The actual paper stamps were phased out more than a decade ago and replaced with a debit-card system, and the name of the 46-year-old program was changed 18 months ago to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But most people still call them food stamps. And as of February, the latest data available, a record 39.7 million Americans were using them to put meals on the table, 13% of the population. Just a year ago, 33.8 million people were using food stamps.
Though not without its problems, the program remains one of the government's greatest successes, a key remaining part of a shredded social safety net. Even with the soaring use of food stamps because of the recession, most recipients are not jobless but rather low-wage workers. Without that backstop, many more of them and their children would be going hungry in America. A peer-reviewed study in 2009 ("Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood") calculated that 49% of children will receive food-stamp benefits sometime before they are 20 years old.
Providing food stamps now costs the government $5.3 billion a month. The average monthly benefit per person is $133.22; per household, $289.39. Three-and-a-half years ago, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger issued a challenge: live on a food stamp budget for a week. A year later, several elected officials, including Rep. Chris Hollen of Maryland, took up the challenge. The results? It was tough going.
As its new name suggests, the program is not meant to be the only money an individual or household spends for food. But, in fact, it makes up the bulk of such spending among the vast majority of recipients. If you're skilled enough and have the time and the access to good raw food materials, you can scrimp by on a food stamp budget. Pervaiz Shallwani documented some chefs' efforts to feed a family of four on $68.88 a week. They managed.
But most people on food stamps are no more food-savvy than the rest of the population. They often live where decent grocery stores with reasonably priced produce require transportation they don't have. And because most do work in low-wage jobs - sometimes multiple jobs - they, like more affluent Americans - go for the processed food that cuts down on preparation. It's less nutritious overall than the stuff that takes more time to cook. But because recipients have a tight food budget, they are more likely to choose high-fat, calorie-packed processed foods that are typically cheaper than healthier choices. Thus, as one study at Ohio State University has shown, using food stamps may contribute to the spread of an unhealthy obesity.
That's not the fault of the program, however. It is unsurprisingly captive of the same system of heavily subsidized, chemically dependent, environment-wrecking, factory-produced, overly processed food that dominates the market.
If schools taught nutrition classes (not sponsored by Monsanto), and everybody were able to participate in growing at least some of their own food, and we were less dependent on megacorporations for the rest of it, perhaps all Americans could eat healthily on a food stamp budget. Until that halcyon day arrives, however, we should be glad that elected officials of another era were not so phobic about government that they strangled the food stamp program in its cradle.