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Food Stamps and Farmers Markets: Produce for all?

By Jessica Vu and Emma Lieuwen,
WithinReach Bridge to Basics Outreach team, AmeriCorps
An important way the WithinReach Bridge to Basics team helps families and individuals at outreach sites is by connecting them to the Basic Food Program (Food Stamps) —Washington’s, state-managed subsidiary of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Additionally we provide other information about public benefit programs available, as a means of ensuring that our clients have access to the health and food resources they need to be healthy.
As AmeriCorps members, we also qualify for the program; and after completing the application process and receiving our EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards, we were able to explore the power of our new, dedicated grocery funds. We were pleased to discover, that our funds weren’t limited to grocery stores but could also be used at farmers markets.
With many of us not from the area, we soon found out that Seattle is home to seven bustling farmers markets. At farmers markets we saw signs that read “Double your EBT dollars!” and were naturally intrigued. To use an EBT card at a market, Basic Food recipients simply stop by the manager’s tent to have their EBT cards swiped, they then receive tokens for a chosen amount. Here’s where the doubling comes in: Up to $10 of EBT funds are matched with $10 in “Fresh Bucks,” or vouchers that can be used to buy fresh produce.

Photo: Tokens given for desired EBT amount (center) and Fresh Bucks for fruits and vegetables (right). Image from Food Access: FreshBucks page on: seattlefarmersmarkets.org

Having the $20 to spend at the market for $10 of EBT funds is not only an incentive to eat more fruits and vegetables, but also to use the market in general. The Fresh Bucks program in Seattle is not the only one of its kind in the country being used to raise awareness and encourage the purchase of fresh, local, produce; nationally, 5,000 farmers markets accept EBT, while 1,000 both accept EBT and will double the amount [1]. The doubling programs are made possible partially by new government funds in the most recent Farm Bill. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) allotted $31 million with the goal of assisting SNAP recipients in having access to fruits and vegetables [2].

After learning more about the implementation and scope of the Fresh Bucks and EBT use at farmer’s markets, we were inclined to further consider what kinds of issues lead to the need for such programs in the first place. We realized that our awareness of Fresh Bucks benefits stemmed entirely from the fact that we were already regularly shopping at farmers markets, even before receiving our EBT cards. While our AmeriCorps team represents a particular demographic that is both inclined to shop at farmers’ markets and income-eligible for SNAP, we have come to realize that many of our clients at outreach sites are less familiar with the option of using EBT funds at farmers’ markets. What kinds of barriers prevent our clients from utilizing these benefits, and why is there a need to incentivize the use of EBT cards at local markets?

The answer to this question is more complicated than it would seem. Issues of food access stem from the fact that, though they oftentimes reside in the midst of an abundance of food resources, many low-income communities in cities throughout the U.S. do not have access to fresh and nutritious food because it is more affordable to feed families with calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, processed food items.

A popular response to this critical social issue is to educate low-income communities about the importance of eating healthy—to make them understand that although the initial cost is high, eating nutritious foods is much more beneficial for individuals and families in the long-run. But what many of these advocates often miss is the fact that this perspective is a byproduct of socioeconomic privilege–a solution that works well for people that can afford to prioritize their needs, but not for most others. Although the injustice is located at the systems level, we all too often place the onus on the oppressed to simply change their habits as a means of fixing the problem.

Although, the Fresh Bucks program increases the purchasing power of lower-income individuals, it ignores the fact that food access is not a purely economic issue–there are social and cultural barriers that still prevent many Basic Food (SNAP) recipients from taking advantage of all the resources available to them.

As individuals who were drawn to a position related to food accessibility and nutrition, we come with a familiarity with farmers markets, and it was not a challenge to integrate the SNAP benefits into our existing consumer practices. We receive this advantage as we use the program ourselves, and can work to improve access to programs like Fresh Bucks for others. Our job/work as AmeriCrops members is to do more than just inform clients of their options and encourage healthy choices, but also to bring an understanding of social, cultural and economic barriers that our clients may face into practice, which, to us, may seem well within reach. The implementation of programs like Fresh Bucks is an important step in the direction toward improved nutrition for low-income individuals and families, but there is still a need to ensure that these programs are accessible to all.

 

Tags: Barriers   Basic Food   benefit programs   EBT card   families   Farm Bill   Farmers Markets   food   fresh local produce   low income   NIFA   Nutrition   Seattle   SNAP   

Some Great News For Basic Food Recipients. . .. Finally!

The past year has been a roller coaster for Basic Food (food stamps) beneficiaries in Washington.  Actually, maybe it has been not so much a roller coaster as a downward spiral.
During the recession, people who utilize Basic Food were given an increase in their monthly benefit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).  This increase gave low-income families more money to buy food during the difficult economic times, and in-turn also helped stimulate local economies.  But as of November 1, 2013, this increased benefit was cut back.  The average benefit level dropped to less than $1.40 per person per meal.  Downward spiral number one.

Only a couple of months after that, Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill.  As shared in an earlier blog post, the Farm Bill included another cut to the federal funding stream for Basic Food, called SNAP.  This cut came from raising the amount for ‘Heat and Eat’ eligibility determination from $1 in LIHEAP assistance to $20. This was estimated to result in 232,000 Washington households experiencing another reduction in benefits of up to $90 per month. Downward spiral number two.
And then, the legislature did not include any additional dollars in their supplemental budget for the State Food Assistance Program, which provides Basic Food benefits to immigrant families who have been here less than five years and are therefore not eligible for benefits funded by the federal SNAP program.  This means that these families are still only receiving 75 percent of the benefits provided to other Basic Food beneficiaries. Downward spiral number three.

With all of these reduced benefits, you would think there wasn’t a problem with hunger anymore!  But food insecurity remains a very real issue in our state and in our country.  One in four children in Washington are struggling with hunger and almost 15% of Washington households are considered food insecure.  This is not the time to go on a downward spiral that takes more food off the tables of these vulnerable children and families.

But yesterday, we finally took a step back in the right direction that fixes one of these downward spirals.  Governor Jay Inslee announced that Washington will take steps to preserve the SNAP benefits that were cut in the 2014 Farm Bill (as mentioned above).  As explained in Governor Inslee’s press release:

A household’s SNAP benefits are calculated by factoring in a household’s eligibility for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The new Farm Bill made changes to the “Heat and Eat” option, which now requires states to provide a household $20 in LIHEAP assistance to maximize SNAP benefits. The prior law required that Washington only provide $1. Under the modified program, the Department of Social and Health Services will work with the Department of Commerce to provide $20 of LIHEAP assistance to eligible households, ensuring low-income families will remain eligible for up to $90 a month of SNAP benefits.

This will preserve benefits for approximately 200,000 households in Washington and will prevent the loss of nearly $70 million in federal SNAP benefits.   Washington is joining seven other states who have taken similar steps.  Preserving this benefit means fewer families will have to face the impossible choices of putting food on the table or buying medicine or paying rent.
Thank you, Governor Inslee, for helping protect vulnerable families in Washington!

Tags: Basic Food   Farm Bill   food stamps   Heat and Eat   SNAP   

The 2014 Farm Bill – The Good and the Bad

The Farm Bill has been in the news quite a bit over the past two weeks since it was finally moving after a very long stalemate.  On January 29th, the US House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill in a bipartisan vote of 251-166 and the US Senate followed last week by passing the bill in a bipartisan vote of 68-32. Last Friday, February 7th, President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law.  This law has a major impact on food policy in America, so we wanted to take a minute to explain what the Farm Bill is, and what was in the 2014 version that passed.
What is the Farm Bill and what is SNAP?
The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (aka Farm Bill) is a major piece of comprehensive legislation – what we call an omnibus bill – that is the main driver of agricultural and food policy in the country.  There are hundreds of programs that fall under the farm bill, including food and nutrition programs and farm subsidies. The Farm Bill is reauthorized by Congress about every five years.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP (food stamps) is the largest food and nutrition programs funded through the Farm Bill.  It currently serves more than 46 Million low-income Americans each year. One in seven people in the United States receive SNAP benefits, and many of those are working adults.  These families have to make impossible choices every day between buying medication, putting food on the table, or heating their house.  SNAP provides some financial relief to these families by providing assistance to buy food for their household.  SNAP has helped lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

2014 Farm Bill
The last Farm Bill was passed in 2008 and negotiations around passing a new Farm Bill have been stalled for a couple of years.  There has been a stalemate between the House and Senate in part over the proposed cuts to food programs.  The House had proposed almost $40 billion in cuts over 10 years while the Senate had proposed $4.1 billion in cuts over 10 years.  Click here to learn more about what the proposed cuts were in each original proposal.
But last week, Congress came to an agreement on the Farm Bill and it has quickly moved through both the House and Senate, thus ending the stalemate. We wanted to take a minute to explain how the bill, as passed by both the House and Senate, impacts hunger in America – both the good and the bad.

The good:
•    $205 million in increased funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) program, which provides food to food banks
•    $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which works to increase access to healthy, affordable food in communities that currently lack these options
•    $200 million for a pilot project to train SNAP recipients for jobs

The bad:
•    SNAP is cut by $8.6 billion over 10 years by raising the amount for ‘Heat and Eat’ eligibility. This will result in 232,000 Washington households will experience a drop in benefits (up to $90 per month).

The good pieces are definitely something to be happy about.  Additional support for TEFAP will help people who access emergency food through food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens.  And our own Representative Suzan DelBene, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, worked hard to expand the pilots we have done in Washington for positive employment and training strategies like those utilized by the Seattle Jobs Initiative.  These are all positive things that will help fight hunger in our country.

But the damage done by the cuts to SNAP outweighs the positive steps made.  The goal of SNAP is to increase food security and access to a healthy diet for low-income households.  Such a dramatic reduction in benefits will work against these goals and more families will experience food insecurity.

Don’t Forget to Look on the Bright Side
While it is terrible to see the cuts to the SNAP program, it is also important to recognize that it could have been worse.  The cuts to SNAP in the Farm Bill harm the most vulnerable members of our communities.  The Institute of Medicine released a report last year showing that SNAP benefits already don’t provide enough for families to purchase a healthy diet throughout the month.  These cuts will put families in an even worse situation.

However, families would have experienced even more hardship if the original House proposal would have passed with almost $40 billion in cuts. These proposed cuts included restricting Categorical Eligibility, which would have forced Washington to restore the asset and vehicle limits and drop gross income eligibility back to 130% of the federal poverty level. In addition, there was no elimination of waivers for the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, or “ABAWDs”

What can you do?
The Farm Bill has been signed by the President so unfortunately the cuts to SNAP will be happening.  So unfortunately, it looks like the bill will pass as-is and the cuts to SNAP will be happening. But, when one door closes, we look at what windows we might be able to open.
The first thing to remember is that the Farm Bill is reauthorized about every five years.  So, we will be back and ready to talk about SNAP and other food and nutrition programs when the Farm Bill comes up again.

In addition, the Washington State legislature is still in session and will soon begin discussion the potential supplemental budget.  There are several state-funded programs that help low-income families who are experiencing food insecurity.

State Food Assistance Program (SFA)
Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP)
Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (FMNP)

You can learn about these programs by clicking on the links above, and then talk to your state legislators about the importance of funding them.

Tags: Farm Bill   SNAP   

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