What Cuts to the Food Safety Net Mean for People’s Lives | Civil Eats

What Cuts to the Food Safety Net Mean for People’s Lives

Four people with an up-close view of food insecurity talk about how the recent cuts to food assistance and current food prices have impacted them and their communities.

A woman holds a bag of pears as she waits in line to receive free food at the Richmond Emergency Food Bank. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Brooklyn residents receive free food as part of a Bowery Mission outreach program. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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See the related feature article about the large-scale impacts of benefits cuts.

This spring, the pandemic-era increases to benefits offered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ended in most states, substantially reducing the monthly dollar amounts many food-insecure households receive to buy food. Together with inflated food costs, the end of the emergency allotments—and revised work requirements for SNAP—has meant that many people across the U.S. are struggling to put food on the table.

To shed light on the problem we spoke with four people—two food-assistance recipients, a farmworker, and a school food professional—about their day-to-day realities and what the dismantling of the food safety net means for them.

Kyler Daniels, SNAP Recipient

By CHRISTINA COOKE

Kyler Daniels lives in North Carolina with her boyfriend and 4-year-old toddler, where she works for Down East Partnership for Children while completing her Master’s degree in social work. She has been receiving SNAP benefits since 2019.

When you were getting SNAP originally, what difference did that make for you and your family?

It was security for us. We started off getting about $212 or $215 each month. Then three or four months later, we started getting the maximum amount for our household because of COVID. Then we were earning about $600 total. We didn’t have to worry about meals. We didn’t have to worry about supplementing.

We could get our daughter the snacks she wanted—the fruit cups, yogurt, and applesauce. We could engage her in the shopping experience without having to worry about how much things were going to cost.

You said in April, you received $31 in SNAP benefits, and in May, you did not receive any benefits at all. What types of shopping decisions are you having to make given this decrease in support now?

Now, I go into the grocery store and try to crunch numbers. You don’t want to get up [to the register] and overspend and then have to go back and decide what to do.

At the beginning of the month, we look at what we have. . . [and] decide right then how much we’re going to take off for food after we pay the bills that need to get paid. If there is a bill we don’t have enough money for, we decide which one we will we get less penalties from—which one will work with us, which one will extend the deadline.

When I know we need it, I will [pick up shifts driving] for DoorDash. But then I’m tired all the time—when do we get to sleep?

I imagine access to healthier food is harder right now.

Yeah, definitely. Inflation has really hiked up the prices on things. Trying to get lettuce for a salad, or organic foods is higher. So, we don’t do that as often.

How does your daughter complicate the decisions that you’re making around food?

We wouldn’t eat at times to make sure that she had food—or we’d just eat noodles, something quick that we can make at the house—to make sure she can eat what she wants. She’s a picky eater. I don’t want to force her to eat something that she doesn’t like and then see her be hungry.

Are there challenges to navigating the benefit system? Did you run into any stumbling blocks?

I have never been 100 percent sure about why I received the benefits that I did. The application is not user-friendly. I am college-educated, getting a master’s degree, and there are things on there I don’t understand. For the average American, trying to get those benefits—and already being stressed out about needing them, with the negative stigma that goes along with it—is frustrating enough.

Can you describe the emotional toll on you?

Emotionally, there will be times where I would feel like a failure because we’re very low [on money], and it’s not the end of the month [so I’m not] about to get paid. It’s like, what do we do now? We’re constantly encouraging each other and ourselves to keep going. Nobody should have to deal with that on a daily basis. I feel like a bad parent for not being able to provide whatever my daughter needs, whatever she wants, especially when it comes to something as basic as food.

What would you like to see in this upcoming farm bill for SNAP and other programs that help people in need?

I would like it to be easier for people to apply [for SNAP]. If we had the revenue to give people the extra benefit during the pandemic, what is the difference now, especially if you are charging so much more for food?

There’s more that goes into needing food than what we make—I don’t think that [income] should be the first thing you look at. I moved in with my sister, so I don’t have a mortgage or a lease right now, but I’m still paying [for housing]. It’s hard to [reflect that expense] on the SNAP application.

So what do you wish that people—and lawmakers—who are in favor of cutting SNAP and other benefits programs understood about the people who use those programs?

We’ll bring the news to you.

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We want the same things that they have. And not every person who needs assistance looks the same and has the same circumstances. It’s not black and white; there are areas of gray.

Adela Martinez, Farmworker

By JULIA KNOERR

Adela Martinez is a seasonal farmworker living in Immokalee, Florida—the nation’s “tomato capital.” The following responses have been translated from Spanish, and touch on many of the same themes as a longer feature on community responses to food insecurity in Immokalee that ran on Civil Eats.

Where do you and members of your community access food? How do challenges in access shape daily life?

Here in Immokalee, the [farms] primarily grow a lot of vegetables: tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, and fruits in some areas as well. The growers bring them to a market area, and I buy food there when I don’t go to Walmart or Sam’s [Club]. Although I could buy food somewhere nearby, I [often] go further. I usually look for the place with the most affordable prices.

There are places that give out food, like vegetables, noodles, and rice. I look for food in the most affordable places because I don’t have a steady job. I’ve used coupons; I’ve used everything that I have at home so that I don’t waste anything. It’s also difficult for people who live far away from the places that donate food. Although they might want to go, sometimes they can’t drive, it’s very hot outside, or they have small children.

How has your access to food changed since the pandemic, and did changes in SNAP allowances impact you?

It’s a truly great help. There was an increase twice, and I didn’t want to spend it just anywhere. I had to look at what I bought and get what was affordable. In the small stores here, I have noticed that a single banana can cost you $1, but in Walmart, you can get lots of bananas for $1.50. [SNAP assistance] is very helpful for me. Now they don’t give as much, but it’s something.

I always try to economize what I can in every way. During the pandemic, things weren’t like they are now. Sometimes [the assistance] was enough for me to buy everything for two weeks—meat and lots of fruits and vegetables. But now, it’s not. I go to Walmart to buy what I need, and I sometimes spend $250 or $300. Sometimes I get extra things, but with this [reduction] and the lack of work here now, you don’t have the luxury of buying what you want. You think about everything: your rent, phones, and many things. Now I don’t buy anything like $250 or $300 worth of food. What they give me now [in assistance] for a month lasts me one week.

What are some potential solutions to improving food access in Immokalee?

The Cultivate Abundance community garden is a blessing for me. When I wasn’t working, we would go there to help, and they would give us herbs and other things. For me, that’s a lot, because in reality, if you go to the store, you spend $5 or $6 on herbs—for cilantro, for a cabbage. If [they were] able to do [the gardening] on a larger scale, it would be a great help for many people. The store owners take advantage of people who don’t have a car to get to more affordable stores. If there was a place that could help harvest more vegetables and fruits, that would be [helpful].

This reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Tricia Kastelitz, School Food Professional 

By ANNA GUTH

Tricia Kastelitz

Tricia Kastelitz is the coordinator of nutrition and student wellness education at Suffolk City Public School District in Virginia. She is one of many in roles like hers who have had to find creative ways to feed families during difficult times.

How does food insecurity shape day-to-day life for members of your school community?

I wish more people could understand that food insecurity is a fluid situation, and it can go up and down during the month. It is also a spectrum. Sometimes, when we think about food insecurity, we only think about the students who don’t have any food at home. But there are also a lot of people in that gray range who eat every day, but maybe they can’t afford [to buy] healthy foods. Or, the kids are eating every day, but their parents are skipping meals. Or, they eat every day, but a lot of their food is coming from a food pantry or some other social service. I think it’s important to remember that those children, and families, are also food insecure.

After the federal universal meals offered during the pandemic ended, how did access to food in your district change?

We are a CEP [Community Eligibility Provision] district, which means that all our students are still eating free breakfast and lunch because of the amount of students who are “directly certified.” We actually opted into the CEP program in the middle of the pandemic, so our students and our families never really felt a difference between the universal feeding and free CEP meals we offer now. But I think making permanent universal free meals is definitely a concern on the horizon. We are a borderline district: Forty [percent] is the number to qualify for CEP. Last year, we were under 40.

As the menu planner, can you describe the challenges of shifting from remote meal deliveries back to in-person meals?

During COVID, we had to shift to mostly pre-packaged foods, mostly for safety reasons. The downside was that we became more reliant on those types of foods. Trying to make that transition back has been very challenging. Our biggest challenge right now is labor, and we are always looking to hire more people so we can begin to provide more home-cooked meals. We were really fortunate that our district chose to pay all of our [cafeteria] staff completely during the pandemic, but a lot of our older staff just decided not to come back, either because of health concerns or they had gotten used to being home.

How have recent cuts to the food safety net, following the end of the COVID public health emergency, affected your community?

The reduction in SNAP benefits often leads our families to make up that money elsewhere and to really try to find more resources. We have some close community partners—food banks and other feeding sites. I know they have [seen more demand] in the past few months. Recently, we’ve also had an uptick in people trying to go back and look at their P-EBT [Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer] benefits, [which are still available to families eligible for free or reduced-price school meals this summer]. And that makes me think that people are seeking more resources for food.

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What is one thing that our readers could do to better support people in your position?

The more partners who get involved in school nutrition, and the more people who have a finger in the pot, so to speak, the better for everyone. If you feel called to help with school meals, call up your school nutrition department and see what they need. Asking the people you’re trying to help what they need is so, so important—especially in the food web, which is so different depending on where you are.

Jayson Call, Puerto Rico PAN recipient

By LINDSAY TALLEY

For all the shortcomings of SNAP, the situation in Puerto Rico poses even more challenges. The U.S. territory currently uses the Programa de Asistencia Nutricional (PAN), but many Puerto Ricans are hoping Congress will help the territory transition to SNAP instead. Jayson Call, a current PAN beneficiary, explains how this program falls short and why he thinks it’s important to improve food assistance for the people of Puerto Rico.

How did you first learn about PAN? Were you on the program growing up, or did you begin to access the benefits as an adult?

My family did use it for a little while when I was a child, before they were able to establish themselves economically and leave the program. But I went on PAN as an adult because I have a child with type 1 diabetes. I had to stop working to help him.

The application system is very complicated, and every time I submitted, they denied it. But then I found out that I could submit my son’s medical expenses and my [medical expenses], and with that they qualified me.

My son’s expenses are about $4,000 a month in medication. It’s not easy. If I go to work, I can’t make enough money to maintain the cost of living and my children’s medication. It was a tough process to apply because not even the employees who work there advise you correctly [to figure out how to present your finances to qualify for food assistance]. They said, [because I made $1 too much] I didn’t qualify. For a dollar! And if you don’t have someone to help you, you don’t know how to qualify for the program. I was looking for alternatives for months until someone told me [about] the medical expense [deduction].

How does food insecurity shape your day-to-day life, and the lives of other members of your community?

We have seen how inflation has [raised prices]. There are times when you say, “How is it possible that with $100 or $200 10 years ago, I could fill my cart?” Today with the $400 that [PAN] gives me, it doesn’t come close. And now there is a third-quality product [food that is lower quality than what is sold in the mainland U.S.] that you have to buy in order to eat the same thing you ate before. Many people, a lot of senior citizens, have even less and have to choose between buying food, personal toiletries, or medications.

What is one thing that could make a substantial difference in the lives of food-insecure Puerto Ricans?

The creation of community kitchens is really needed. A fund for the people to convert abandoned schools into community kitchens. Because, remember, communities know what is needed and how to solve things here.

Another thing that could be beneficial is more food banks. Right now there is just a single [food bank in Puerto Rico,] in Carolina, and it really can’t keep up. We need one in Ponce, one in Ceiba. It’s not like in the United States, where many of the churches have food banks.

How have recent events, from the hurricane to the earthquakes to the pandemic, affected access to food?

The PAN benefit card [system] depends on electricity. If there is no electricity, you cannot buy anything. And that affected us a lot when Hurricane María hit. If the electricity was out, the system was completely down. Useless. Also, if for any reason the port of Puerto Rico is affected, there is no [way to get food onto the island, which imports about 85 percent of what it consumes].

What can our readers do to better support and help people in your position?

Any organizations or individuals that are able to send funds to Puerto Rico could partner with local organizations and individuals in order to recuperate some of the abandoned schools (of which there are many) and turn them into community kitchens.

These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com. Read more >

Julia Knoerr is a Global Health Inequities Reporting Fellow at Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read more >

Anna Guth is a freelance editor and reporter based in Marin County, California. Previously a staff writer for the Point Reyes Light, she has a degree in English and environmental studies from Wesleyan University. Read more >

Lindsay Talley is a documentary photographer and writer based in New York City. Her work examines the food system with specific focus on food sovereignty, access, and production; sustainability in farming and what that really means financially and in relation to the environment and well-being of farmers; and food culture. Read more >

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