Housing and hunger: Feasting on food stamps

By Lindsey Lanquist and Justin Biegel

For Alamance County resident Stephanie Jones, Thanksgiving means more than just a meal. It means spending the extra $20 to feed her two children the Thanksgiving feast they dream of. It means making the traditional turkey and ham. And it means spending her food stamps on a one-meal splurge instead of spreading them out to cover several meals as she normally would.

Jones is a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient, which means she, like nearly 45.5 million other Americans, receives federal nutrition assistance (food stamps) each month. Food stamps are allocated to low-income families, and the amount each family receives varies by household income, number of dependents and other financial factors. Jones has been on food stamps since 2003, meaning this is her 12th Thanksgiving splurge.

“The ham and the turkey, that’s what the kids like to have. You know, it’s a traditional thing for most people,” Jones said. “That takes $20 off my regular groceries that I could get usually three or four meals out of. But when you’re looking at holidays, you [sic] gonna spend a little more.”

Understanding SNAP

The federal government introduced its first official food stamp program in 1964, when President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act. The program expanded to include all 50 states in 1974, and President Carter regulated national standards for the program in 1977. In 2008, the program was renamed “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” or SNAP, which is what it is officially called today.

SNAP eligibility varies based on several criteria: number of dependents, disability status, household income, assets on hand, housing expenses and child support. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a screening tool on its website for people who think they may be eligible to receive federal nutrition assistance.

Those who qualify receive a certain amount of money in food stamps each month,
based on the previously mentioned criteria. These SNAP benefits can be redeemed for breads and cereals, fruits and info2vegetables, meats and fish, seeds and plants that produce food for the family, and dairy products (this includes soft drinks and snacks). SNAP recipients may not use their benefits to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, pet foods, toiletries, household supplies, vitamins or medicines. They’re also not allowed to redeem them for hot foods or foods to be eaten in the place of purchase, meaning no using food stamps at restaurants.

Some SNAP recipients decide not to redeem their benefits at all and instead sell their food stamps to get money for rent and utilities, according to Allied Churches of Alamance County Program Director Jan Bowman. Though illegal, these people make the choice to prioritize housing over satiating hunger and sacrifice several meals to maintain their current living situations.

Shopping on food stamps

Recent studies have shown SNAP recipients tend to favor cheaper, less healthy meals, because they can get more calories for less money. But for Jones, this isn’t the case. She allocates most of her food stamps to buying vegetables and hearty proteins like meats, and spends only small amounts on snacks and other indulgences.

“I try not to get over $20 worth of snacks, based on what I’m getting,” Jones said. “I can’t make a meal out of potato chips and ice cream.”

Bridget Freeman, another SNAP recipient, said her typical grocery purchases include: meats, bread, eggs, fruits, vegetables and chocolate milk — something her daughter Lilly likes to drink with dinner.

Both Jones and Freeman emphasized the importance of obtaining substantial sources of protein (meat) and serving fruits and vegetables with every meal, especially when it comes to what they’re putting on their childrens’ plates. This contradicts what some studies have found — the results of which suggest SNAP recipient diets are typically nutrient-poor and full of starches and fats.

“We want to make sure that she [Lilly] can get the best meal that she can get, because there are a lot of kids in this world that are starving,” Freeman said. “I’m appreciative of the resources we do have, and I’m very grateful for them.”

Holidays and hunger

Not only do the holidays bring with them more expensive food traditions like “pies and potato salads,” as Jones mentioned, they also bring with them a break from school for children. While this means more time Jones can spend with her son and daughter, this excitement doesn’t come without responsibility. Because Jones is a single working mother and the father of her children works as well, vacation time comes with a price.

Right now, public schools are required by law to provide regular nutrition services to their students. At the minimum, families can count on public schools to serve their kids lunch every day, and often, they can count on schools to serve their children breakfast as well. Families usually cover dinner, but they save 5-10 meals worth of money each week their children spend in school.

Not to mention, Jones’ children attend year-round school, so they have extended vacation periods. Her children will receive three weeks off this semester to celebrate Thanksgiving, and for Jones, the expenses are sure to pile up.

info1info1Three weeks off for Thanksgiving means 60 additional meals Jones has to serve (10 meals for each child for three weeks) — plus the estimated $40-$50 extra she spends to serve the traditional holiday feast. With each average SNAP meal costing an estimated $1.50, Jones can expect to spend $90 extra to feed her children during the break and $130-$140 total on all the Thanksgiving foods she plans to buy. “Spend a little more,” indeed.

In trying financial times like these, Jones turns to Allied Churches of Alamance County, a local food pantry she’s been coming to for more than a year now. The pantry offers various nutritional resources to families based on their size, and Jones usually gets pastries, pastas, cereals, milk, canned vegetables and other food she needs to hold her family over until next month’s SNAP benefits.

Though, Jones said, one week of groceries “may not seem like a lot,” it really does make a difference to her and her family.

“It has a big impact because I run out of food when I get to the end of the month. So I can come here and get vegetables and things my kids need,” Jones said. “If I don’t have those extra groceries when they [my children] go on break, it really hits me.”

And as Jones looks past the holiday season to the new year, she said she’s hopeful about how her situation will change and improve.

“My work has been up and down, up and down. And I’ve been working on doing something else. So hopefully my situation will change and I will be able to do better, as far as providing for my kids,” she said. “But for now, I’m glad resources such as these [Allied Churches] exist.”

We participated in the #HungerChallenge and lived on $4.50 a day for a week, which is what the typical SNAP recipient receives in benefits. Learn more about our experience here.