Many San Antonio families will face the prospect of not-so-happy-holidays thanks to nationwide cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps. While SNAP benefits saw a temporary economic stimulus infusion in 2009 after the recession, that short-term increase has expired and $5 billion in cuts to the program made by Congress in 2010 kicked in at the start of November, leaving state and local food networks to grapple with increased demand.
Today, families are feeling the effects of an average 5-7 percent decrease in SNAP benefits. To put it in perspective, a family of four experienced a reduction of $36 a month—from $668 down to $632—amounting to a loss of about 21 meals each month. Local anti-hunger advocates contend these food stamps slashes will heavily contribute to food insecurity in a state that already suffers from hunger.
For area food banks, that means a strain on an already limited supply. In Bexar County some 319,000 residents receive SNAP benefits. The majority—nearly 60 percent—are either children or seniors. The cuts total $32.5 million annually, equating to a reduction of more than 14 million meals. Eric Cooper of the San Antonio Food Bank tells the Current the local nutrition resource is already feeling the hit.
“Our inventory has been under a lot of demand—there’s a feeling that it’s going out faster than it’s coming in,” says Cooper. “It’s just not a comfortable place for us, knowing that it’s pretty slim pickings at the moment.”
The SAFB feeds 58,000 hungry San Antonio residents a week. The cafeteria hall, SAFB representatives say, is typically used as an emergency resource, but now residents are coming in for regular meals—a growing trend they largely attribute to the curb in SNAP.
“We’re already seeing those households come to us to make up the difference,” Cooper says. “We are working as hard as we can to get our community to respond, but I think the demand will be too great for us to keep up.”
In Texas, 1.7 million households have been affected by the reduction in SNAP benefits. That’s 180 million meals pulled off the table across the state.
A little more than 18 percent of Texas households experience “food insecurity,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Food insecurity” is not defined simply by the feeling of “going to bed hungry.” Rather, it means resources to purchase food are so scarce that families must reduce quality, eat unbalanced diets (hello, cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and/or skip meals, according to the state’s food bank network. Many family members face the tough choice of allocating resources to ensure young children stay nourished, skimping on their own meals and/or those of older relatives in the same household. Texas ranks among the top 12 states in terms of food insecurity and places second in the nation for number of food insecure households.
“This will have a devastating impact on Texas and the food bank network,” Celia Cole, chief executive officer of the Texas Food Bank Network, tells the Current. “It undercuts our ability to meet the needs of the people we serve and we’re simply not set up to make up for a cut of that magnitude. We are very concerned about the impact it’s going to have on struggling Texans who are still working their way toward recovery out of the recession.”
Largely led by Republican politicians and the conservative media, the push to minimize the nutrition assistance program rests on claims that the system is both flooded with lazy enrollees and rampant with abuse and fraud—arguments that commonly found statistics debunk.
“I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that people, and particularly the Republicans in Congress, are trying to misrepresent the program as being over-enrolled and too large and growing at too fast a rate, but really the program isn’t even reaching everybody that it’s supposed to already,” says Cole.
First, the program suffers from under-enrollment, anti-hunger advocates say. SNAP only reached two-thirds of those eligible in Texas, leaving $3 billion in aid behind for more than 2 million food-insecure Texans, according to the TFBN. In Bexar County, around 100,000 of the eligible food stamp recipients go without the program’s help. The SAFB estimates about $18 million in potential food stamp benefits go unused per month in the area. Secondly, less than 4 percent of benefits are issued in error and fraud rates are “within a historic low,” says Cole.
There are a number of reasons eligible participants don’t opt to take part in the program, says Cole—some aren’t aware of their eligibility, some have difficulty navigating the system or getting to the local benefits office and others simply don’t want the benefits.
Those eager to cut away at SNAP buy into a manufactured image of the average food stamp recipient as a slacker enjoying no-strings-attached benefits on the government’s dime—a stereotype that is far from reality. On average, a Texas SNAP recipient receives a paltry $122 a month for food.
Considering the price of food is expected to rise over the next two years, the low dollar amount must stretch even further. SNAP recipient families must meet poverty-level income qualifications—for a family of four that’s a net monthly income of $1,963.
“A lot of these people have to decide between rent and health care costs or food,” says Cooper.
As for lazy: More than 82 percent of Texas SNAP households had employment at some point in the last 12 months and 42 percent have some form of earned income, just not enough to live a food-secure life. Able-bodied adults between 16 and 60 must be working, actively applying for work or be taking part in employment training program to receive food stamps. Adults without children can take part in SNAP for only three months in a three-year period if they fail to obtain employment or participate in the training program.
Cole debunks another fallacious and oft-peddled idea that food stamps are an “African-American community issue.”
“It’s interesting, people often think of SNAP as something that largely benefits African Americans, but the average SNAP recipient is a 30-year-old, white single mother raising a family of three,” says Cole.
While families and food banks struggle with the recent decrease, they are bracing for a possible second round of cuts that could further erode the food safety net. In both versions of the U.S. Farm Bill—which funds agriculture and nutrition—food stamps are slated for additional cuts. While the Senate version would cut $4 billion over the next decade, the House bill slashes $40 billion from the food assistance program. U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) tells the Current she and other Dems voted against the House Farm Bill in order to “save” SNAP. The strategy takes into account Republicans who also voted against the bill because the cuts to the program weren’t deep enough. Johnson instead co-sponsored a bill that would extend the SNAP benefit increases.
“The cuts for food stamps really impact low-income working Americans in addition to those that are not employed. And of course, in Texas there’s a clear demand,” says Johnson. “Texas has [the] largest number of working people that are eligible for food stamps[of] any other state. We are trying very hard to make sure children get access to food.”
Held up largely by debate over food stamp reductions, a compromise on the bill is currently being negotiated by legislators.
“We don’t plan to give up on it yet,” Johnson added.
Cooper and Cole echo each other—another hit to food stamps would be disastrous to food security in Texas.
“We estimate we would have to double our size just to make up for the loss in November,” says Cooper. “We’re trying to make up that gap, but boy, if Congress decides to cut additional dollars … we won’t be able to do it.”