Oh, SNAP…we’re invading food deserts!

About two weeks ago, “Music City” was alive and pumping. Fans from around the world were traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, in droves for the Country Music Awards Music Festival. In the midst of fun and excitement, the everyday hustle for locals carried on.

Unfortunately, that also meant that hunger too, never missed a beat.

According to the USDA Food Research Atlas, 1 in 5 Nashville residents live in a food desert. This type of ‘desert’ is a geographic area where access to affordable, fresh food (such as produce), is not easily accessible.

With this knowledge, we were excited to drive over to the Parthenon Towers across from Centennial Park on Thursday, June 11 where we unveiled a brand new mobile market with our friends from Community Food Advocates. The swanky design of the truck looks similar to a tasty food truck you’d find in any downtown metro area during lunch. However, this renovated vehicle (featured above) was a new concept for The Nashville Mobile Market that doubles their fleet as a result of $35,000 gift through our KNOW Hunger Nashville project with the Urban League of Middle Tennessee.

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This month alone, The Nashville Mobile Market will make 49 stops with 23 different partner agencies. At each stop, local residents have access to nutritious food items, ranging from seasonal fruits like strawberries to veggies such as broccoli, and other pantry staples. Better still, shoppers have the option to purchase food with SNAP dollars.

We may be a meat company, but we know the importance in having access to a well rounded and nutritious meal. The ability to use SNAP benefits at this mobile market means it is one more convenience to help individuals and families facing tough times to stretch their dollar. Nashville Metro Council Members Burkley Allen and Erica Gilmore joined us in making a few remarks indicating the significance of such an expansion.

After children, elderly and disabled individuals are amongst the greatest percentage of SNAP recipients. Therefore, even with a grocery store a bus ride away from Parthenon Towers, many residents at this location are unable to travel due to limited mobility. The words of gratitude that were shared by frequent market patrons were overwhelming and confirmed our belief that helping to make the vision of Community Food Advocates a reality truly makes a difference.

The mobile market reveal was just the start of our trip. We also spent time with two important groups of leaders to talk about food insecurity in Middle Tennessee, and to challenge them.

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The first group included approximately 47 high school students enrolled in the Urban League’s College Readiness program. We emphasized that no one person represents hunger while discussing how food insecurity can affect performance in school and at work. In a classroom-made grocery store scenario, we “aged” two students a few years and challenged them to shop for themselves on a limited budget — similar to an individual who may receive SNAP. With nutrition in mind, both Ashanti and Michael made excellent choices that were balanced in diet, although budgeting was definitely a test. The room of students  was quick to chime in on what better decisions could have been made. In wrapping up the discussion, we encouraged students to be sensitive to others who may silently experience hunger and shared that even at their age. The takeaway was they too can be active in ways to fight hunger.

On Friday, June 12, we closed out the week with our second KNOW Hunger Challenge in Nashville. Our goal was to create awareness about hunger, offer SNAP and nutrition education while debunking myths about the federally funded program and its users. It was an honor to have been invited by the Alpha Delta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc., whose organization programs target health promotion, family strengthening and educational enrichment.  In addition to sorority members, the room of community leaders included Tennessee State Representative Brenda Gilmore, Councilwoman Erica Gilmore and Team Members from our Tyson Foods – Shelbyville location.

Competitiveness and camaraderie were in full effect as we sent the teams out on their shopping mission at a nearby grocery store. They were charged with shopping for a hypothetical family of four. Although many participants were longtime shoppers for their own families,  they still found the challenge to be eye-opening.  For example, one of the takeaways noted was the nutritional value in shopping more around the perimeter of the store, where one can find fresh produce, grains, bread, meats and dairy.

The challenge was also an appreciated reminder of the real-life challenge for those participants  whohave had to shop on a budget in the past but who can now shop more freely as they’ve advanced in careers. As we discredited the myth that all SNAP recipients are lifetime beneficiaries, we added that the experience is an opportunity to empathize and educate extended family or friends that may have fallen on tough times.

Speaking of tough times, all food purchased during the challenge was donated our friends at The Nashville Food Project who make it possible for hundreds of Nashvillians facing hardships to have a hot meal every day. Elanco sweetened the pot with an additional $500 gift card donation!

KNOW Hunger Challenge Winning Team

KNOW Hunger Challenge Winning Team

We know that hunger will not end at the SNAP of a finger. The fight against hunger is fought in the everyday battles of more than 110,000 Nashville residents. To overcome, it will take an evolving and committed group of strong individuals, playing different roles but working together as a team to help our neighbors get back on their feet so that our communities can win. We’re so fortunate in this campaign to have found great partners, each of whom in their own way bear arms to take down hunger and its barriers in Middle Tennessee.

 

Time for a new and different debate on SNAP

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Food stamps.  SNAP.  Hardly anything (possibly excepting healthcare) has polarized public opinion more.  And let me just offer the disclaimer that the rest of what I’m going to say is absolutely my own perspective, not necessarily that of my employer nor my fellow Tyson Team Members..  Because, with the way things are, I’ll likely say something that’s going to aggravate just about everyone.

Recent critics of SNAP have pointed to Jason Greenslate.  He allegedly spends his time on the beach, frequently using his $200 a month SNAP allocation to buy lobster.  Other more mythical examples include the “welfare queen”   and people buying crab legs, liquor and cigarettes with SNAP benefits (the latter, of course illegal).

Then you have another Jason.  Always been a hard worker. Former Afghanistan combat veteran. Now unemployed, but searching for a job.  SNAP recipient.

For every Jason Greenslate, taking advantage of the system, there are a hundred truly hungry veteran Jasons, who desperately need our assistance. Unfortunately far, far too much emphasis is placed on the former, at the expense of the latter.  People do need this program, and kids will go hungry without it.

SNAP advocates, citing the documented low incidence of fraud and abuse in the program, typically refuse to participate in any discussion of reform. Their concern: allowing this discussion gives  the program’s critics more credibility than they deserve. The problem is, fraud and abuse do exist, albeit minor compared to true need.  And by refusing to acknowledge it, advocates create the impression they don’t know, or don’t care that it exists.

So here’s my suggestion:  Let’s fully fund SNAP. Then let’s all acknowledge it’s not perfect, roll up our sleeves, and figure out how to make it better, so that the people who don’t need it don’t get it.   Meanwhile, let’s not let folks truly in need go hungry.

Photo USDAGov–Flickr  Creative Commons

SNAP’s Image–Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece asking the question, “Does SNAP have an image problem?”   Are there a lot of people out there who sincerely believe SNAP is rife with abuse and fraud, ala the “Welfare Queen” myth?  Do they have influence?  If so, how might that influence be affecting Farm Bill votes? Can minds be changed?

I don’t know.  Didn’t get a lot of feedback on that one.  It’s something the hunger relief community has been hesitant to talk about in the past.  My guess is that most hunger advocates want to minimize any discussion on SNAP abuse for fear of giving detractors a platform.   The problem is, in a digital world where everyone is a publisher, and everyone’s opinion can be freely expressed and virally spread, detractors already have a platform.   Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to avoid the discussion and debate the issue on its merits.

There’s one thing for certain: It’s not going to get any easier to protect appropriations for social safety net programs such as SNAP, no matter what happens on November 6.   The way I see it, if hunger advocates truly believe SNAP is the first and most effective line of defense against food insecurity, we have two major tasks in front of us:
•    If there is widespread concern, channeling all of our energy to mobilizing the faithful to raise their voices isn’t going to win the day.    We need to win the hearts and minds of those who aren’t with us now, not the already-converted.
•    With fewer dollars allocated, that 1-2% attributed to fraud or abuse becomes more significant. We need to make certain that money is getting into the hands of those who need it and aren’t getting it now, rather than those who are getting it and don’t need it.   We should be elevating the discussion of SNAP effectiveness, rather than ignoring it.   We should be talking about USDA programs that have drastically reduced fraud in recent years.  We should be the first to the table (well, maybe second behind USDA), to discuss new ways in which the program can be made more efficient.

I believe we need some solid research to determine public perception of SNAP. If indeed it does indicate significant numbers of people who believe there’s widespread abuse (and I might be wrong, it might not), then there’s a solid basis for applying resources to changing that perception. I love my friends in the hunger movement, but most research to-date, has been carefully crafted to illustrate public support of nutrition programs (and there’s no doubt, plenty of that support out there), not to delve into concerns that might exist. If indeed there is a perception problem, everyone who has a stake in hunger relief, should be willing to contribute resources: beginning with USDA, since they own the program. Major hunger non-profits, which are currently promoting SNAP as a solution should pitch in. Finally, those of us with communications resources who use them for more than marketing purposes should get involved.

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?

Facts on U.S. Hunger and How Federal Programs Such as SNAP (Food Stamps) Effectively Combat It

Joel Berg and  his associates at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger have put together this excellent fact sheet on hunger and federal assistance programs.   Published here by permission.    Original location here.

By the New York City Coalition Against Hunger

Keep these facts on hand for discussions with friends, family members, neighbors, congregants, and co-workers:

In 2010, 49 million Americans, Including more than 16 million children, lived in households that couldn’t afford enough food.1
That means that one in six Americans – and one in five of the country’s children–lived in homes that directly face, or lived at the brink of, hunger.

Hungry families may be your neighbors.
While many equate hunger with homelessness, the vast majority of hungry Americans aren’t homeless; they just earn too little money to afford all the food they need. Hungry families live in urban and rural areas – and increasingly even in the suburbs. Most hungry families are white.

Most hungry Americans are either low-wage workers, children, senior citizens, or people with disabilities.
USDA has found that, out of families with children suffering from food insecurity and hunger, 68 percent contained at least one adult working full-time, 10 percent had at least one adult working part-time, seven percent had an unemployed adult actively looking for work, and eight percent were headed by an adult with a disability. Only about one in fourteen households were headed by an able-bodied, unemployed adult not currently looking for work.2   The main problem is low wages and few jobs, not laziness.

Hungry Americans can also be overweight.
Because low-income families have more difficulty affording the most nutritious foods, and because low-income neighborhoods are often “food deserts” that lack healthy food options, hunger and obesity are often flip-sides of the same malnutrition coin. Some Americans falsely believe that some low-income people are obese because they shop poorly, fail to cook at home, or choose to eat too much fast food. But a recent study proved that the vast majority of low-income families cooked at home at least five nights a week, and desperately struggled to serve healthier food.3 Another new study also found that middle class people eat fast food more often than low-income people, which shouldn’t be surprising since SNAP (food stamp) benefits generally can’t be used to eat at restaurants, including fast food restaurants.4

One of the most effective ways to reduce U.S. hunger is to increase participation in federal nutrition assistance programs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the National School Lunch Program, the National School Breakfast Program, the National Summer Food Service Program, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program all work quickly and effectively to get food to those who need it most.

History proves that federal nutrition assistance programs have worked spectacularly well.
As late as the 1960’s, teams of doctors were able to find pockets of Third World-style hunger and malnutrition in America, which generated significant media reaction and political attention. In response, Presidents and Congresses worked together in a bipartisan fashion to expand the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into the large-scale programs we know today, and also created the National School Breakfast Program, as well as the WIC Program that provides nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children. These expansions succeeded remarkably in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, when investigators returned to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger, they found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition, concluding: “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas…. The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and… WIC have made the difference.”5

SNAP prevents hunger for tens of millions of American families and boosts the economy.
SNAP provides vouchers–available electronically on cards similar to bank credit or debit cards – that enable low-income families to shop for the food they need at private grocery stores and markets. For families with children, an added benefit of SNAP enrollment is that the children are automatically eligible for free school breakfasts and lunches. Because SNAP creates U.S. jobs for those who grow, pick, process, manufacture, ship, warehouse, wholesale, and retail food, every dollar spent on the program generates $1.84 in U.S. economic activity.6 3

Most of the people who receive SNAP are children, seniors, working parents, and people with disabilities.
About half of all SNAP participants are children, and nearly 10 percent are seniors. Most the rest are working parents and people with disabilities. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for benefits, and even many legal immigrants, including many with full-time jobs, are also ineligible.

SNAP encourages and enables work.
Despite the high unemployment rate in 2010, four in ten SNAP households earned some income from jobs.7 Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have declared that SNAP is not welfare. In fact, because SNAP benefits allow families to support themselves while in low-wage jobs, they help people get off – and keep off – the cash welfare rolls.

Because a wide variety of Americans sometimes need help when they face tough times, nearly half of all American children will receive assistance from SNAP during their lifetimes. 8
While SNAP recipients are often falsely stereotyped as part of a permanent underclass, the truth is many recipients fluctuate between the lower middle-class and poverty, facing especially tough stretches when they lose jobs, suffer a health crisis, face divorce, or suffer pay cuts.

SNAP has worked exactly as it was designed, expanding significantly to meet the growing need during hard economic times.
Because wages were low and unemployment was increasing during the Presidency of George W. Bush, 14.7 million people were added to the SNAP rolls. In response to the continuing recession, another 14.2 million people were added to the rolls under the Presidency of Barack Obama, as of October 2011.9 One in seven Americans, including many working people formerly in the middle-class, received benefits. The program worked exactly as intended, expanding to meet increasing need, just as it previously shrunk in response to the economic prosperity of the late 1990’s. The federal government has projected declining program participation in 2013 as the economy continues to recover.10

Despite SNAP’s recent growth, the percentage of overall government benefit dollars going to low-income families has actually declined over the last few decades.
This drop is because other benefits that help low-income Americans (such as those for housing) have declined, while benefits for middle-class and wealthy Americans have increased. The share of federal benefit dollars flowing to the lowest-income fifth of Americans has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007.11

SNAP benefits that are illegally sold constitute only about one percent of all SNAP benefit dollars, proving that there is less fraud in SNAP than in most big businesses, nonprofit groups, or defense contracts.
Due to increased oversight and improvements to program management by USDA, the illegal trafficking of benefits has fallen significantly over the last two decades, from about four cents on the dollar in 1993 to about one cent in 2006-08.12

SNAP enables people to eat more healthfully.
While many people falsely assume that SNAP recipients purchase more junk food than other Americans, there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, projects that enable people to use SNAP benefits to obtain fresh produce at farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are increasingly popular among low-income families. Experience proves that low-income families rush to obtain and prepare healthier food if it is affordable, physically available, and convenient to use, especially when they can use SNAP to make purchases.

Despite increasing SNAP participation, many eligible for benefits still don’t get the benefits, and eligible working families have the lowest participation rates.
In 2009, more than a quarter of eligible households, and more than four in ten eligible working households, did not receive the SNAP benefits to which they were entitled. There many reasons that eligible people do not apply for, or ultimately enroll in – the program, including: misconceptions about whether they can get SNAP and how much in benefits they can obtain; lack of time to travel to a government office, wait in line, participate in an interview that often feels like an interrogation, and submit a large amount of documents; and stigma, fear, and embarrassment. Fortunately, there are concrete ways for volunteers to help potentially eligible people overcome all these barriers and to help them more easily obtain the nutrition assistance their families so desperately need.

Despite under-participation in SNAP, the amount of food the program provides to low-income families dwarfs the amount of food given by charities.
SNAP provides at least 15 times as much food as every food bank, soup kitchen, and food pantry combined, according to an analysis by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Thus, dramatically increasing donations to charities would do far less to feed hungry Americans than would increasing SNAP participation by even a little. 5

SNAP is even more cost-effective than many emergency feeding charities.
While it is often a great burden to enroll in SNAP, once someone receives the benefits, it is usually relatively easy to use them. The government merely transfers the money electronically to EBT card and then, at virtually no additional cost to the government other than the benefits themselves, recipients are able to use the money solely for food. That’s why the vast majority of taxpayer money that goes to SNAP pays for food, not to administering the program. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger calculated that, before the current recession, only about 15 percent of SNAP’s spending went to administrative overhead. Since then, even though the spending on benefits has soared, the spending on caseworkers to administer the program has remained relatively flat, so the amount spent on managing the program is now less than 10 percent, far lower than at many charities.

Child nutrition programs – such as school breakfast and summer meals– are also under-utilized.
Less than half of low-income children who receive school lunches receive school breakfasts.13 And only one in seven of low-income children who receive school lunches receive government-funded summer meals.14 Fortunately, volunteers can participate in outreach projects that can significantly increase participation in these programs.

ENDNOTES
1. Household Food Security in the United States, 2010, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Mark Nord. Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, USDA Economic Research Report No. 125, September 2011, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR125/ERR125.pdf
2. “Food Insecurity in Households with Children: Prevalence, Severity, and Household Characteristics,” Mark Nord, USDA Economic Research Service Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-56) 49 pp, September 2009 http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib56/eib56.pdf
3. “Study: Low-Income Families Cook Dinner at Home Five Nights a Week, Aspire to Eat Healthy.” Share Our Strength and ConAgra Food Foundation release on PR Newswire, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/studylow- income-families-cook-dinner-at-home-five-nights-a-week-aspire-to-eat-healthy-138400794.html, accessed February 20, 2012.
4. “Fast Food: Middle Class Indulges More Often Than Poor People Do,” Huffington Post, November 8, 2011
5. Nick Kotz, “Hunger in America: The Federal Response,” Field Foundation (New York), 1979.
6. Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures Across the U.S. Economy,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. 2002. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/fanrr26/fanrr26-6/fanrr26-6.pdf
7. “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2010,” Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the Office of Research and Analysis, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Report No. SNAP-11-CHAR, September 2012
8. Mark R. Rank, PhD; Thomas A. Hirschl, PhD , “Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood.” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. 2009;163(11):994-999.
9. “Fact check: Gingrich’s faulty food-stamp claim,” Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-01-18/fact-check-gingrich-obama-food-stamps/52645882/1
10. “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Proposal of the President of the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/agr.pdf
11. Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” The New York Times, February 11, 2012, page A1
12. “Fighting SNAP Fraud,’ USDA Food and Nutrition Service fact sheet, http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.htm, accessed February 20, 2012.
13. “School Breakfast Scorecard, School Year 2010-2011,” Food Research and Action Center, http://frac.org/pdf/school_breakfast_scorecard_2010-2011.pdf, accessed February 20, 2012
14. “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2011,” Food Research Action Center, June, 2011, http://frac.org/pdf/summer_report_2011.pdf, accessed February 20, 2012.