Hunger Action Month: Thoughts about SNAP

When I was a child, my parents worked and made money. They went to a store and spent some of the money on food. They brought that food home and made meals for me or sometimes we went out to eat. Now that I am an adult, I work and make money. Then I go to the store and use some of that money to buy what I want to eat, or (more often than my parents did) I go out to eat. I have to say, I love this system! It has worked well for me my whole life so far, and Lord willing, it will continue to work for me for the rest of my life. In fact, it works pretty well for most of us most of the time. I agree with the people who say, “The best nutrition program is a good job!” No kidding! Who doesn’t agree with that?

Like most things though, it doesn’t work for all of us all of the time, and therein lies the rub.  What do we do when people (for whatever reasons good or bad) don’t have a good job that allows them to make enough money to buy food? Or even more confounding, what do we do when people are working, but still not making enough to feed their families?

Do we say “Tough luck. So sorry. No money, no food. Them’s the breaks!” A few of us might feel that way, but I think it’s very few. Most of us realize that nothing really good happens when people – especially children — go without food. There are countries with a higher percentage of people begging in the streets than we have, but I don’t think we want to model ourselves after them.

What about food pantries, food banks and food rescue? I love the idea of “people helping people” – of families and friends and faith-based groups and other organizations coming together to feed each other through grassroots efforts. If my house burns down or I lose my job and I need enough food to tide me over for a few weeks — then God bless the local food pantry! Food pantries are perfect for emergency, short-term situations.

But what if I am disabled (mentally or physically) and I can’t work ever and I need help with food for years?  What if I am a 70-year old woman on a (very!) fixed income and I unexpectedly end up with custody of my three young grandchildren for the foreseeable future? What if I lose my job, and it ends up taking me months instead of weeks to find a new one? What if I am a divorced mom with a high school education, young kids, and a part-time low-paying job with no benefits? These are the realities for many, many people in Waco, and they are too much for our system of food pantries to handle on their own. That’s why government programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps)  and the National School Lunch Program are vital to our food safety net.

First, food pantries and food banks do not have the capacity to meet all the need. According to Bread for the World, food pantries and food banks provide about 6% of the food assistance provided by our nation’s nutrition programs. In other words, if Waco follows that trend, for our local food pantries to meet the whole need, we would need 16 Caritas’s, 16 Shepherd’s Hearts, and 16 of all the other food pantries on the list…do we really see ourselves funding all of that through private donations? That’s a lot of golf tournaments and soup suppers! Right now, we’re not even doing a terrific job of keeping the shelves stocked at the one Caritas we already have.

Second, much as I love the spirit of a food pantry, they are really a terrible way to get your food when you think about it. If, like me, you have never had to make use of food pantries as a source of food you may not realize that, with the exception of Caritas, most food pantries in Waco are open for only a few hours, one or two days a week. Only a handful are open after 5:00, and those for only an hour or two, and only on one or two days a week. The only Saturday food pantry I know of is the Wheels of Life Mobile Pantry that is open for two hours, once a month. The only Sunday food pantry that I know of is Victorious Life Church which is only open one hour from 12:00 – 1:00. To make things even more complicated, most food pantries request that you only take advantage of their services once or twice a month. Imagine trying to juggle the time spent securing food in this manner with looking for a job, or going back to school, or taking care of children. In an emergency, I could probably make this system work for a few weeks, and would be grateful for it! But as weeks stretch into months, this process of “hunting and gathering” food can itself become time-consuming and de-stabilizing for families (not to mention discouraging!) The SNAP program allows families to take advantage of regular store hours and helps lend a little “normalcy” to lives that are already over-stressed.

Third, many families have found they need BOTH government assistance AND food pantry/food bank assistance to make ends meet!

helpings-with-borderI would love for every adult in Waco to have a good paying job and to be able to stroll into the grocery store and buy good food for her family.  I have high hopes that will be the reality for more of us in coming years as we build up our city, but that is simply not the current situation for many of us right now.  And even in the best of times, there will always be some of us who need help. It’s easy to be leery of government programs like SNAP, but in this particular case it is worth it to learn more about the system before condemning it. It may not be perfect, but it does an awful lot of good, for an awful lot of people. I hope I never have to find out what it’s like to apply for SNAP benefits – but if I ever do, I hope they are there when I need them.

If you or someone you know could benefit from the SNAP program,  contact the Helpings SNAP Outreach Program by phone at 254-753-3545 or check out the Website.   You can support the Helpings Outreach program by donating to the McLennan County Hunger Coalition.

Learn more about how SNAP works at these websites:

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog is by Ashley Bean Thornton.  If you would be interested in writing for the blog, please contact ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

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