Green Cities

How Low-Income Citizens Navigate the Pros and Cons Of SNAP Benefits

Research on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and national food bank success was presented and discussed at American University July 22, 2015 through collaboration between the School of Public Affairs and Feeding America. The event, “In Tandem: Pairing Public and Private Nonprofit Assistance to Make Ends Meet”, brought together experts on policy, funding, public outreach from the government, nonprofit, research and private sectors. Speakers included Alison Jacknowitz, Associate Professor at American University, AU Assistant Professor and former Health Policy Advisor in the U.S. Senate, Taryn Morrissey, Colleen Heflin, PhD Program Director at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, CEO of FeedMore, Douglas Pick, Stacy Dean, Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, and Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at Feeding America. Just around 200 food banks are currently active in the U.S., serving 46 million individuals, half of who use SNAP benefits, explained Davis. Of that number, recent studies report that one quarter of those individuals say their SNAP benefits only last two weeks, and 86% say that the benefits run out around three weeks into the month. The discussion opened with these figures to emphasize the need for food pantries and charities to work harder to fill this gap. While some of the findings turned out as expected, some are not, giving rise to new questions about national food assistance programs’ future. Jacknowitz shared data from her study with Taryn Morrissey showing that most clients view food pantries and SNAP to be separate programs, rather than assistance that can work together, despite findings that a majority of clients use shopping strategies to save money and stretch their benefits as much as possible – using coupons and taking advantage of sales. On the qualitative side, Morrissey noted insufficient transportation infrastructure as a leading factor in national food insecurity as well as how location factors into food prices. One plan for closing the SNAP/food pantry gap is to implement more direct information and support outreach to potential citizens. Current outreach is through “very light touches,” such as pamphlets and tabling, said Colleen Heflin, who highlighted some outreach obstacles like expenses and location. Doug Pick also brought up current hurdles in terms of logistics and vision, such as forming partnerships with local produce farmers and storage facilities to ensure healthier options for clients. He emphasized transportation’s vital role in not just food pantry access, but also for the broader system of fighting all factors of poverty. He wants to close the gap while lessening dependency; to “empower folks so they don’t need us.” Despite the concerns that panelists brought to the discussion, SNAP availability serves over 45 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful food assistance programs in the nation. It reaches the widest amount of demographics, according to Stacy Dean, who acknowledged areas where the program needs improvements but shared ideas for said changes and further study. Molly Pfeffer, Intern