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!