Photo by Juliana Bledsoe / Nevada Sagebrush
By Juliana Bledsoe
I love my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, aka food stamps. I have been enrolled in the program throughout my last year of college, and though I hopefully won’t continue to need them for long, these benefits have been instrumental in my ability to feed myself while I finish school.
I don’t make a ton of money, and I don’t have time to work more. It was kind of hard to fill the fridge for a while, and therefore much harder to eat healthy meals on a regular basis. All too often, mom’s fridge served as backup.
SNAP benefits are awarded on a need basis per household, and between my girlfriend’s and my meager incomes, we have typically been awarded around $350 per month in food assistance. This makes an incredible difference in our budget each month, and when we accidentally fail to renew our paperwork in time, we definitely feel the effects of those missing benefits.
While the debate over what people are allowed to buy with food stamps rages on, it is hands down one of those taxes that I am vested in paying for the rest of my life. The one change that I think needs to be made to the program, however, is enacting nutritional counseling for families and households that receive these benefits.
Unfortunately, highly modified processed food tends to be cheap on the surface, and it is for this reason that it is the poor, not that rich, in our country, that are most susceptible to obesity and its related diseases. Food stamps are meant to assist these people on the road to better health, not to an early grave, and it is for this reason that this program should also be educating its recipients on proper nutrition. In this way, SNAP could further empower those in need to live healthier lives and make better dietary decisions.
I find it bizarre that one could theoretically spend all of their benefits entirely on candy and energy drinks if they choose to, but I have not used the system in this way. I frequently use my benefits for locally produced and organic options from the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that I can use my Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT) to purchase seeds and plants that produce food for my household. Fresh fruits and vegetables are cheaper than processed foods when they are in season anyway, so what I can’t grow myself, I buy fresh, and I cook as many meals as possible at home. Furthermore, a packet of seeds can produce pounds of food and is rarely more expensive than a dollar (or two for organic seeds).
That being said, I am fortunate enough to have a solid understanding of nutrition and food preparation, as well as gardening skills. Not everyone is so lucky, and I do think that this is one area in which the SNAP system could improve. There are certainly people that need nutritional guidance for feeding their families, and there should be some sort of system in place to identify those that need help and give them some counseling on the ways and benefits of healthy eating.
Though I cringe if I notice a family full of children with a shopping cart full of nothing but processed corn syrups and modified food starches, I do not judge the parents for their choices. I merely wish there was a way to help them make better food decisions for sake of the children’s futures and the health of everyone involved.
As soon as I see that EBT card come out at the register, I see where a better effort could be made. Every household on food stamps must go through a simple, yet lengthy application process, and I believe that some sort of nutritional quiz or food survey should be included in this application process to determine if the applicant could benefit from some education on the matter.
I doubt that limiting the options available to food stamp holders would solve this issue. We’re all within our right to have a little treat now and then, and I don’t buy into the Fox News “Entitlement Nation” propaganda that would have us believe otherwise. Furthermore, given the political revolving door between food industry fat cats like Monsanto and ConAgra and the Federal Food and Drug Administration, I don’t see these processed foods being taken off the menu anytime soon.
Nonetheless, even these monolithic corporations urge that their highly modified products are just part of a greater balanced diet, and SNAP benefits are meant to aid the poor on their pursuit of healthy lives — not whisk them along the path to obesity. Therefore I don’t understand why every single person or family that receives food stamps is not automatically assessed for their knowledge of a balanced diet before they are sent off with a prepaid card to buy whatever they want to fill their bellies.
The cynic in me assumes that Monsanto doesn’t want us growing our own gardens, but just for a second, consider the economic value of even giving food stamp recipients a gardening lesson. Packets of seeds are inexpensive, and the yield compared to buying food at the grocery store makes growing your own a no-brainer. The food you can produce from five dollars worth of seeds compared to the five dollars you might spend on a container of ice cream makes a huge argument for what recipients could be spending their benefits on, but not necessarily what they should legally be able to buy.
The issue is not whether people should be allowed to buy ice cream with food stamps, but the frequency of which it is acceptable to eat ice cream and still be a healthy member of society — whether you are on food stamps or not. I think I fall into the Mayor Bloomberg sect on this one, in that there are just some ways in which the government can step in to help save us from ourselves. It may not be realistic to apply this to everyone, but the poor are those who are already especially in need of our help, and adding some nutritional education programs to SNAP has the potential to positively affect the health of more than 46 million people in our country. Now just think how that could positively affect the healthcare conundrum.
Juliana Bledsoe studies journalism and Spanish. She can be reached at email@example.com.