How far can you make a dollar stretch? It's a question that may be taken for granted by many Americans, but not by those receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
SNAP (formerly food stamps) provides monthly food budget assistance to more than 42 million eligible, low-income people living in the United States. More than 250,000 Kansans receive SNAP benefits on a monthly basis, with the most recent census numbers showing about 1,182 households in Harvey County contributing to that total.
According to a recent study by Urban Institute, most enrolled in SNAP have to work to get the most out of their benefits — to make those dollars stretch — as the maximum benefit received per meal (based on eating three meals a day) is $1.86 while the average cost per low-income meal nationally is $2.36 (as of 2015). In Harvey County, the latter figure is a little higher, with an average meal cost of $2.39.
"Food costs such a ridiculously different amount of money for things that you have to try and make it go as far as you can because that lasts for the entire month," said Healthy Harvey Coalition Coordinator Lorrie Kessler.
Though the Health Department works more closely with the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) food assistance program, Kessler is aware of how much SNAP is leaned upon for support. As the Healthy Harvey coordinator, she would like to see some changes to what types of food allotments can go towards, but at the same time she understands the challenge families face in getting the most out of that monthly stipend.
"With SNAP, you can buy highly processed, high sugar, high sodium things, and it would be better to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables, but it's also not a lot of money and they're trying to make it go as far as they can," Kessler said. "While I know what would be most beneficial for people to eat for ultimate health, you also have to consider where they're preparing it and how they're able to prepare it."
Dillons employees attested to the fact that fruits and vegetables are not a common purchase among those using SNAP benefits. Additionally, Kessler pointed out that access to the necessary cooking resources (i.e. oven) might not be readily available to someone using SNAP benefits and they may instead be required to purchase microwaveable — both less healthy and more costly — food items.
Individuals and families in Kansas apply to be part of SNAP through the Department of Children and Families, while the federal program is funded through the United States Department of Agriculture. To be eligible, gross monthly income for the family must be 130 percent below poverty level (starting at $1,307 for an individual) and the maximum monthly SNAP allotment starts at $192 for a family of one.
Calculating that out, based on the average cost of meals in Harvey County, the maximum monthly allotment for an individual would come up about $30 short of covering all meals. Even Kessler remarked for her own family of two it is a challenge to spend less than $400 on groceries in a given month (while the maximum SNAP allotment for a similar-sized family would be $352).
Usage of that monthly allotment is limited to food items (not including food that will be eaten in the store, hot food items, alcohol and some other exceptions), and while junk food like candy, cookies, etc. is eligible, that is something both Kessler and Harvey County Extension Agent Anne Pitts are trying to steer enrolled families away from with additional information.
"My biggest concern is just making sure that people who are living in poverty actually have access to healthy food," Kessler said. "If the people in poverty do not have access to healthy foods they're going to have worse health outcomes and need more hospitalization and medical assistance, which ends up costing more money."
Providing that access is an objective Kessler is working on, trying to get SNAP funds (currently accepted at local grocery stores and most convenience stores) accepted at the Harvey County Farmers Market.
With the extension office, Pitts helps lead the SNAP education programs (offered through a federal grant), which goes over topics like how to eat healthier while receiving SNAP benefits.
Additionally, the program addresses the financial aspect of SNAP, as Pitts is aware of the strain that can be placed on families with a limited resource to utilize.
"It's really trying to look at that statistic and say, 'okay, this is the money we have, let's try to budget the best we can and try to provide our family with the healthiest food that we can provide them. We know that life happens and other things happen that come up which sometimes hinder that, but we're just trying to make do with what we have and make the best out of what we have,'" Pitts said.
Changes to SNAP have recently been proposed by President Donald Trump that would see enrolled families receiving prepackaged boxes instead of monthly allotments loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer card. That takes away the power of choice Pitts is trying to give to SNAP beneficiaries, while Kessler predicted it would not eliminate the prevalence of highly processed foods.
Effects of such a change are hypothetical, but if any are realized both Pitts and Kessler are hopeful they will enhance — not limit — access to healthier food for those receiving SNAP benefits.
For Katie Reese, Director of the Representative Payee Program at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Newton, she is simply hopeful that there will be change that allows those helped through SNAP to get sufficient assistance.
Reese and those involved with the St. Matthew's program help clients with a developmental or mental disability enroll in SNAP and went so far as to call the funding levels discriminatory. For instance, she noted an individual she may work with who receives $750 in income monthly would receive about $30 to $40 in SNAP benefits. In her eyes, something needs to change.
"I think, in general, accurate information needs to be used in order to make intelligent decisions about any kind of entitlement program that people receive," Reese said. "Most of the information is not accurate, it doesn't actually describe the people who use and need food stamps. My experience has been these are not free loaders; many of the people who get food stamps work minimum wage jobs and have to have food stamps to subsidize."
"If we want people to be able to eat at all, they need assistance. Most of them, at least from my personal experience with the people I know of who are using SNAP, it really is that hand up instead of a way to keep you down," said Kessler.
More information on SNAP can be found at www.fns.usda.gov/snap.