Some old solutions still work: helping people buy food with SNAP

A sign outside of a store in midtown Anchorage announcing that they accept EBT Cards, the distribution method for SNAP benefits. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Researchers say one of the most effective ways to fight hunger in every state is also one of the oldest: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“Any conversation about eradicating food insecurity in the United States, in my opinion, really has to begin and end with SNAP,” Craig Gunderson said. Gunderson is a professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics from the University of Illinois. He has been studying food insecurity and SNAP, also called food stamps, for more than two decades. Food security experts in Alaska say the same thing.

Food insecurity is when people don’t have enough to eat – they skip meals or forego other necessities to buy food. It affects about one in seven Alaskans and can cause chronic diseases, depression, anemia and obesity.

SNAP efficiently helps solves the problem. “Again and again SNAP has been proven to lead to reductions in food insecurity,” Gunderson said. Which leads to a “reduction in negative health outcomes.”

A version of SNAP first started during the Great Depression. It resurfaced again in the 1960s when the Kennedy administration saw that some Americans were desperately hungry. In the years since the program has evolved significantly, but it’s constantly under threat because people think it’s riddled with fraud. It’s not.

The idea is simple: give money to people who need it so they can buy food.

Palmer resident Jenn Sundquist used to rely on food stamps. Three years ago, she got divorced and went from being a stay-at-home parent of three to being a single mom with no income. She quickly got a full-time job at a preschool.

“And even though I was one of the top people, and I was getting paid more than almost anyone else there, I still needed food stamps and day care assistance to make it,” she said.

Sundquist was a pretty typical SNAP participant. She was part of a family with children, just like 75 percent of the 82,000 Alaskans who used the program in 2016. She said she stretched $650 per month benefit by shopping sales, buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh and purchasing bags of flour to make her own bread.

“It’s definitely time consuming,” Sundquist said. “So it’s like you weigh the cost and the benefit, honestly.”

Sundquist also relied heavily on salmon she caught when dipnetting on the Kasilof River, and still does. The average benefit for each person who uses the program in Alaska is only $2 per meal.

Not everyone who is food insecure qualifies for SNAP.

Alaska Quest cards can be used to buy local produce with SNAP benefits. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services.)

Elisabeth Houser said she and her husband applied, but he made $1 more than the income limit for a household of two, and she can’t work because of a disability.

As she sat in line at a food pantry, Houser explained they live paycheck to paycheck.

“I gotta make sure that we got a roof over our head. That’s the first thing, to make sure the rent is paid,” Houser said. “And then if there’s anything left, it’s the bills, then put gas in car so we can go to these, and then it’s food.”

Houser waited nearly three hours for a small box of food, grateful for whatever she could get.

If SNAP expanded its income limits, Houser would be eligible. But some political leaders, including President Trump, would rather cut the program.

Gunderson said that’s because there are many misconceptions about SNAP. One is that participants are wasting the benefits on expensive foods or unhealthy items like soda, but “when we look at what SNAP recipients purchase, it’s roughly the same as what non-SNAP participants purchase.” No better or worse, nutrition-wise, he said.

Another common myth is that people sell food stamps or trade them in for cash.

Historic food coupons from USDA. (Photo courtesy of NCReedplayer on Flickr.)

To be fair – that idea is based on history. Food stamp trafficking was rampant in the 1970s and 80s. A Time magazine article from 1982 reported that federal agents were able to buy guns, drugs and houses with food stamp coupons.

But that’s no longer the case. Now, only 1 percent of food stamps are used illegally. That’s mostly because of a change in technology. Instead of receiving paper coupons, SNAP benefits are issued on cards that require a PIN number.

It is also hard for people to fraudulently apply for the program, thanks to the Fraud Control Unit at the state’s Division of Public Assistance. Only three percent of SNAP applicants in the state are found guilty of fraud, said the division’s director, Monica Windom.

Sundquist, the single mom, knew a lot about the misconceptions and stigmas associated with SNAP. When she used the program she never told anyone because people around her looked down on it so much.

“I think that the general population has this mentality like, ‘Well you should just work harder. Pull yourself up by those bootstraps,’” Sundquist said. “I don’t think they understand that a lot of people who are on food stamps have…jobs. They’re already hard-working Americans. They’re just having a hard time making ends meet.”

Sundquist is right. Nearly 40 percent of participants in Alaska are in families that work. About a quarter are in families with people who are elderly or have disabilities.

Sundquist didn’t want to rely on programs like SNAP, but she had to. They were her life raft. When she finally got a better paying job and knew she could provide more for her kids, she said she started tearing up as she signed the paperwork.

In Alaska, the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card is called a Quest Card.
(Courtesy of Food Bank of Alaska)

“And the lady in HR was like, ‘Are you ok?’ And I was like, ‘You don’t know what this means to me.’ And she was like, ‘I was a single mom, too. I do know what this means to you,’” Gunderson said.

There is one problem with SNAP that’s pretty specific to parts of rural Alaska. SNAP relies on existing food distribution chains, like stores, and is only now being piloted with online retailers in a few states. So what do you do if you live an in area with limited access to places that sell food? There’s a solution for that…

Have ideas for solutions in your community? Things you want answers to? You can join the conversation by texting “hello” to 907-885-6055.