (don’t worry I will), but right now this is very important.  If this bill passes, it will deny food to children, veterans, women and people with disabilities.  The email suggests you:

Call your House Reps TODAY and tell them
“Vote NO on H.R. 2, the Farm Bill!”

The email also provided the following language, which you are free to use:

I’m calling today to voice my concerns about the House Farm Bill as it relates to SNAP. As a constituent, my concern is that the proposed cuts will be burdensome and unnecessary to food insecure Pennsylvanians and hunger relief organizations like the Chester County Food Bank. I’m asking you to oppose H.R. 2 and come up with a bipartisan bill that protects and strengthens SNAP.

The email also included the following paragraph about SNAP with a link to more information about the proposals.


SNAP is the nation’s most effective nutrition assistance program. If we don’t act, millions of Americans will lose their food aid because of big cuts. The House Ag Committee has made proposals that are harmful, unworkable, untested and wasteful. To learn more about these proposals, visit the Food Research & Action Center website.

I will move on from this topic and had actually already planned to do so, when this email came this morning.  In the three plus years that I have been writing this blog, I have never experienced the outcry from hunger relief organizations against legislation that I have with this bill.  This bill will hurt vulnerable people who need help.

I just got off the phone with a staffer from my Congressman’s office.  He engaged in conversation and said I was not the first person who had called the office with criticism of the bill.  He seemed surprised by the calls.  Please call, perhaps we are getting through.

Please note:  Due to formatting I could not cut and paste the actual email, but the sections in color are the exact wording from the Chester County Food Bank.

Kick the Can

mom kids walkingI remember as a kid playing kick the can with my mother.  Usually we played this game on our way back from a walk on a country road.  At this point in the walk I was probably tired and complaining about having to walk, when my sister could either be carried or was already riding in a stroller.  My mother would find an aluminum can (or bottle cap or some other kickable item) on the side of the road and encourage me to kick it, then run after it and kick it again.  And before I knew it, we would be almost home.  My version of kick the can down the road is a very literal one, as well as one that solves the problem at hand–pacifying a complaining child.  There is, however, another meaning to kick the can down the road, namely to procrastinate, or in more political terms, to avoid solving a contentious problem with the hope that someone else will address it.  Politicians often engage in the figurative sport of kicking the can down the road, unfortunately.  This procrastination is not new.  Think about how long in our history the problem of slavery was kicked down the road, and some would argue that remnants of the can are still being kicked today.

The danger with avoiding crafting a solution to a difficult problem is the creation of unintended symptomatic problems, which compound the original problem.  Here is a case in point I remember from a Child Psychology course I took in college.  In this class we were discussing the pros and cons of children attending daycare rather than staying home with a parent.  As part of the discussion, the professor talked about the state of daycare in the United States at the time, particularly for low income working families and single parents.  He said that children being left in the care of someone other than a parent or close family member isn’t harmful to the child per se.  What makes daycarechildcare potentially detrimental to the child are the conditions and quality of daycare the child attends. He explained that quality day care facilities, which provide a good staff to child ratio and are clean and interactive, pose little harm to children who attend.  Unfortunately, he said, this type of daycare facility is expensive and the United States lacks an adequate number of these quality, affordable daycare facilities, especially for low income working families.  He conjectured that if politicians ensured funding for adequate, quality daycare for low income families, the cost of doing so would be cheaper than addressing the more costly unintended problems, like poor academic performance, which awaited these children who lacked quality daycare.

This professor also contended that this reluctance to provide funding to address a solvable problem in favor of waiting until that manageable problem mushroomed into numerous, more complex problems with costlier solutions, is quite commonplace in our country.  I have to admit that I see truth in his argument with regard to poverty.  Rather than address the primary problem of poverty by working to create more jobs, to ensure an adequately trained and educated workforce, and to guarantee a livable wage for instance, our legislators have sought to address the symptomatic problems of poverty like unaffordable housing and healthcare costs or food insecurity.  I would say this approach is better than not smashed canaddressing poverty at all, except now legislators have begun to chop away at the supports that have been put in place to address these symptomatic problems, which brings me back to kicking the can down the road.

Recent proposals from the current Administration and Congress, like the proposed Farm Bill and HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s proposal to impose work requirements for HUD programs, demonstrate the current Administration and Congressional leadership’s lack of desire to now address even the symptomatic problems of poverty.  In other words they are opting to kick the can down the road, and in doing so are ensuring the original problem persists.  Only this time, because they are also removing the supports for the programs which address the symptoms of the poverty,  these legislators are guaranteeing that the primary problem, poverty, will not only persist, but will grown and worsen.  At some point we must stop playing games with people’s lives.

Below I have included some links to sources which provide an overview to the proposed Farm Bill and how it will affect those who experience poverty.

  • For a brief overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.
  • For an in depth overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.  It is a lengthy, but comprehensive assessment, which is updated as this bill progresses through the legislative process.
  • For a good article on how the proposed reforms to SNAP will perpetuate the cycle of poverty click here.


A Win-Win-Win

farmers marketAfter I published my post last week about the Administration’s proposed changes to the delivery of SNAP benefits and the effects these changes will have, I read an article posted on the Talk Poverty website discussing how SNAP is helping to keep small farmers in business.  I was drawn to read this article, because it touched upon two points I made in my previous post–how easily most SNAP participants can and do access fresh produce with the current benefit delivery system and how that current delivery system helps businesses in the local economy.  This article discusses Double Up Food Bucks, a program funded through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, that allows every SNAP dollar spent on produce at participating farmers’ markets and grocery stores to count as two dollars, up to $20 daily cap.  This program has currently been launched in 20+ states and this article focuses on the results of the Arizona program.

While I was not surprised that the article reported on the popularity of this Arizona program, I was surprised at how popular and successful the program is.  The author reports that SNAP spending at participating farmers’ markets rose between 67 and 290 percent since the program began in 2016.  At one farmers’ market SNAP spending increased from $9,000 in 2015 to over $43,000 by 2017 as a result of this program.  Additionally, over half of those dollars were spent on locally grown fruits and vegetables.  As Adrienne Udarbe, executive director of Pinnacle Prevention, the nonprofit that manages the program for Arizona, states, “Double Up is a win-win-win. farmers market2SNAP recipients have access to more fruits and vegetables, local farmers make more money, and more dollars stay in the local economy.”

Pennsylvania is not one of the 20+ states which has a Double Up Food Bucks program, however, some agencies within the state have created their own programs similar to the Double Up Food Bucks program, like Philly Food Bucks created by The Food Trust.   In Chester County, the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) sponsors a program through it’s Fresh2You mobile produce truck.  Through this program, SNAP recipients who shop at the mobile market with their EBT card will stretch their SNAP dollars with Veggie Bucks.  For every SNAP dollar spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, shoppers will receive that same amount in Veggie Bucks to be used on future purchases, all season long.  The Fresh2You mobile produce truck makes a weekly stop in our town.  Consequently, the CCFB provides our food pantry with some Veggie Bucks to give to clients when they come to get their food for the month.  These clients can then take the Veggie Bucks to the Fresh2You truck when it stops in our town to help purchase fresh produce.

The Administration’s proposed budget, with its restructuring and spending cuts, creates much uncertainty about the Double Up Food Buck program’s future for the over 20 states participating in the program.  The concern over the fate of this program lies in the belief that the proposed America’s Harvest Box signals a shift away from providing funding for SNAP recipients to have autonomy to make their own food purchases, including the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Unfortunately, by making this shift, the farmers market3Administration will not only be providing less access to fresh produce, but will also be economically hurting local produce farmers who have benefited financially from participating in the Double Up Food Bucks program.

For me, this article provides further evidence of the shortsightedness of the proposed changes current legislators wish to make in SNAP and other programs assisting those in need.  From whatever angle I study SNAP and ancillary programs, like Double Up Food Bucks, I see a very successful programs which accomplish their missions with efficiency and very little fraud.  I fail to understand the reasoning behind the repeated attacks on these programs.  Either those who wish to shrink or alter SNAP have a lack of understanding of who uses the program and how they use it or a wish to impose a punitive element on those who need this assistance.  I want to be generous and believe the reason behind these cuts or restructuring proposals is due to a lack of understanding, but over the years I have seen more evidence that the desire to punish those needing assistance is more likely the reason.  What the current Administration fails to realize is that this proposed change or any change which cuts the budget of assistance programs for the food insecure, like SNAP or the FINI grant program, will punish far more than those who are poor and in need of assistance.  Members of local economies, like these small produce farmers, will also suffer as a result of these changes.

Cut Those Apron Strings

blue apron1As I promised in my last post, I want to take a closer look at the proposed restructuring of the delivery of SNAP benefits from the President’s proposed budget, released last month.  The budget proposes to hold back half of a SNAP recipient’s direct benefit amount, replacing it with a box of pre-selected non-perishable food items, equal in value to the amount of the held back benefits.  These boxes, named America’s Harvest Box, have been compared by Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to Blue Apron*.  For those unfamiliar with Blue Apron, the online company allows customers to choose meals from a weekly menu.  The ingredients and recipes for the selected meal(s) are then shipped directly to the customers’ doorsteps.  I’m not sure the exact reason for the comparison.  Maybe the Administration was trying to describe the food box concept in a way they thought the general population might understand.  Or maybe they were trying to sell the idea by equating it with something hip and trendy.  Surely the poor will love it!  Whatever their reasoning, this proposal has been resoundingly panned by economists, policy wonks, hunger advocates, and almost every organization tasked with assisting those who are food insecure.

Before I discuss the proposed changes and why they are not a good idea, I want to explain how SNAP currently works and discuss some of the positives about the current delivery system.  Once a month benefits are loaded on to a SNAP participant’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which resembles a credit or debit card, and works just like a debit card.   SNAP participants are able to use the EBT card at participating stores to purchase qualifying food items.  That’s it!  That’s how easy it is.  The SNAP EBT card has been in use in all 50 states since 2004 and was introduced to reduce fraud associated with the use of paper food stamp coupons.  These EBT cards have been successful in helping to reduce SNAP fraud to roughly 1%, one of the lowest frauds rates of any Federal program.

The current method used to administer SNAP has numerous benefits, and not just for bluearpon2SNAP participants.  For those who participate in SNAP, the EBT card allows them the control to purchase the food that is appropriate for the make-up of their household.  For instance, if the household has a baby, baby food can be purchased, or if someone in the household has dietary restrictions or allergies, certain items can be avoided in favor of more appropriate ones.  Additionally, using the SNAP EBT card allows participants to shop for their food when and where it is most convenient for them.  For instance they can shop at night or on weekends to accommodate a work schedule or more frequently if they are only able to carry a few items on the bus.  Finally, the current manner in which SNAP functions does not just benefit SNAP participants.  The USDA reports that every $5 of SNAP benefit spent generates $9 in economic activity for the local economy.

From all angles the current SNAP program’s benefit delivery system looks like it functions quite well.  It is easy to administer, experiences very little fraud, and is flexible in meeting the needs of those it seeks to help.  So what would the restructuring do to improve this program?  Absolutely nothing.  As previously stated, the proposed restructure would withhold half of the benefit dollar amount for a SNAP recipient and replaced it with the America’s Harvest Box.  The remaining benefits would be loaded onto an EBT card for SNAP participants to use as they currently do.  The box of food would contain non-perishable foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, pasta and cereals, and shelf stable milk.  Each SNAP household would get a food box valued at the amount of their withheld benefits.  The food items would be chosen by the government and will vary from month to month depending on what is available.

blueapron3If you are like me, at this point you are scratching your head and asking why the government would blow up an efficiently functioning program and replace it with one that will be less beneficial to those who use it, possibly more expensive to administer, and a logistical nightmare for all.  According to the USDA the intent of this change is to “improve the nutritional value of the benefits provided and reduce the potential EBT fraud.”  In response to the second half of that statement, what fraud and how is this going to help?  Direct benefits on an EBT card,  which are currently virtually fraud proof (hence a 1% rate of fraud), are being converted into a box of food, which could easily be sold or traded, creating conditions where fraud can more readily happen.

As for the first half of the statement, the America’s Harvest Boxes do very little to ensure better access to nutritional food for those receiving SNAP benefits.  The boxes provide no fresh produce, while taking away half of the SNAP recipient’s direct benefits, which could have been used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.  In addition to limiting a SNAP household’s access to fresh produce, the America’s Harvest Box has potential to hamper SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase food items appropriate to the household and may even give recipients food which can not be used by members of the household.  In all likelihood,  the contents of the boxes would be uniform for all households and households would not have any idea what exactly will be inside until the box is opened.  Consequently, a family with a baby would get the same food as the family with older children or no children.  The diabetic or person with heart disease would get the same food as the SNAP recipient with no health issues.  And what about those with food allergies, like peanut butter?  Some households will get food they can’t use, while others won’t get items they need.  The result in either case will be SNAP recipients who will have a reduced ability to purchase fresh produce and food appropriate to their household.

In addition to having the purchasing power of their direct SNAP benefits diminished, these SNAP participants face the likely burden of having to pick up their food boxes.  With Blue Apron, the box of ingredients is delivered to the purchasers’ doorsteps.  I doubt America’s Harvest Boxes will be delivered to SNAP recipients’ doorsteps as the cost would be too prohibitive.  Consequently, food box recipients will need to travel to a distribution location at specific times to receive their food.  One might think picking up this box of food is no big deal, but what if the pick up time is during their work hours?  Or they don’t have reliable transportation?  Or they have a car, but lack enough money to buy gas for this extra trip?  Or they are unable to carry a large box of food on public transportation?  The currently mode of putting direct benefits on an EBT card presentsblueapron4 none of these added burdens for SNAP participants.

SNAP recipients, however, are not the only ones to experience the negatives of this restructuring of SNAP.  States, tasked with the job of assembling and distributing these food boxes, will also face hardships.  The proposed budget says that states will have “substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships, or commercial/retail delivery services.”  But what does that mean?  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities contends that neither the USDA nor the states currently have the operational capacity and infrastructure necessary to support the distribution of commodities to individual households.  If that is the case, new bureaucracy will need to be created with the possibility that the funds to create this delivery system will to come out of the already shrinking SNAP budget, further reducing the funding available to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, local economies will suffer when SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase their food locally drops by half.  Large retailers, like Walmart and Target, are already speaking out in opposition to this change.

Many of the critics of the America’s Harvest Box proposal agree that this restructuring of SNAP probably will not pass.  Even though this legislation may be going nowhere, I still feel that discussing it is important.  The details of the restructuring, at best, reveal a disconnect between what the Administration thinks will help SNAP participants and what they really need in terms of assistance.  More disturbing, however, some critics believe this proposal is just a smokescreen to cover for cuts and mandatory work requirements for SNAP participation.  There has been a movement by some legislators for the past several years to severely cut the budget for SNAP, and unable to pass legislation to make that cut all at once, they have been chipping away at the SNAP budget year after year.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one of the few remaining programs of our social safety net.  Every year SNAP prevents millions of Americans from slipping through the net into a level poverty from which they can not recover.  If SNAP is allowed to be restructured or in any other way to have its budget cut, I think the depths of poverty will extend down to levels we have not seen in this country for many decades.  Those of us concerned with the plight of people in poverty must remain vigilant.

*Next time, before the anyone from the Administration makes a comparison, perhaps he should do some research.  Blue Apron has never turned a profit and has actually been losing customers.  It’s stock has lost two-thirds of the value of it’s initial public offering of $10, causing speculation about whether the company will even exist in 5 years.



Something Beautiful out of Tragedy

fruit heartTuesdays are always my crazy busy day, and yesterday afternoon as I was running errands I heard a heard a news story on the radio which brought a sad smile to my face.  The segment was about the Philando Feeds the Children fund, a memorial fund set up to raise money to pay off school lunch debt in schools in St. Paul, MN.  The fund was established in honor of Philando Castile who was fatally shot by police in 2016.  The creator of this online crowdfunding venture chose a fund to pay off school lunch debt as a way to honor Philando Castile, because Mr. Castile worked as a nutrition services supervisor at a school in St. Paul and would regularly assist children who were unable to pay for lunch with money out of his own pocket.  The fund has raised $70,000 over its initial goal of $5,000.  As a result, fund organizers have decided to increase their goal to $100,000 and to expand the reach of the fund to any school in Minnesota with school lunch debt.

I wish I didn’t live in a world with school lunch debt or hungry children or innocent, unarmed individuals getting shot by police offices, but the creation of this fund and the outpouring of support for it help to restore my faith in the kindness and caring of others.

A Budget Built on Myths

Over the past two weeks I have read analyses and responses to the President’s 2019 proposed budget from a variety of sources, including organizations which report the news, conduct policy review, advocate for the poor, and help provide food for those who are food insecure.  All of these organizations and news outlets have come to the same conclusion–this budget will be disastrous to poor Americans.  Since my blog focuses on food insecurity, I am going to limit my discussion of the proposed budget to changes which will affect aid to those who are food insecure; however, the budget’s proposed cuts to the federal housing assistance program, Medicaid, and other programs comprising our social safety net will undoubtedly further negatively impact these same households.  I will mostly focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is slated to have its budget cut by $213 billion over the next ten years, or 30 percent.   This budget cut to SNAP would be achieved by drastically restructuring benefit delivery, a change affecting a majority of participating SNAP households.  Additional proposed changes in benefits and eligibility requirements would make at least 4 million peopleelderly hands ineligible for any SNAP benefits.  These proposed cuts will affect SNAP participants across all groups, including the elderly, those with disabilities, low income working families, children and veterans.

If this budget is approved, the largest cut to SNAP would occur through a dramatic restructuring in the delivery of benefits.  In this restructuring $260 billion (over 10 years) will be shifted from benefits paid directly to households for the purchase of food, back to the government.  Here is how the restructuring will work.  Under the proposal, households which receive $90 or more in SNAP benefits each month (80% of all SNAP recipients) would see half of their benefit amount shift from direct EBT funds, which are then used by the recipient to purchase food, to a box of pre-selected, non-perishable food worth the same dollar amount including, shelf stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.*  The cost for the purchase food, assembly, and distribution of these boxes, called America’s Harvest Box, is budgeted to cost $130 billion, or half of the money being shifted from direct benefits.  The remaining $130 billion of the held back funds would be eliminated from the program, comprising the majority of the USDA’s estimated ten year SNAP savings.  This change would affect almost 90% of SNAP participants, or approximately 34 million people in 16 million households in 2019.

The cuts to SNAP do not end with this restructuring though.  The President’s 2019 budget proposes an additional $85 billion in cuts to SNAP over a ten year period.  For example, the budget proposes raising the upper age limit for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), who are limited to only 3 months of SNAP benefits, from the current age of 49 to age 62.  Another proposed change would be to cap SNAP benefits disabledat the level for a household of six, penalizing any households of more than six individuals.  This will greatly impact multi-generational households or households where two families have come together to pool their resources by sharing costs.  An additional proposed cut would be the elimination of the minimum benefit, ending benefits for roughly 2 million individuals, mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. These are just a few of the other areas the budget proposes to cut SNAP benefits.  SNAP, however, is not the only program assisting those who are food insecure targeted for cuts.

Like SNAP these other programs help all groups who are facing poverty and food insecurity.  For instance, the budget proposes the all but elimination of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which will impact seniors.  The CSFP distributes senior boxes, which provides meal boxes to low income seniors.  Additionally there are proposed cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school and summer lunch programs.  These cuts will greatly impact children and weaken programs which have been proven to not only lessen hunger, but infant eatingto improve the health and educational achievement of children.  The last cuts I want to mention are cuts to programs that assist with purchasing fresh produce at farmer’s markets, and nutritional education programs.  These cuts strike me as incredibly hypocritical as one of the main reasons for restructuring SNAP benefits to include the America’s Harvest Box was to ensure SNAP participants were purchasing healthy food with their benefits.  The America’s Harvest Box, however, contains no fresh produce and these cuts will reduce the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables individuals receiving assistance can purchase.

As I state above, the proposed cuts to these social safety net programs designed to assist the food insecure do not discriminate and will hurt all segments of the population receiving assistance.  This proposed budget reflects a clear misunderstanding about who the average SNAP participant actually is.*  I have come to the conclusion over the past few years of studying poverty issues and food insecurity, that many in this country, including a large number of politicians, believe that the average SNAP participant is someone who is lazy and doesn’t want to work.  They believe that person uses his or her benefits to buy junk food and sodas or steaks and other luxuries.  Furthermore, when they not making inappropriate food purchases, they are engaging in some sort of fraudulent activity with their SNAP benefits.  And all the while they are abusing the system, they are laughing at hard working Americans for providing their tax dollars to fund this program.  Ladies and gentlemen, this version of the average SNAP participant is a MYTH and before anyone starts to protest about some friend their brother knows, or a co-worker’s cousin or even their own deadbeat cousin, let me just say that I know there are those out there who abuse the system.  I have witnessed it myself.  But the number of farm workerparticipants I have witnessed who are truly struggling, working hard, and trying to do the right thing to get themselves and their families out of the situation they are in, vastly outweighs the handful of SNAP abusers I have encountered.

I grew up hearing that those in the United States who wanted to could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a good life for themselves.  I was taught that in America if a person worked hard and played by the rules, he could rise up and attain the American Dream.  I have learned that this, too, is a MYTH.  Oh sure, the possibility does exist for an individual to start with very little, and with hard work and smart decisions, attain wealth.  I would just argue that there is more to that person’s story than just hard work and sacrifice, because I encounter individuals all the time who are working hard and sacrificing, but still live in poverty.  The truth is that it is against incredible odds that anyone is able to move out of poverty in the United States.  The social safety net in the Untied States contains gaping holes in its current state.  Maintaining the status quo will at best ensure that poverty numbers in the United States will remain at their current level.  If this budget were to pass, however, all bets are off.

* I will address this topic further in an upcoming blog post.