By Ali Follman
“I was on food stamps,” Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said, after he asked the interns, reporters and fellow representatives in Congress to raise their hands if they’ve ever been on food stamps.
Three to four more people raised their hands. This fact, that a congressman had been on food stamps, came unexpected to many, especially in a room full of people belonging to the middle to upper middle class government workforce in Washington, D.C.
A program called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, assisted 46,636 families in 2014. People in the program received an average of $125 in monthly benefits.
Five people who have first-hand experience with SNAP spoke at the Agriculture Committee hearing on April 15 about their experience with the program and the role the charitable sector plays in food stamp usage.
After hearing testimony from men and women whose lives and charities have benefitted from SNAP, the representatives were in agreement that the program’s funds must not be cut back.
“Food banks offer outreach services but not enough to replace SNAP,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said.
The personal story from Keleigh Green-Patton, a witness in the hearing and the District Manager of Chartwells, a school foodservice, was just one example of a life that was drastically improved with the help of food stamps. Her mother received food stamps when Green-Patton was a child.
She was too young to realize the implications of being on government aid. Once she became a single mother and was working two jobs to feed her children, she used SNAP to augment her income until she earned enough money to feed her children and ultimately send them to college.
Green-Patton currently volunteers at her church to provide hot meals to people in her community and also gives back to the program that put her on her career path, Chicago’s Community Kitchens. Through that organization’s free program, she learned valuable skills to gain employment at a catering company. She now offers internships and jobs to other Chicago Community Kitchen graduates.“I can’t help but give back what they’ve given me,” Green-Patton said. “I owe them back.”
The theme of the hearing was to stress how community organizations such as churches and food banks can’t exist without SNAP, and visa versa. These organizations would be overwhelmed with hungry Americans if SNAP did not exist. One of the main roles of food banks is to feed those who have run out of their SNAP benefits for the month, or those who need SNAP but have not signed up for the program.
Kate Maehr, a witness and the Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, agreed that SNAP programs and charities must coexist. She also stressed the importance of offering nutritious, fresh foods at all food banks and made available through the use of SNAP coupons.
“SNAP programs and charity programs work in tandem,” Maehr said. “Food banks would not be able to end hunger alone.”
Jonathan Webb, a witness and Director of Foundations and Community Engagement for Feed the Children, is grateful for all that SNAP provides to the community and said that without SNAP, hunger in America would be much worse. He also addressed what most already knew: hunger isn’t the nation’s only problem. Issues stemming from hunger tend to also cause imbalances in communities. “Hunger has several layers to it centering around poverty, unemployment, education and health,” Webb said.
Promoting healthy choices is an important factor at food banks and with SNAP as demonstrated by the word “nutrition” in the program name. The witnesses stressed that nutritious foods must be part of SNAP, although they are more expensive. “We never knew just how much she [Green-Patton’s mother] struggled to feed us,” Green-Patton said. “We never knew that it cost more to purchase an apple than to purchase noodles.”
The representatives in the hearing were in agreement with the importance of good nutrition to be part of SNAP benefits and promised to stress that in larger congressional meetings. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., stated that all of the organizations the witnesses represented were great supplements to SNAP and that they must work as complements to one another and tap into farm goods. “We cannot and will not separate food stamps from the farmer’s goods,” Scott said. “It is like separating the wet from water.”
Because 50.1 million Americans struggle to put food on the table, Rep. Scott calls hunger a “political condition.” With the help of witnesses who told their stories ranging from senior citizens needing more food security to hungry children of incarcerated parents, food assistance program budgets are something that cannot be reduced in this country until participant numbers go down. “The need has plateaued in many communities,” Maehr said. “But it has not decreased.”
At the end of the day, literally, people of all ages are going to bed hungry. It can affect anyone at any time in their lives. Rep. Yoho, an established politician and educated man began his life as a young adult on food stamps, sharing that fact in the hearing.
SNAP is a program that helps people not only get fed but get up and back on track in life.
“Many people call SNAP a safety net, but for me it was like a trampoline,” Green-Patton said. “Bouncing my family back into work and a brighter future.”