The Ins and Outs of Basic Food
Written by Signe Burchim, WithinReach AmeriCorps Outreach & Enrollment Specialist
One of the many programs that our talented Outreach and Enrollment team assists people with is the Basic Food program. Basic Food, formerly known as food stamps, is Washington’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program. The program helps families (and individuals) supplement their grocery budget each month and put more wholesome, delicious food on the table.
So how does this program actually work?
For starters, long gone are the days of the program being administered on actual stamps, or paper: the benefits are administered on a plastic electronic benefits transfer card (typically called an EBT card), that looks just like a debit card, and comes with a pin number. Each month, benefits are loaded onto your card on the same day and are ready to use!
2017 Income guidelines (effective 4/1/2017):
Oftentimes, we hear from clients that they are hesitant to sign up for the basic food program for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, there are quite a few misconceptions floating around, and I would like to clear some of those up!
Some of the most common things we hear from clients:
“I’m not eligible because I don’t have a family” – You do not have to have a family, or children to be on basic food. If you are single, as long as you meet all of the other requirements, you are eligible for the program.
“I’m not eligible because I am a college student” – Students are not typically eligible for the program but there are some exceptions.
- Students employed for an average of 20 hours per week (80 hours per month).
– Unpaid internships do not count.
- Students responsible for more than half of the care for a dependent under five.
- Students that are single parents who have a child that is eleven or younger.
- Students participating in WorkFirst.
- Students participating in a work study program.
“It is not worth signing up because I will have a low benefit amount” – Low benefit amounts may also help you qualify for other programs, like low-cost cell phone service, or free/reduced price lunch for children in school. Benefits also roll over every month, so you can save them up for something special like a holiday, or birthday party.
“Someone else needs this benefit more than I do” – Basic Food is an entitlement program, which means that anyone who is eligible can get it without taking away benefits from someone else, and unused money is not allocated to other families.
“Not everyone in my family is a citizen” – You can apply for the members in your household who meet the citizenship requirements – for example, if three people are eligible, and two are not, the three that meet the eligibility requirements would receive benefits.
“There are too many restrictions on what food you can buy” – Nope, there are no restrictions on the brands or types of food you can buy. The choice is yours! However, you cannot purchase alcohol, or hot food from the deli that has been prepared for you.
If you think you might be interested in enrolling in, or learning more about the Basic Food program, or any other nutrition assistance programs, give us a call on our Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588!
2016 Legislative Summary
Written by Carrie Glover, Senior Policy Manager
At about 11:00pm on March 29th the 2016 legislative session was adjourned. This year was a ‘short session’ that was mostly focused on writing a supplemental budget.
WithinReach did very well this session, including securing funding for an immunization validation tool and a school module within the Immunization Information System (IIS), which was our top priority going into 2016. It was a great year of working with our partners in Olympia and we made real progress in breaking down barriers that prevent families from living healthy lives.
We also supported some additional issues as they emerged through session, and those also fared very well. Below is a summary of the outcomes of our top priorities as well as other issues we supported this session that had successful outcomes.
Here is a brief summary of where we landed in the budget for our priorities:
Immunization Validation Tool & School Module within the IIS (budget only)
- Budget ask: $511,000>
- Final Amount funded: $511,000
Developmental and Autism Screenings for Medicaid (budget only)
- Budget ask: Maintain current funding
- Outcome: No cuts were made to the screenings
HB 1295: Breakfast After the Bell (budget and bill)
- Bill: Require all high needs schools to offer breakfast after the bell
- Budget ask: $2.692 million for startup grants
- Outcome: Unfortunately the Breakfast After the Bell legislation did not pass this year. Since the bill didn’t pass, the startup grants also were not funded in the final budget
Healthiest Next Generation (budget only)
- Budget ask: fund staff positions at OSPI & DEL for this initiative
- Outcome: Unfortunately this was not funded in the final budget
Other issues we supported that were successful:
HB 2877: Expanding SNAP Distribution dates
- Bill: Expand the distribution dates for SNAP beneficiaries from the 1st through 10th of the month to the 1st through the 20th of the month
- Budget ask: funding needed to implement the system change
- Outcome: The bill passed with a great deal of support and $300,000 in funding was included for implementation in the final budget
HB 2439: Mental health services for children and youth
- Bill: Increasing access to adequate and appropriate mental health services for children and youth including establishing a workgroup to identify barriers in accessing mental health services, report on the status of access to services, expand the Partnership Access Line (PAL), and require coverage for annual depression screenings according to the Bright Future guidelines
- Budget ask: funding needed for implementation of the workgroup, inventory of services, expansion of the PAL line, and the depression screenings.
- Outcome: The bill passed, though with only the workgroup and inventory of services. The PAL line was funded in the final budget even though it wasn’t included in the final bill. Unfortunately the depression screenings weren’t funded or included in the bill.
SB 5143: Childhood Immunization Resources
- Bill: Requires DOH to develop resources for expecting parents about recommended childhood immunizations.
- Outcome: This bill passed with a great deal of support and some of our WithinReach staff were able to be at the bill signing with Governor Inslee.
Learn more about the guiding principles of our policy work.
Food Stamps and Farmers Markets: Produce for all?
WithinReach Bridge to Basics Outreach team, AmeriCorps
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 . 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 .
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.
Some Great News For Basic Food Recipients. . .. Finally!
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!
The 2014 Farm Bill – The Good and the Bad
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.
• $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
• 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.
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.
Broadening Our View on Food Security For Washington Families
A couple of things stood out for me during the visit with Congressman Smith. First, he led off with saying that he believes in government programs and knows they can make a difference. I was really struck by this statement because so much of the rhetoric we hear out of Congress is about the need to shrink government. It was refreshing to hear that he had a fundamental belief in the role of government plays in providing programs that serve the most vulnerable in our communities. Yet, I am also a realist and know that does not necessarily mean funding these programs in heated budget debates is a sure thing. I think it is bold, these days, to profess your support of government because it sometimes feels like it is easier or maybe even popular to criticize government programs. To hear an elected official reflect the realities of the day-to-day struggles of his constituents was inspiring.
While we were at the food bank, a client named Wayne came up to us and said “Thank you for providing this support. I’m doing my best to get back on my feet, but I couldn’t do it without this support. I’m trying really hard to be disciplined. Thank you.” We all stood there sort of stunned, his gratitude was amazing. It once again reminds me of the real people behind the statistics and numbers about the food insecure; the people who are trying to get back on their feet, support their families, and become self sufficient. Programs like SNAP and local food banks are important supports to making this a reality.
Northwest Harvest is the only non-profit food bank distributor operating statewide in Washington with a network of more than 350 food banks, meal programs and high-need schools. They provide more than 1.7 million meals every month to this network. Even with this expansive reach, NW Harvest efforts across the state represent only 1/24 of what government spends on emergency food. There is literally no plausible way that we can feed all the hungry families in our state without the help of government. I often talk about the “the new normal,” the basic premise being that we need to think creatively and collaboratively as to how to how to address our communities most complex issues and how all government, nonprofits and private/corporate philanthropy must work together to advance the economic vitality of our state.
Our food access work is no different, we need to work hand-in -hand with our partners in government, nonprofit and private organizations to make significant change. We want to build on the work Northwest Harvest has done and that is why our advocacy message to Congressman Smith and the rest of the Washington Delegation is focused on the preservation of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps). The House Republican leaders proposed a bill that cuts $40 billion dollars over the next 10 years from SNAP, a cut that would be devastating to families across the state who rely on food stamps to augment what they receive at food banks in order to feed their families. If you are interested in more information or want to know how you can take action to protect SNAP, check out these resources:
It is hard to believe that it has only been 45 days since the Washington State Legislature adjourned, and August means it is time to start framing out our public policy agenda. I have been on the coalition circuit this week meeting with partners about the big issues facing WithinReach and the health and human services sector–from health care reform, funding food stamps and a number of opportunities for more integrated approaches to immunizations, child development and breastfeeding. For a short session–it could be pretty exciting.
Each of these meetings had a common theme not only for WithinReach but for our partners and our communities. This is the “new normal.” I believe that we will continue to see a blurring of lines between the roles of government, nonprofits and the private sector. I know at times this seems scary, but I see some amazing possibilities forming. For instance: The Fresh Bucks program is a collaboration between the Chase Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Washington State Farmers Market Association and City of Seattle (and the brain child of City Councilman Richard Conlin). It is a great example of shifting the paradigm and creating triple-win opportunities. Families receiving food stamps and using their EBT card receive extra buying power by matching dollars up to the first $10 spent on each visit to a Farmer’s Market. I love this because our family farmers benefit, there are more healthy food choices for families and in turn, kids eat more fresh fruits and veggies. The fact that a private foundation and a bank are helping to insure this happens–even better!
I am also looking forward to visiting with Congressmen Smith and Congressman Larsen during their August recess– both are long time supporters of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also referred to as EBT or food stamps) and believers in the Affordable Care Act. They will have the opportunity to see the WithinReach Healthy Connections model in action. Starting on October 1 our team will help to assist families navigate the new benefits exchange and provide food resource referrals. We believe strongly in the connection between health and nutrition. We are delighted to not only sign up kids for health insurance through Apple Health for Kids – as we have done for 12 years — but now also their parents. We are convinced kids will get better care when their parents have insurance too. Our WithinReach Healthy Connections team wouldn’t be possible without private and public support of the Verdant Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, United Way of King County, United Way of Snohomish County, King County Public Health, Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement and Department of Health and Human Services.
I’m telling you, this “new normal” could be an amazing way to have great impact on the community.