This post was written by Jessica Nguyen, a former member of our team.
After completing my grocery shopping for the week—my cart filled with veggies, meats, and fruits—I headed to the checkout line to pay. However, when I swiped my Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, it was declined, though I was certain I still had funds left. My face immediately turned a deep shade of red and I told the cashier I had accidently canceled the transaction. The next time around, I decided to pay with my credit card, not wanting to hold up the line and draw attention to myself.
That was several years ago now, when I was part of the AmeriCorps VISTA program. I enjoyed my experience, but it meant I earned a monthly living stipend equal to 110% of the federal poverty level. This qualified me for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Although my SNAP benefits helped tremendously each month, I was disappointed that I still had to utilize the program despite working 40+ hours each week. It was ironic that during my VISTA term I assisted older adults in applying for SNAP, while trying to decrease the stigma associated with the program, but I was still ashamed to use the benefits myself.
SNAP is one of the first lines of defense against protecting people from hunger, which plays a role in determining a person’s opportunity to live a healthy life. While the future of SNAP remains uncertain, it’s still important to address the stigmas associated with the program:
- MYTH: People who receive SNAP benefits are not working: Individuals on SNAP are often employed, but receiving low wages to support themselves or their family—with the exception of children, disabled, and older adults. People must work or be actively looking for work to be eligible for benefits.
- MYTH: Fraud is common within the program: SNAP fraud rates are low. States have evaluated portions of their SNAP accounts to determine the fraudulent and error rates. The results have shown that less than one percent of SNAP benefits have been disbursed to households that are ineligible.
- MYTH: SNAP benefits can be used to buy a wide variety of items that are not food: Benefits are distributed through an EBT card, which looks like a debit card, to help reduce the stigma associated with its use and streamline administration. SNAP benefits strictly prohibit non-food items. Many states have added Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to the EBT card, which causes confusion because those benefits can be used to buy non-food items.
In Colorado, we have different initiatives, programs, and organizations working to address the issue of hunger. Another initiative, The Care Equity Project, is an interactive presentation that aims to increase empathy within the community and health care settings through storytelling. Their newest short play, On Empty, puts a face to the issue of hunger. Characters come from different backgrounds, but they were brought together at a food pantry to seek help. The play highlights the varying reasons why a person might end up hungry.
My biggest fear while utilizing SNAP was that people would judge me. Although I was embarrassed to use my EBT card that day at the grocery store, I know I shouldn’t have been. I should’ve embraced the use of it because I know how important the program was for me and so many others. We can’t win the fight against hunger without essential programs like SNAP.