“Strawberries! I want strawberries!” My daughter, three at the time, ran over to the display and grabbed a container of bright red berries, then turned to put them in our cart. I looked at the price: $4.99 for a quart.
“Not today, sweetie,” I told her, hoping I wouldn’t get a tantrum. “Let’s go pick out apples!” Thankfully she moved on quickly from her love of berries that day. There was no meltdown. We got our apples, whatever meat was on sale, and some milk. I got a big container of store-brand yogurt–strawberry, of course. Eggs went in the cart, and some frozen vegetables.
We made our way to the checkout. I was nervous–we had recently qualified for SNAP benefits (known colloquially as food stamps), and I was about to use my EBT card for the first time. Would the card work? Would the cashier berate me for using government assistance? Worse yet, would someone in the checkout line notice and give me a hard time? I had about $50 in the bank, and if the card didn’t work, I would have to put things back (probably the meat and yogurt).
I put my items on the conveyor and the cashier scanned them. The register added them up, the cashier told me the total, and I swiped the card. I assumed it worked just like a credit card, but I wasn’t sure. The card went through, the groceries got loaded into my cart by a helpful clerk, and I left the store with food to feed my family. I was shaking.
The SNAP program has made it possible for me to feed my children a variety of healthy foods during a difficult financial time. I’m able to stretch the benefits with ingenuity and culinary skills as well as with preserved food from my summer garden and a good friend’s farm. In practice, the benefits work just like a credit or debit card: I go to the store, pick out my groceries, and pay for them at the checkout with my EBT card. I combine the benefits with my own money and can easily accommodate dietary needs and preferences.
The Trump administration has proposed changes to the SNAP program that would make it more difficult for parents to feed their children. The changes would reduce benefit levels by cutting funding and putting benefit caps and restrictions in place, making it harder to get SNAP in the first place and more difficult to keep getting benefits. The administration also wants to replace about half of recipients’ benefits with a box of shelf-stable food–cereals and pasta, peanut butter, ultra-high-temperature pasteurized milk, and canned fruits and vegetables–delivered to their homes. Overall, the changes would reduce the SNAP budget by $213 billion, or about 30 percent, over ten years.
SNAP benefits have been shown to have a positive effect on long-term health when provided consistently to young children. According to The Hamilton Project (THP) at the Brookings Institute, a 2016 study found that low-income children with steady access to food stamp benefits before age five went on to experience better overall health and lower rates of metabolic syndrome (a health measure that includes things like diabetes and heart disease).
Furthermore, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported in 2016 that an additional benefit of $19.48 per capita per month was associated with increased spending on nutritious foods, increased time spent cooking, and lower levels of food insecurity among SNAP recipients. Specifically, consumption of tomatoes and yellow vegetables went up 3 percent and that of green vegetables went up 2 percent. Access to enough food and better nutrition through SNAP has been shown to result in better health later in life, potentially reducing healthcare spending and improving productivity. All for an average SNAP benefit of $1.40 per person per meal.
The current proposal would lower benefit levels and reduce choice for SNAP households, placing more families at risk of food insecurity. Last week, strawberries were on sale, so I bought two quarts for my kids’ lunches. I also stocked up on other fruits and veggies and got some fish and chicken breasts, since my doctor wants me eating a mediterranean style diet. If half my benefits were delivered through a food box with very little choice, I wouldn’t be able to make those adjustments.
Critics of the Trump administration’s proposal say that it would require delivery infrastructure that states don’t currently have. Stacy Dean, vice president for food policy at CBPP, writes in a blog post that, “While USDA routinely buys and distributes commodities to entities that run and operate government food programs (such as school districts or state agencies that work with local food banks), this new proposal to support individual households would require operational capacity and infrastructure that neither USDA nor states now have.”
Given that the Republican party consistently deploys rhetoric about “personal responsibility” and “choice,” it’s a bit baffling that the administration now wants to implement changes that take freedom of choice away from low-income families. Poor children don’t deserve strawberries, apparently, not even when they’re on sale.