Does SNAP have an image problem?

I’m going to poke an elephant in the room.
Right now, the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program  (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program)   is simply the best tool we have at our immediate disposal for addressing chronic food insecurity in the U.S.
Problem is, in spite of its being one of the most-needed and best-managed government programs out there, a LOT of Americans have serious concerns about the way SNAP benefits are allocated.   See the graphic above, which appeared in my Facebook stream.  Unfortunately, as the discussion about the federal budget remains at the forefront, and as our country seems to get more ideologically polarized, we’re seeing more of this type of thing.
With 94 plant locations scattered across America’s heartland, we often get our earful of candid opinions as we advocate for the SNAP program internally.  We take every opportunity to try to correct misperceptions about the program, up to and including the SNAP Challenge events we’ve done internally with Elanco.
Some people come by these opinions somewhat honestly.   I remember being a young dad with three small kids,  20 years ago (before Tyson).  We were struggling; driving beat-up old cars, and going into debt to survive.  Our family probably could have easily qualified for Food Stamps, but we had great family support, and any time we were close to the edge, we had a safety net.  Not everyone has that luxury.   One day, standing in line at the local Safeway, I watched a woman ring up her cart with two tickets:  a loaf of white bread, some potato chips, and a package of bologna, for which she paid with food stamps; and two packs of Marlboros and a six pack of malt liquor, for which she paid with cash.  That experience prejudiced me against food stamps for a long time, until I began working closely with the hunger relief community and learned more about the issue.
Unfortunately, many people have either had experiences like this, or heard apocryphal stories that might similarly prejudice opinions.
The problem is, these are isolated incidents, and are not representative of the vast majority of those who benefit from the SNAP program.  However, they can and most certainly do influence public opinion, and do make the job of defending against cuts to the program more difficult.
Fact is, USDA has done a good job of addressing abuse and fraud in the SNAP program in recent years,  and it’s widely-regarded among government watchdogs as being well-managed.
However, if we’re going to continue to protect the resources allocated to SNAP, we’ll need to gain the support of people who might not have great confidence in the program.    People who believe there’s a lot that could be cut before we start affecting those truly in need.
What can we do to inspire confidence in SNAP among those who are currently concerned?

5 thoughts on “Does SNAP have an image problem?

  1. Sue

    First, we need to continue putting good information out there to counteract the stereotypes, myths and urban legends. Infographics are a terrific example. Real life stories another.

    Second, we have to challenge ourselves – why are we so concerned about what is in people’s grocery carts and how they are paying for those items?

    Third, make the economic argument.

    Fourth, let’s continue creating opportunities for the public to be engaged by food programs. We are organizing a local (Pgh) bloggers night (blogmob) at the Food Bank with a chance to observe a produce distribution.

    Finally, I think people admitting that they were wrong (misinformed, etc) is powerful. We can be wrong and we can try to repair the harm our previous words & jokes & Facebook memes have done.

    Great post.

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  3. Realist

    What would change my mind is knowing that people caught exploiting the program are punished. I expect rampant abuses because I never hear of anyone going to jail for scamming the system.

  4. Jacqueline

    Thank you for writing this article. Unfortunately we don’t have enough like this out there, and we really need to. The picture above is the perfect example of me, I have an iPhone and I am on food stamps. The only way I got my iPhone was because my cell phone provider happened to have a deal, it was an older model that you got for free as long as you sign up for two more years. For me it was really exciting because it was something for free, and after looking into it I realized it was a phone to fit my needs. But of course no one knows that when I’m at the check out looking on it at my grocery list and paying with food stamps. And I’m sure it doesn’t look good, but I’m really not worried about it. I do my best to stretch my food stamps as long as I can for every month, I don’t have any other way to pay for food. Once the food stamps are gone for the month, we are out of luck. I’ve come to realize that people that speak ill of someone like me because I receive food stamps have no idea how the program works or they are upset that they can’t get things for free. I can’t wait for the day that I no longer have a need for food stamps, but until then I just keep doing what I need to so I can eventually be in a stable place. Just because I get food stamps doesn’t mean that I want to be on them forever, and that seems to be a big misconception!

  5. Lisa

    The most powerful way to change public opinion about SNAP is for people currently utilizing the program to speak out and tell their story. Then people will see it is their neighbors and friends who need the program and they might not be so quick to judge people who benefit from SNAP or cut funding.

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