What I learned from a week on food stamps: Paul Ryan couldn't be any more wrong

Republicans have their sights set on food-stamp cuts that would devastate lower-income Americans

Published January 19, 2014 1:00PM (EST)

Paul Ryan                                (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)
Paul Ryan (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)

This piece has been corrected since it was first published.

“Can I help you with something?” said a pleasant English-accented voice. It was 4:46 p.m. on a Saturday and I’d been staring -- face contorted with confusion -- at the buzzer directory of 12 East 14th St. None of the names on the fourth floor suggested I was in the right place.

It was then that I spun around to see a tall man in his mid- to late 30s leading a baby-bearing stroller into what it was now clear to me was an apartment building.

“I think I have the wrong address,” I stammered.

“Sometimes people…” the English dad started to say before trailing off. Recalibrating, he got to the point: “The welfare center is West 14th Street.”

I felt the blood rush to my face; I could no longer meet his eyes. I mumbled something quick about being on assignment, then thanked him before scurrying across Fifth Avenue.

What I didn’t explain to that English dad was that, as part of the story I was writing, I had decided to experience for myself what it's like to survive on money from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistant Program (SNAP), better known to most as "food stamps." To apply, one must go to one of 16 food-stamp centers for an application and interview. I wondered how many of the 1.8 million people in the city who are on SNAP -- including a full third of Brooklynites -- felt as sheepish as I did at being pegged needing what that dad had called “welfare.”

* * *

It has been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson -- the architect of the modern food stamp -- set out to “conquer poverty” in America. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan, are ready to declare the “War on Poverty” a failure, and gut funding for things like food stamps. What their objections ignore, however, is that SNAP is vitally important to 47 million Americans -- one sixth of our country, from rural plains to swelling cities. And the program works.

During the recession, SNAP “kept about four million people above the poverty level and[...] prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty,” Ron Nixon reported in the New York Times, citing Census Bureau figures. However, fueled by popular mischaracterizations about “takers” and “welfare," the House of Representatives voted in September to cut almost $39 billion over a 10-year period from SNAP. While that proposal generated significant blowback from Democrats, a tentative compromise still leaves much to be desired: The final deal -- quietly negotiated while the political sphere focused on Chris Christie -- includes $9 billion in cuts from the program over a 10-year period.

The basic, flawed assumption of SNAP's critics is that those who need food stamps to eat are voluntarily out of work, and that, by removing these programs, “takers” are forced to find jobs.

"If you're able-bodied, you should be willing to work," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said about the SNAP cuts.

“This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

Rep. Stephen Fincher (whose district receives millions in farm subsidies) even quoted the Bible to make his anti-SNAP point: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

Cantor et al. would be wise to know that 41 percent of SNAP recipients are in a household generating income. Yet, for some “able-bodied” workers, a meager income is still not enough to put food on the table. Employees of Wal-Mart and McDonalds, for example, are major beneficiaries of SNAP. (A 2012 Daily Kos article reported that 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees benefit from SNAP. One Wal-Mart in Canton, Ohio, even held a food drive for their fellow employees struggling to afford the cost of Thanksgiving dinner.) Those SNAP beneficiaries who are not employed include children, the disabled and the elderly. It is estimated 25 percent of households that benefit from SNAP include an elderly family member, and  72 percent of such households include children. In fact, at some point in their childhood, a full half of America’s children will be fed with food stamps. In 2011, only 11 percent of food-stamp recipients in New Jersey were single, childless, non-disabled, non-elderly adults.

Taking away the social safety net, which feeds struggling Americans, is not going to suddenly force 47 million people into finding high-wage paying jobs. Or as Dave Johnson, fellow and blogger for Campaign for America’s Future, wrote, “Republicans are picking on the poorest citizens[…] saying that $133 a month is keeping them from bothering to look for a job.”

* * *

The average amount that a family on food stamps gets per month is $133. That is $133 for 93 meals. For three meals a day, $133 breaks down to less than $1.50 per meal.

For New Yorkers this number is slightly higher. The brochure from 12 West 14th St. informed me that a single New Yorker making less than the Gross Monthly Income Limit of $1,245 would qualify for maximum $200 a month (before November 1, 2013 cuts; currently one would receive $189 per month). As you increase the number of people in a household, the monthly allotment raises accordingly.

In my own trial, which would last a week, I decided to split the difference between the $50 weekly allotment that a New Yorker would get through SNAP with the national average of $33. Thus, I would only buy $41 worth of groceries. My plan was to rely solely on these groceries, and to avoid supplementing my SNAP-purchased goods with food already in my pantry. The exceptions would be sauces (like soy sauce, and BBQ) and cooking materials like oil, salt and pepper, which many household kitchens have.

At first, $41 seemed like a lot of money for a week's worth of food, but this was $41, full stop — not $41 (unless I’m running late for work and need to stop by a coffee shop for a muffin) and not $41 (and then ordering from Seamless because the temperature has dropped and I wanted to cozy up with some hot soup). This was $41 to pay for three meals a day for seven days. This was going to require some planning.

Luckily, the New York City Department of Human Resources’ website has guides available for SNAP participants, including a one that explains how to “Cut the Junk” and another with recipes for healthy and cheap meals on it. (Most of these are bean/chili based.)

Currently, SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy prepared food, fast food or alcohol. (Supporters of the program would like to see more restrictions on junk food items and soda.) In all 50 states SNAP benefits can be spent at farmer's markets in spite of the fact that the USDA website’s map of SNAP-accepted vendors excludes farmer’s markets from its list.

Walking around New York I began to notice store signage informing potential customers that SNAP dollars were accepted: 7-Eleven had a large A-frame sign outside, and Walgreens reminded customers about SNAP in the junk food aisle, and even the upscale Union Market had a placard at the register. It isn’t surprising that companies like PepsiCo, Kraft and Coca Cola have lobbied to keep SNAP benefits.

* * *

This was my plan of attack: One or two large dishes that I could eat for many meals, a main breakfast food that would last me an entire week, and snacks. I also wanted to attempt a healthy diet.

My final menu: a baked pasta dish with whole wheat rigatoni ($1.59), lean turkey sausage ($4.99), two cans diced tomatoes ($1.89 per can) and mozzarella cheese ($4.59); a stir fry with chicken ($6.10), brown rice ($2.59), Green Giant vegetable medley ($2.99) and a red bell pepper ($1.55).

And breakfast: Key Food instant oats ($1.99) and Tropicana OJ ($2.99), a splurge item that I purchased because it was on sale for about half off. I also purchased eight Yoplait Light yogurts as part of a “buy 4 get 4 free” promotion ($0.99 each), baby carrots ($2.00), organic chicken broth on sale ($2.99) for cooking, and a small bag of ground coffee ($1.99 on sale).

I purchased all of this on Nov. 10, a little over a week after $5 billion was automatically cut from SNAP due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus package. This loss of funds meant average monthly benefits went down $36. That means my $41 weekly allotment would have actually been $35.75.

In December, I spoke to Diane Riley, the director of advocacy at Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which collects donations and provides food to affiliated pantries throughout the state. “You have no idea how often, how close a budget people are on.” She explains. “They’re on a close budget to begin with, so while it might not seem like a lot, $36 -- that’s a lot to people.”

When I spoke to Riley, only a month had passed since the automatic SNAP cuts, but food pantries were already noticing more people coming to them for aid.

“Most of our pantries I’ve talked to said that definitely more people came in this month than last year, or even last month,” Riley tells me. “I’m trying to get a little bit more data, but looks to me like it’s a 20% to 30 % increase.” They also experienced an increase in phone calls asking where they could get food, and who was serving meals.

She tells me that most SNAP beneficiaries run out of food after the second or third week of the month; some of them cope by turning to local food pantries like the ones Community FoodBank of New Jersey runs.

“We see it as the critical nutrition program without which we’d have bread lines.” Riley says about SNAP. She tells me with the recent cuts, New Jersey will lose $90 million in SNAP benefits money. “They’re critical to a workforce. They’re critical to children learning,” Riley says. “We really have to start talking about it that way.”

At the SNAP office, I encountered resignation. “You gotta respect it,” one woman said of the cuts. A single man told me his benefits went from $200 to $189 per month. For a family, the cuts are even more catastrophic: A household of three would see their monthly allotment go from $526 to $497 -- a cut nearly equalling what I spent on a week's worth of food.

A mother in her twenties told me she received $367 per month before the cuts, but that she’ll now see $20 less per month. “Will you be able to make do?” I asked. She gave me an exasperated look.

“Nothing is not doable,” she replied as she stepped out of the elevator to the third floor.

* * *

Trying to stretch my meager food budget, I found that while some healthy items were expensive -- anything organic or gluten free jumped in price, and meat prices are very high -- fruits, veggies and oatmeal were far less expensive than frozen meals or cereal. The most difficult part was preparing and portioning out my meals.

I made the baked pasta dish for my first SNAP dinner with the hope that it would last me at least seven non-breakfast meals. It only lasted me six: three days worth of lunch and dinner. At that point, I started to panic. Would rice, eight mini-chicken tenders, a pepper, and a small bag of Green Giant stir-fry veggies really last me eight more meals? I had no choice but to plan differently. Rather than cook giant batches, which I proved inept at rationing for long periods of time, I’d have to cook in waves of one or two meals at once.

Would I have enough food? The thought consistently nagged at me during my trial. It became my foremost source of concern, blocking out writing deadlines, daily to-do lists, schoolwork and social activities. Mid-week, my roommate cooked an elegant beef stew, while I doled out a meager portion of brown rice, veggies and a chicken tender. When she offered me some, I became irascible.

“I can’t. I’m on food stamps,” I said flatly. This became a common response to friends inquiring if I wanted to get dinner, or grab a snack between classes.

For many Americans, how and when they're going to procure the day’s next meal is entirely taken for granted. Sarah Franklin, a professor in NYU’s Food Studies program, explains that after World War II -- coinciding with the rise of lifestyle magazines -- food became aspirational. March through any Whole Foods, and you can see how this “foodie culture” has only intensified. Artisanal, organic, healthy and creative food is incredibly important to those who can afford it.

Though you can use SNAP dollars at some upscale markets, your dollar wouldn’t go far. Forget broad choices; forget organic; forget cage-free; forget cold-pressed juice; forget artisanal coffee beans; forget locally made cheese. I have $41 for 21 meals. What am I eating next? How long will it take to make? Do I have leftovers to take to work today? What’s left in my pantry? What time should I eat so I don’t go to bed hungry? How long can I wait until my next meal?

Time was an unexpected source of frustration. I was late to class because I mistimed how long it would take to cook and clean up after a stir-fried lunch. When running behind schedule on a Thursday night, I resorted to a meal of cold, leftover brown rice and carrot sticks. Hardly nutritional, or filling.

I realized I should have bought things like bananas (a purchase that I put back when I went far over my limit). They’re nutrient rich and keep you full. Canned soup should also have been a purchase -- you can make it quickly, it keeps you full longer, and certain soups can be used in other recipes.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast (130 calories) along with 8 ounces of OJ (50 calories). My lunch was a square Ziploc container of baked pasta (250 to 300 calories), carrots (35 calories) and a yogurt (90 calories) for a snack. A second helping of baked pasta became my dinner (250 to 300 calories). By the end of day one, I was not only hungry, I was also cheating -- shoveling fistfuls of exorbitantly priced sunflower seeds and almonds into my mouth.

Now I should disclose that I have low blood sugar. At the very least this means, I get cranky if I don’t eat, at its worst I get dizzy and pass out. On my food stamp diet, I was getting 300 calories per meal -- 200 fewer calories than my body was used to. In order to function I needed to supplement my food stamp purchases with extra snacks.

* * *

Daniel Bowman Simon is deep into SNAP, which is the focal point of his research at New York University’s Food Studies program. And he is frustrated. Seated in the Food Studies program’s fifth-floor conference room, he ticks off a list of grievances relating to the SNAP program and the Farm Bill, as well as the media's coverage of the issue -- framed as a contest between farm subsidies and SNAP benefits.

Simon asks me what I know about the history of the Farm Bill. The legislation, he explains, is made of ten “titles” or sections. The two largest allocate funds for commodities (farm subsidies) and nutrition (which includes SNAP). In this year’s negotiations Democrats were seeking to cut back spending by reducing farm subsidies, and Republicans looked for cuts to SNAP.

Farm subsidies began in during the Great Depression, and were originally price guarantees or “minimum wage for farmers.” Now they’re used to keep prices for crops like corn low; the government pays farmers subsidies to make up for the difference in profit. Simon asks me who farm subsides help.

“Big Agriculture,” I reply nervously.

“Who is Big Agriculture?” he counters. I have no response, and Simon helps me out. “It’s the Monsanto, John Deere, ConAgra, Pepsi and Coca Cola.” Companies like British Petroleum and Archer Daniels Midland receive subsidies for ethanol produced. And it gets even more complicated.

The Environmental Working Group recently released a report showing that billionaire businessmen who own farmland -- including the founder of Chick-fil-A and the co-founder of Microsoft -- are getting subsidies, while many small farmers are not. “In a sad bizarre way, farmers are being demonized to say they’re taking food from poor people,” Simon says, baffled. “There are anecdotes that farmers are on food stamps.”

Another issue Simon finds problematic is how SNAP becomes an excuse for not raising the minimum wage. If the government is paying to subsidize meals, he reasons, then there’s no pressure on fast food companies or Wal-Mart to pay people a salary they can actually live on independently. On top of that, when SNAP users shop at Wal-Mart the company makes a profit from this government program.

Wal-Mart is also a huge donor to the organization Feeding America, which partners with food banks across the country, including Community FoodBank of New Jersey. “In 2010, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation made a historic $2 billion commitment to help end hunger in America,” stated a February 2013 press release from Feeding America. “This includes providing more than one billion pounds of food from Walmart facilities and giving $250 million to hunger-relief organizations through 2015.” Wal-Mart is spending millions to fund an anti-hunger organization, while its own employees make so little they qualify for SNAP.

“To me it’s like the cat chasing its own tail,” Simon comments. “We’re going to perpetuate the low wage and waste all of our advocacy on food stamps.” Politicians take note, the way to alleviate hunger in America -- and reliance on SNAP -- is to raise the minimum wage.

“I think people should step in and provide a social safety net,” Simon says, “but not subsidies for corporate America.”

The terrible paradox is that until there is a higher wage, there are still 47 million people who need SNAP benefits in order to eat. “The odds are that one of the people on the subway sitting next to you is on food stamps,” Simon says.

* * *

On my second-to-last day eating on $41, I called my mom, sobbing. I'd had a terrible day and I was hungry. All I wanted was to stop and buy a large, comforting chocolate chip cookie. She told me to stay focused; I had committed to the project and needed to follow through.

Worried about my food intake, she asked how it was going. From there I launched into a rant about whether SNAP was helping keep the minimum wage shamefully low while subsidizing corporate greed. I worried that the program allows participants to buy junk food, contributing to poor health and rising healthcare costs. And then I spiraled off into frustration: How can a parent who might be working two jobs possibly have time to cook a good meal for their kid with such meager ingredients?

My mom posed a simple question: “Sarah, does SNAP feed people?”

“Yes,” I responded, “and it’s actually really efficient.” It's true: SNAP has less than a 4 percent error rate, according to Riley — and sometimes that error is because of people who received less money than they should have. The program also has very low rates of fraud. The USDA just released a report saying that only 2.77 percent of errors in the program were in the form of overpayment, which includes fraudulent applications.

“Food is one of the most cost effective forms of prevention,” Sarah Franklin explains. Obesity, cognitive abilities, and heart disease are all linked to eating habits. “Making sure that people have access to food is, in my mind, one of the most important and no-brainer policies,” she says. “The food stamp program, even though it’s not the perfect program -- to make cuts to that program is idiotic.”

As for the argument that the minimum wage is the real culprit, Riley said a livable wage is just part of the solution. “Hunger is a symptom of lack of resources,” he explains. “So if they had more resources like more income, then obviously they would be able to feed themselves more easily.” Resources besides income also include government safety-net programs and affordable housing, which is often the largest portion of a family’s budget. “All those little things get whittled away and hurt the most vulnerable people.”

The food stamp program as we know it was first enacted into law as the Food Stamp Act of 1964, but dating back as far as 1939 there were government-sponsored food programs.

“They used to think [hunger] didn’t happen here and that’s how the ‘War on Poverty’ got started,” Riley explains. “People were appalled that we had this kind of thing, and so we started a lot of programs, and now those programs are being sort of eaten away.”

Today there is no Food Stamp Act; SNAP funding is dependent on the stagnant Farm Bill, which lawmakers hope to pass at the end of this month.

By the end of my “food stamp week” I had a great appreciation for how difficult it is to live on such a small allocation of resources for food -- though I recognize that my experience can hardly compare to the struggle that most families encounter for more than a week, compounded by rising costs of energy and housing. I am also thankful that this program, which keeps so many fed, exists at all. Cuts to this lifeline are unlike other government spending reductions: these lead to hunger and health issues, especially for children. SNAP allows citizens to put money into our economy and their savings accounts and move out of poverty.

For my first meal post-food stamps I was craving something rice-less, healthy and obtained with efficacy. Living in New York, it was difficult to turn down the splurge-worthy allure of ordering food online. As I hit the purchase button for a kale salad with chicken and a “soup of the day,” I was viscerally shocked at the total. With tax and a decent tip, it came to half of what I’d spent in the previous week for all of my meals. With this awareness, I lost my appetite.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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