How would you grocery-shop on $4.80 per day for your family? What would you get? What would you skip?
According to the Ulster County Democratic Women, $4.80 per day is the average benefit per person, and it’s not enough. The organization has taken to social media and, on Tuesday, the steps of Ulster County courthouse to talk about the changes, needs and challenges.
To set the scene, let’s get into how we got here. In the wake of the economic woes on 2008, which cast thousands out of their jobs and homes, the 2009 Recovery Act added a 13.6 percent boost to the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Congress earlier this fall passed on extending that add-on, so on November 1, benefits reverted to their original lower level. As a result, families of three will see a $29-a-month decrease — they’ll now get a total of $319 a month for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining months of fiscal year 2014. Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014. The failure to extend benefits will save $5 billion in fiscal year 2014.
On Tuesday afternoon, a dozen local Democrats, friends and local dignitaries gathered in the plunging November cold on the steps of the county courthouse to denounce the reductions and dare people to take the “SNAP challenge” of spending no more than $4.80 per day on food and drink for a week. Several have taken up the challenge and are posting their meals and the program’s daily struggles on Facebook and other social media in efforts to raise awareness.
Diane Reeder of Queen’s Galley soup kitchen in Kingston reminded that SNAP was never designed to be a sole source of income for household food, rather was merely intended to be “supplemental,” as the name suggests. Reeder lamented that SNAP has unfortunately become essential rather than supplemental, resulting in a nation of people spending down their dwindling funds too quickly and unable to make it to the end of the month. “Though it’s not ‘cuts’, it’s a reduction of funds people are used to getting, ‘expiring’… Congress is taking away money from people who need it and taking food off the table. The system needs a whole overhaul.”
Reeder said a strong education component should be intrinsic with the SNAP program so recipients can learn how to maximize their benefits. She said that she is especially irked over how the junk-food companies have spent over $10 million dollars in lobbying to keep their products covered by SNAP. Reeder said that though the reductions are about $30 per month for a family of three, amounting to about a dollar a day, that’s a significant amount of money to a family that doesn’t have that much to work with in the first place.
According to recent numbers provided by the Ulster County Democratic Women, local numbers are grim: 42.1 percent of households receiving SNAP benefits in Ulster County are below poverty level; 50.4 percent of Ulster households on SNAP have one or more people living there under the age of 18; and 18.3 percent of Ulster households on SNAP have had no work in over 12 months.
Recently re-elected County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach of Ellenville said his community suffers 17 percent unemployment rate, and food scarcity impacts the entire county, with extra challenges for those without transportation.
County Legislator Jeanette Provenzano, D-Kingston, said she worries about the charities’ abilities to cover the quickly expanding gap from the cuts. Ulster County Democratic Women leader Marcy Goulart said she’s concerned about veterans, their families, the sick, elderly, and especially single women facing health issues. There also was much talk about aligning those in need with farmers paid federal subsidies to bit grow crops as one possible solution.
Many of those attending Tuesday’s event also cited the unfortunate and negative stigmatizing of those on SNAP. The shame of receiving SNAP benefits is so sharp that the recipients interviewed asked for their names to be withheld, most citing their children’s privacy as a concern. “Henry” of Clintondale said he was laid off during a merger from a major New York City public relations firm last year and has been seeking employment in his competitive field daily while struggling with an active case of Crohn’s disease. His wife, “Maryann,” works per diem when available, which does not cover the couple’s sizable mortgage and car payment. They have two young, active school-aged kids. “We get $220 per month, which I believe does include the cuts,” Maryann said. “Our letter stated, ‘The federal 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) temporary increase to SNAP benefits ends October 31, 2013. This will result in a benefit reduction for SNAP households.’ A family of four will receive a maximum deduction of $36. The new maximum allotment for a family of four is $632 [a month], but we don’t get nearly as much because they calculate in the unemployment that Henry receives. Once that’s cut, we’re screwed.”
Maryann said that she cuts corners by clipping coupons — successfully shaving off $30 per grocery shop — and grocery shopping at discount big-box stores, mostly Wal-Mart.
“Jennifer,” a single mother of two in Rosendale and full-time tutor and academic coach explained like this: “Everything costs either time or money and food is no exception. … Children eat like I would never have believed until my own two were in elementary school, growing a shoe-size once a month.”
With less time to make her own food, Jennifer says she’s feeling the pressure. “In the past I could get by with foraging, my large garden, and canning seconds, the fruit farmers sell for cheap that aren’t in great shape, and then spend about $40 per week to feed myself and the kids. But that was when I had a bit more time: time to soak the beans, bake the bread, make the yogurt. Now with less time available to me — yet with food prices skyrocketing and SNAP benefit cuts — I have to choose between spending $75 or more per week to feed us all, and the unfortunate reality that I simply can’t afford to eat. And I frequently do not, to save the food for my kids and pay the bills.”
Not everyone is seeing cuts. “Barbara,” who lives in one of Kingston’s city low-income senior housing, said she is on Social Security, however saw an inexplicable increase in her SNAP benefits from last year. She said that she has been using the surplus money to buy food and donate to an area food pantry. “Is that wrong?” she asked.