CAFB Hunger Awareness Challenge: A Follow Up

A few weeks ago I shared some snack recipes as part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance Hunger Awareness Blog Project benefiting the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). I promised a three-part series in that first post, and I didn’t deliver. This is just post number two, and I’m way past the deadline. Sorry about that. I’ve stewed about this for weeks now, and I wasn’t ready to share this piece until today.

Before I embarked on the AFBA Hunger Challenge, I assumed that poor people shopped at grocery stores because they didn’t know about farmer’s markets. And that they didn’t cook from scratch because they were lazy. (I am crying as I write this because it is mortifying to admit how judgmental and naïve I was.) Lucky for me, the staff at CAFB used this challenge to teach the facts about the real face of hunger. For example, over 80% of CAFB beneficiaries are not homeless, and many are children. I also learned that nearly 50% of Americans will be on food assistance at some point in their lives, many because of circumstances beyond their control.

Through my research of the SNAP (food stamp) application process I discovered that my husband and I are just a few thousand dollars above the annual income threshold for food stamps. And if we chose to have children now, we would definitely need government assistance to help feed our family.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never used to think that someone on food stamps could be just like me, but now I know better. People in poverty aren’t stupid and they don’t need my advice. They do need support from their communities–including access to clean, healthy food– to succeed against the odds which are often stacked against them.

I originally intended to write for this challenge about how SNAP clients could use food stamps to buy safe, healthy foods from local farmers via community supported agriculture (CSAs). In the CSA model, local farmers deliver baskets of affordable, healthy food directly to consumers. There’s no middle man, so prices for CSA produce are often lower than those for equivalent products at grocery stores. The neighborhood delivery part of CSAs helps end food deserts, and CSAs benefit local economies by keeping food dollars close to home.

CSAs seem like a no-brainer solution in the fight against hunger, and according to the USDA, “many SNAP licensed firms have incorporated CSAs into their business portfolios.” However, not a single CSA program I contacted in the CAFB service area accepts food stamps as payment. (I reached out to thirteen farms and local organic delivery services and counting.) When I asked Greenling Organic Delivery, the CSA-type business that sponsors my blog, whether they plan to expand their payment options to include SNAP benefits, they said “not at this time.” I was tearful and angry after that phone call, and it has taken me over a month to work up the courage to talk about it publicly.* Hopefully I won’t lose them as a sponsor if they read this post.

When I called to talk with farmers about their CSAs and food stamps, I simply asked whether or not they would accept SNAP benefits as payment. Now I’d like to ask “why not?” As it stands, this is a glaring inequity in our local food supply. I am lucky to have the means to eat well. Much of the focus of my blog– eating good food made with local ingredients– is born out of my privilege. As I become aware of this, my thinking about food and hunger changes.

The poor do have a personal responsibility in eliminating hunger, but so does the community. As part of Austin’s food community, we food bloggers must acknowledge barriers that stand between healthy, local foods and families in poverty. We need to demand fair policy from our politicians and fair treatment from our food producers so that everyone in Central Texas can eat as well as we do.

*Edited 6/8/11 to add: Since I first published this post, Mason Arnold, the founder and owner of Greenling, left a comment to explain that no vendors can accept SNAP payments online. That restriction knocks out Greenling and most of the other large CSA and CSA-type businesses in Austin, who accept payments (either monthly or weekly) via credit card over the internet. 

Lisa Goddard, a staff person at CAFB, sent me a lengthy email with lots of information about the barriers that exist for non-grocery stores to accept SNAP payments. They are numerous, and much more complex than my initial research lead me to believe.

I  hope to write additional posts that explore the relationship between poverty and access to local food. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has not yet returned my calls requesting information about this issue, so I really appreciate Mason and Lisa’s input as I continue my research. Thank you, Mason and Lisa! 

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19 responses to “CAFB Hunger Awareness Challenge: A Follow Up

  1. bravo and so brave of you. thank you.

  2. I am so very proud of you right now. You are Amazing! Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We do need to take action to end this. You started by making us aware.

  3. This is a great post. I came from a family that qualified for reduced lunches at school. You would never know this from looking at us that our family qualified for such services. I will also say that my mom cooked at home every night. We didn’t eat organic food, but we ate well, and we ate vegetarian. I wish that CSA programs were available for those who were on food stamps. Thank you for addressing this. I look forward to more posts like this.

    • Sydney, thank you so much for sharing your childhood experiences. Growing up, I had a lot of friends on reduced lunch, I think, but poverty wasn’t something that my family talked a lot about. I appreciate your agreement that CSA programs should be available to everyone, and I hope to make more posts like this. 🙂

  4. This was very well written. I just wanted to reach out and hug you at the points you said you were crying. Don’t feel bad for having your own preconceptions, most of us do – particularly about things that we don’t have experience with firsthand. It takes an open mind to explore outside of your boundaries and bravery for voicing what you have learned. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to read it.

  5. Life is too short to not take a stand. The system should be overhauled and it takes bravery to do it. Write more posts like this! There are many of us who want to help but feel at a loss of what to do.

  6. Kathryn: I’m so glad I read your post. I started working for my company’s foundation (www.conagrafoodsfoundation.org) almost by accident. Before I did, I hardly ever thought about how hunger affects families. And now that I face this issue almost every day, I honestly believe that as more people learn about the reality of hunger, the more people will want to step up and do their part to fight it in their own communities. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s not easy, but passion like yours makes a difference.

  7. Hey Kathryn. I’m so sorry that Grace, or whoever you spoke with, was vague. There’s no way Greenling could accept snap. Nobody is allowed to accept SNAP online.

    Mason
    http://www.greenling.com

    • Mason, thank you so much for explaining part of why Greenling can’t accept SNAP benefits online. I edited the post above so that it would include that information.

  8. Wow! Really good information, Kathryn. What a great post!

  9. I can see how you would feel ashamed for thinking this way but don’t beat yourself up too hard. Victim blaming is a part of our culture. We are all taught as children that being poor or fat or sick or anything else is your own fault and if people don’t fix it then they are not working hard enough and therefore undeserving of anything, even compassion. Then when people do need assistance they feel so much shame that they don’t even talk about it. I’m glad to read you learned so much! Keep making those calls and sending those emails, I know it always makes me feel better and sometimes change can happen!

  10. Stephanie, thank you so much for leaving this kind comment. You’re right, we do have a culture of victim blaming. I have always recognized it really quickly with women’s rights issues and other hot topics but, as I mentioned, I had never payed that much attention to poverty before. Thanks again for the encouragement!

  11. Food policy is such a complicated subject (or multi-subject, really), and (prepare for understatement, please) it would be helpful if states were all on the same page with SNAP usage rules and if they could make SNAP as user-friendly as possible, including online use for approved vendors. We want those who have less means to eat healthful meals, yet we don’t provide them the opportunity to do so, and, as you say, CSA shares often work out to be less expensive than grocery store produce.
    In Massachusetts, where I live, and Rhode Island, which is about a well-hit golf shot away from my house, farmers markets are able to accept SNAP. Of course, this is a face-to-face exchange, not an online order situation. The first time I saw a woman using SNAP benefits at the farmers market was about three years ago, and I was amazed because I didn’t expect it to be allowed (preconceived notion!). The woman was buying from a farmer from my town, so after she walked away, I asked the farmer if she had been paid with SNAP. She very enthusiastically told me that farmers could accept SNAP, and that local senior centers provide vouchers ($30pp/per year – not much, but something) to residents 60 and older that are also approved for use at farmers markets. If this could happen all around the country, it would only be a dent in the problem, but it would be a start.
    I was so happy to meet you during #iacp last week, and have been so impressed with Megan’s efforts on the Hunger Awareness project – likewise, I’m equally impressed with yours, and with raising so many important issues with this post. Hope to see you again soon!

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