This is my second year of Americorps VISTA and my second year using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As a VISTA, you are paid a wage set at the poverty line, so you can experience living in poverty while fighting poverty (or so they tell us at our pre-service orientation). Our meager living stipend qualifies us for state benefits, including the SNAP program. I realize SNAP (known as CalFresh in California) is commonly referred to as food stamps or EBT, but I am going to make an effort to use its formal name in this blog.
As a single person who technically does not have an income, I receive the maximum of $200 per month. I cook almost all of my meals at home, so I definitely use the full amount every month. Could I survive on less? Probably. I certainly did in college. But would I be able to buy organically, shop at the Farmer’s Market, or purchase a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables? Probably not, and it’s my belief that every person should have access to healthy food; regardless of their socioeconomic status (Can you tell I’ve been spending time with the Community Food Council?).
My first year of VISTA was in New York City and now I am completing my second term in Del Norte County. Since SNAP benefits are distributed by each state, my experience in New York and California has been slightly different. In New York, there is no reporting system in place. Once you apply and receive food stamp benefits, you receive them for an entire year and then must reapply. In California, you must send in a quarterly report to continue to receive benefits. The report asks about the previous month’s income, housing costs, and any changes to your situation that may affect the amount of benefits you receive in the future. Personally, I am a terrible procrastinator, so the idea of sending in quarterly reports to continue receiving SNAP benefits doesn’t really work for me. In fact, I have my latest quarterly report sitting on my dining room table (where it’s been for almost a week), and I was told by my caseworker at DHHS that I would have to reapply for CalFresh if I don’t turn it in on time, since this would be my third late report in a row. This is no criticism of CalFresh, of course. It takes about 45 seconds to fill out, they give you a month to do it, and they provide a stamped envelope to send it back in. It couldn’t get any easier, right? I know that I complain about the reports, but sending in a two page report every three months is a perfectly reasonable requirement.
I was embarrassed to use my SNAP benefits in the beginning. It didn’t help that in New York you had to alert the cashier that you were using SNAP to pay for your groceries, so I remember quietly whispering “ummm EBT” and quickly swiping my EBT card with my head down. I think my embarrassment was a result of my awareness of the stereotypes surrounding SNAP. I felt like I would be judged by the cashier and the people standing in line with me. I quickly realized that this wasn’t the case. No one cared that I was using my EBT card; no one closely examined my cart to see if I was buying the “right” things. I can honestly say I have not personally experienced any negative reactions towards my use of SNAP. This might be a result of my environment. The other Americorps members and VISTAs that I have been working with the past two years use SNAP, and I also lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, so the person in front of me in line at the grocery store was almost always using their EBT card to buy groceries too. Regardless, I hope my experience is not unique, and that the stereotypes surrounding SNAP are disappearing.
I am finishing my term in April, and with no plans to re-enroll in VISTA for a third year, I will most likely no longer qualify for SNAP (that is, if I can find a job). While that is a really exciting thought for me, I’ll admit that I’m really going to miss my SNAP benefits. Receiving SNAP benefits put me in the habit of buying fresh, good food for myself, and hopefully that habit will stick with me as I transition out of the program.