by Jeffrey Lee
Last Thursday, House Republicans in their latest controversial vote removed the food stamp program from the farm bill. For as long as I can remember, there has been a food stamp program. As a child growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I often wondered where people got that funny looking book of money and what was it used for. Later, I discovered the true purpose of a food stamp book which is helping to feed hungry children and families. Historically, the food stamp program and the farm bill have been voted on together in the same bill since 1973.
Hunger in America is an issue that many discuss, but at the same time few truly wanted to tackle the millions of starving families in the US. On Thursday, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that will completely remove the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) better know as “food stamps” from our government’s budget, and SNAP has been tied to the Agriculture or Farm bill since 1973. However, conservative house republicans feel that there is no particular need for this program and moved to remove the program completely from the farm bill. In an America where 16 percent of its population is living at or below the national poverty rate, roughly 50 million people are hungry residing in one of the richest nations on the planet. How can this move be justified?
The New York Times published the article House bill would split farm and food stamp programs which gives a detailed view of exactly what the Farm Bill covers and how it has been used historically.
Here is an excerpt:
“Asked before the vote Thursday if he would allow a compromise bill to come to a final vote in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio shrugged and said: “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. You’ve heard that before. My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed. We’ll get to those other issues later.”
Democrats did not allow this move by Senate Republicans to transpire without opposition. All Democrats stood in solidarity and voted against the measure along with 12 republicans who bucked against party lines and voted with a social conscious. Anyone in public office who serves a populous should have the political and moral obligation to act in the best interest of that populous and not special interest. Too many times, the republican party has looked to those in our nation who can afford the least as a remedy to pay for tax cuts for the rich and unpaid for wars. The truth of the matter is that money controls political campaigns, and ultimately it serves as a means to control political agendas. So I ask you, if a political party has been bought and paid for why continue to vote for them?
SNAP Benefits Aren’t Enough to Afford a Healthy Diet
A new study from North Carolina State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, only covers 43-60 percent of what it costs to consume a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet. The study highlights the challenges lower-income households face in trying to eat a healthy diet.
“The federal government has defined what constitutes a healthy diet, and we wanted to know how financially feasible it was for low-income households, who qualify for SNAP benefits, to follow these guidelines,” says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, co-author of a paper on the study and an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State.
This can be a tricky question to answer, as federal dietary guidelines vary based on age and gender. SNAP benefits also vary, based on household income and the number of adults and children living in the household. For the purposes of this study, the researchers used average monthly SNAP benefits for 2015.
To address their research question, the researchers looked at the cost to follow federal dietary guidelines based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s monthly retail price data from 2015 for fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. They calculated costs under a variety of scenarios. For example, what would it cost to comply with dietary guidelines if one only ate produce that was fresh, not frozen? What if one only consumed fruits and vegetables that were frozen? What if a household followed a vegetarian diet? The researchers also included labor costs associated with shopping and preparing meals, based on 2010 estimates produced by other economics researchers.
“We found significant variability in the costs associated with following federal dietary guidelines,” Haynes-Maslow says. “For example, it was most expensive to consume only fresh produce, and it was least expensive to consume a vegetarian diet.”
To place this in context, consider a four-person household that has one adult male, one adult female, one child aged 8-11 and one child aged 12-17 – all of whom qualify for SNAP benefits. They would need to spend $626.95 per month in addition to their SNAP benefits if they ate only fresh produce as part of their diet. That same household would need to spend $487.39, in addition, to SNAP benefits if they ate a vegetarian diet.
“Many low-income households simply don’t have an additional $500 or $600 to spend on food in their monthly budget,” Haynes-Maslow says.
The researchers did find that SNAP is sufficient to meet the healthy dietary needs of two groups: children under the age of 8 and women over the age of 51. However, SNAP was insufficient to meet the needs of older children, younger women, or men of any age.
“Even though SNAP is not designed to cover all of the cost of food – it’s meant to be a supplemental food program – this study makes it clear that there would be many low-income households that would not be able to cover the gap needed to eat a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines,” Haynes Maslow says. “Even without including labor costs, a household of four would need to spend approximately $200-$300 in addition to their SNAP benefits to follow the dietary guidelines.”
3 Reasons to Add Meatless Mondays
Going vegetarian or vegan can be a daunting task, but there’s no reason to jump in head first! Meatless Mondays (or Wednesdays or Saturdays) can change the world, and its great for the environment, your health, and the animals!
You might be surprised by how much water it takes for the food to get to your plate. The food we eat makes up about 80% of America’s total water footprint. Virtual water is what makes up this water footprint. Virtual water is the amount of water that is embedded in products needed for its production, so this includes the water used in cleaning and transporting for example. Pound for pound, meat has a higher water footprint than vegetables, grains or beans. For instance, a single pound of beef takes, on average, 1,847 gallons of water. It adds up around the world to a range of 7-305 pounds per person per year.
Assuming everyone eats equal amounts of meat each day, adding Meatless Monday will bring that number down to 6-262 pounds per person per year (divide by 7 and then multiply by 6) and that’s a big difference! Beyond water footprint, let’s talk about carbon footprint! Beef produces 13 times the emissions of vegetable protein (beans, lentils, tofu, etc.) Once again that’s a big difference! This is very simplified and does not consider all the pollution that comes from animal agriculture!
Pant-based meals, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, is rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. A National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate the most red meat daily were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who ate the least amount of red meat. Other processed meats also increased the risk plenty, but the people who ate the least meat were least likely to die in the 10-year period.
Vegans and vegetarians do get enough protein no matter what the stereotypes say. Make sure you eat enough calories and you are sure to get enough protein. If you eat the same amount of vegetables as you would meat, that’s not going to work! Most meat-free food is less calorie dense than meat so keep that in mind. Don’t forget variety and you shouldn’t have a problem with protein, iron, vitamins, or anything else you might be worried about!
This is the reason most people suspect when you say you’re eating less meat or going vegetarian. After all, modern agriculture commonly keeps animals in overcrowded stalls, cages, crates, or sheds where they are often unable to turn around or take even a single step in their entire lives. Deprived of care, exercise, sunlight, and grass, the animals suffer tremendously before even coming to the slaughterhouse. It is important to remember that the animals are living, breathing, thinking, and feeling beings. The meat industry kills more than 25 billion animals each year.
In modern factory farms, animals are routinely injected with hormones and stimulants to make them grow bigger and faster. Some of these injections have been proven to cause cancer and other diseases. Feedlots are crowded, filthy, stinking places with open sewers and choking air. The animals would not survive in the filthy and crowded conditions without the unnatural amount of antibiotics used. At some farms, cattle are fed dead ground up cows.
Add some meatless meals to your diet! And you don’t have to do it on a Monday, but Meatless Wednesdays just doesn’t sound as good. Do what works best for you!
What About a Welfare Challenge?
In recent years, to draw attention to the plight of food insecurity in America, advocacy groups and community organizations have promoted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or “food stamp” challenges. Aimed at highlighting the difficulties in living on a “food stamp budget,” (about $4-$5 per day) these challenges encourage participants to better understand the realities faced by those who rely on food assistance to meet nutritional needs.
Over the past decade, policy makers, journalists, celebrities, and regular folks across the country have participated in these challenges and shared their stories, which generally share a common refrain: It’s hard. Purchasing sufficient quantities of quality food for a family on such a budget is near impossible.
Moreover, a considerable number of SNAP families report zero income, meaning that there are no additional funds to act as a buffer when the food stamps run out. These types of challenges are important in drawing attention to the very real problem of hunger in our country, and have the potential to raise needed funds for food pantries and anti-hunger advocacy groups.
While recently reading about a SNAP challenge experience, I got to thinking: why not a welfare challenge? Much like food stamps, today’s cash assistance program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) is a widely-misunderstood government benefit, and stereotypes about recipients abound. Why not challenge celebrities, politicians, and community members to live on a “welfare budget” for a month?
The guidelines for my proposed challenge would look something like this:
- Welcome to the welfare challenge! Imagine your family has fallen on hard times. Before you get started, freeze all of your assets. No access to savings, credit cards, or investments for a full month. Remember, millions of poor families lack access to a formal bank account, and most lack any financial safety net. For this month, you have nothing to fall back on.
- Now, live on a budget of $400 for the next 30 days. This is about the average monthly cash assistance benefit in the U.S. (though you could be living on as little as $200 per month if you live in certain states). This $400 should cover all of your non-food expenses, including utilities, toiletries, cleaning products, clothes, transportation costs, school fees, and anything else you and your family may need for survival. Hope for no parking tickets, car repairs, or other unforeseen expenses!
Don’t forget that due to overwhelming need, federal housing assistance doesn’t reach many low-income families. In fact, in many areas, public housing applicants face excessive waiting lists or must participate in lotteries to obtain access. So you’d better plan to budget for your housing this month too.
- Try to avoid accepting other forms of assistance to help meet your family’s needs, as these aren’t always available to every family.
- Set aside 30 hours per week for your required work assignment, which is required through the program. This may include volunteer work, job search assistance, or another type of work activity, though be aware that data suggest this will not likely prepare you for a living wage job in the future. However, without participating, you can set your budget back to $0 as families receiving cash assistance can be sanctioned (i.e. thrown off the program) for failing to comply. In many states, this means that the whole family loses their cash benefit, including children. Don’t be late!
- Next, experience the struggle of living in poverty and relying on welfare benefits to support your family. Be prepared for the inevitable fallout, which may include losing your home, your car, and running out of diapers, tampons, or toilet paper (which can’t be purchased through food stamp benefits). Be prepared to tell your kids “no” a lot. Fear every bill that lands in your mailbox. Expect your physical and emotional health to suffer. You may even struggle to think clearly and problem solve.
Ready to sign up?
Rest easy, do-gooders. Promoting such a challenge would be irresponsible, even reckless. To expect families to live on $400 per month is ludicrous, yet across the country, we expect just that from hundreds of thousands of households. Children suffer tremendously as a result.
Speculation about such a challenge is already largely inconsequential, as cash assistance itself is a dying concept. It’s been well documented that welfare is dead. Across the country, the rolls are dropping precipitously, as sanction policies become stricter and more punitive while funds continue to be supplanted to plug state budget holes. In my state of Ohio, with a population of over 11 million, only about 100,000 recipients remain (mostly children), despite the fact that nearly 1.8 million people and 340,000 Ohio families live in poverty.
Fighting hunger in America is an area of shared commitment. While people have a range of opinions on the best approach, those on both sides of the aisle generally agree: hunger is bad. This is especially evident around the holidays. We collect cans, serve meals to the homeless, and write checks making donations to pantries. However, poverty is more complicated, and too often we allow personal judgements and stereotypes to cloud our ability to feel empathy to the poor.
All too often, we cease to remember that being poor means more than not getting enough to eat. Poverty is pain, shame, and struggle. Hunger may be easier to put a Band-Aid on, but it won’t end altogether unless we tackle the source.
My welfare challenge is, for good reason, a nonstarter. Asking others to demonstrate compassion for those in poverty is not. Supporting policies that allow families to live with dignity is not. Let us all try to do better.
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