Detroit Shows How Cuts to SNAP Affect an Entire Community

In the Motor City and across the country, restrictions on nutrition assistance in the House farm bill will affect individuals and families, small businesses, farmers, and others.



Editor’s note: As the Senate and House get set to reconcile the 2018 Farm Bill—the House version would lead to dramatic changes to SNAP nutrition assistance programs—during #SNAPweek, we are looking at how SNAP affects a range of different communities, and what the proposed changes might mean for a variety of Americans.

The future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could be shaped this year, as Congress seeks to pass a final 2018 Farm Bill before the existing bill expires in October. Roughly 80 percent of the farm bill goes to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, and while the Senate version of the bill maintains the program more or less in its current form, the House version goes to great lengths to restrict access to food assistance.

The House bill would raise by 10 years, to 59, the age limit that requires recipients to work or enroll in job training programs, remove dispensations for parents with children older than six years old, and impose harsh penalties for non-compliance, revoking an individual’s benefits for a year for a first offense and three years for subsequent infractions. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, these changes would affect between 5 and 7 million of SNAP’s 40 million enrollees.

Farmers at Detroit's Brother Nature Urban Farm. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Farmers at Detroit’s Brother Nature Urban Farm. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

These proposed changes to SNAP would have wide-ranging impacts on communities around the country—rural and urban alike. To illustrate what those changes would look like on the ground, Civil Eats traveled around Detroit, Michigan—a state that is rolling out new state-level work requirements for SNAP recipients—for a first-hand look.

Individuals and Families

On the east side of Detroit, 42-year-old Roquesha O’Neal is one potential target of cuts to SNAP. She relies on the program to take care of herself and her disabled, teenage son. She receives a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check worth $750 for her son and makes an additional $150 a month babysitting and doing odd jobs for neighbors. After rent and utilities, her family is left with about $500 a month to live on.

Even with SNAP, putting food on the table can still feel like a full-time job: SNAP recipients only receive on average $1.40 a meal. O’Neal gets even less than this, feeding herself and her son on $205 a month or roughly $1.13 per meal, per person. And this doesn’t include her daughter’s son, for whom she provides free childcare and also has to feed.

O’Neal has had to be resourceful, visiting the local soup kitchen run by Capuchin Friars and “bargain shopping” with neighbors, making bulk purchases of staples like bread and rice to share. Luckily, O’Neal has a branch of the Aldi grocery store chain nearby, but she has to take public transportation or carpool with neighbors to get to the soup kitchen because she doesn’t have a car. She says that bus fare is her largest monthly expense.

She suffers from high blood pressure and fibromyalgia, and says that side effects from her medications make it nearly impossible to work. Even so, the state is disputing her claims for disability, something that could force her to work or lose SNAP benefits, and would put her in a bind in terms of taking care of her son and grandson. “Everything is connected,” O’Neal says. If she were to lose her benefits, “that means my son would miss meals,” a situation that could also affect her grandson. In terms of her own health, “It would mean life and death for me. If I don’t eat healthy, I could lose my life.”

O’Neal worries that other proposed changes in the House version of the farm bill would hurt her community. This area, in what’s sometimes called the “deep eastside” of Detroit, hasn’t gained much from recent investment downtown and, like many parts of the city, it suffers from high poverty and unemployment.

A reduction in food assistance here could radiate consequences, undermining local businesses, reducing employment even further, and placing additional stress on food pantries and other nonprofits. In addition, the House bill would remove benefits for residents who are just leaving prison, a move that some believe could increase recidivism.

Supermarkets and Grocery Stores

Sam Attam owns the Farmer John Food Center, a heavily secured market that anchors the businesses on the corner of Harper and Gratiot Avenue. He employs around a dozen people and offers the sort of full service-grocery that is often lacking in Detroit, where “party stores” with pre-packaged foods predominate. Attam says that food stamps make up 80 percent or more of his business, a statistic echoed by several grocers in the city, including Charles Walker, a former grocery store owner and the retail specialist for the Detroit-based Fair Food Network.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, estimates that changes like those in the House bill could remove roughly 2 million people from food stamps, or about 5 percent of the program, creating a small but significant loss for businesses with typical profit margins in the low single digits.

Auday Arabo, President and CEO of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, a trade group that represents grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores in the Midwest, says that SNAP cuts could result in layoffs and store closures in urban areas where chain stores have generally already left.

He also notes Detroit-specific problems: “you’re running into an infrastructure issue—you have a lack of transportation, and it’s just [a low] number of rooftops … if you have less rooftops, the stores are not going to sustain.” That lack of “rooftops” refers to Detroit’s dispersed population, where large areas of the city have seen sharp population declines. This, coupled with the lack of transportation, makes it harder for people to get to grocery stores and harder for grocery stores to survive.

All these factors weigh on a business like Attam’s, the loss of which could make both food and jobs harder to find in an already-struggling area.

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets have emerged as one bright spot in Detroit’s food landscape. The Double Up Food Bucks program, facilitated by the Fair Food Network and funded by the Farm Bill through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Program, allows food stamp recipients to double their food stamp dollars for up to $20 a day if they buy Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.

And it appears to be working. The Michigan Farmers’ Market Association (MIFMA) reports that shoppers spent $662,921 in SNAP benefits in 2016, and they expect that figure to grow. Markets report an average of $470 in SNAP sales the first year they begin accepting benefits, whereas overall the average for markets that accept benefits is $4,725 a year, representing a tenfold increase for most markets that stick with the program.

But cuts to SNAP could diminish the positive effect programs like Double Up Food Bucks are beginning to have. “It’s detrimental to both families and to farmers,” says Amanda Shreve, MIFMA’s executive director. “In this case, cuts to SNAP can hit direct-marketing farmers twice: Once through cutting SNAP dollars spent at market, and the second time through limiting the number of families that can take advantage of the Double Up Food Bucks program.”

In addition, there’s a looming threat of discontinuation of the Mobile Market+ app by the Novo Dia Group. The Austin-based software company allows farmers’ markets to process SNAP transactions on certain mobile devices. Although Michigan has funds for markets to obtain new wireless devices, some markets may be unable to process transactions for several weeks until they get the new equipment.

Purchasing fruit at Detroit's Eastern Market. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Purchasing fruit at Detroit’s Eastern Market. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Eastern Market, near downtown Detroit, which is one of the largest year-round farmers’ markets in the country, accounts for a significant portion of SNAP transactions statewide, Shreve says, and could be deeply affected by the cuts. But smaller neighborhood markets like the Oakland Avenue Farmers Market in the North End neighborhood—which also serves as a community art and performance space—could be even more vulnerable because they don’t have a wide customer base of both urban and suburban shoppers.

Jerry Ann Hebron, executive director of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation, which runs the market, says, “people walk to us or ride their bikes to us. We’re concerned about the impact it’s going to have on them to utilize those benefits to buy food.” Overall, she says that food stamps account for 40 percent of the sales at Oakland Avenue.

Hebron does say that those facing SNAP cuts could still get some food from the market in exchange for volunteer work. “It’s a kind of a barter that we work here,” she says. However, she adds “we don’t get too many volunteers on a regular basis … because people just don’t have the agility or the time to do this work when they’re working two or three jobs—or trying to.”

Food Banks and Charities

It’s unlikely that food banks or charities will be able to pick up the slack should food assistance be reduced in coming years. “For every one meal that the food bank network provides nationally, SNAP provides 12 meals,” says Kait Skwir, Deputy Director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, underlining the massive disparity between what charities and government can do.

And if charities can’t make up the difference, the results would be predictable. “There would be more people who are hungry,” Skwir says. As she and others point out, roughly 40 percent of SNAP recipients are already working, using food stamps to supplement their salaries. Even if that population is able to pick up more work—or get paid a higher wage for their work—the effects on children and seniors who depend on those workers for caregiving could be significant.

There may also be other difficulties in store for the people forced to move into the workforce. As Roquesha O’Neal puts it, “If you don’t have the education, if you don’t have the right health … and if they take the SNAP program away, people are going to be too hungry to even go to work. To me it’s a losing situation.”

In a statement to Civil Eats, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee that oversees the Farm Bill, stressed her support for the Senate version of the bill saying, “Just as the Farm Bill has a safety net for farmers, it also has a safety net for families, which many people rely on to put food on the table during tough times.”

But even if the final version of the bill maintains SNAP as is, the fight over nutrition assistance seems destined to increase in intensity during the 2018 and 2020 elections. O’Neal says she’s committed to engaging in the fight. She has shown up at rallies in support of SNAP and engaged with local non-profits like Michigan United and Mothering Justice to learn about food stamps and other issues and raise awareness in her neighborhood. “I’m going to keep fighting and take a stand,” she says. “I’m going to wake my neighbor up and say you need to vote.”

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  1. Thursday, July 19th, 2018
    I am especially sensitive to this issue having grown up with the benefit of food stamps. I know first hand the shame my mom felt while paying for groceries and having to have actually stamps to exchange for food. She worked full time as a nurse to care for me and my four siblings. I've always said "we were poor, really poor, but we always had food." It was only as an adult that I realized it was due to the benefit of food stamps. I am 58 yrs old now and run my own cafe/bakery. So money is still tight. I help support my daughter, a young single mother, through nursing school. She has relied on the snap program to help her make ends meet.