Reflection by TNFP's Office Coordinator, Elizabeth Langgle-Martin
"For everyone born, a place at the table; for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing; for everyone born, a star over head." - Shirley Erena Murray
Lately, I’ve heard a lot of discussions surrounding the proposed changes to the existing SNAP program. If you’ve been on social media or even scanned the news, you most likely have caught wind of the conversation.
First of all, what is SNAP, and who does it serve? SNAP (Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program) was formerly known as the food stamp program. SNAP is the federal benefit with which families around the United States purchase food items from grocery stores and farmers’ markets. The USDA reports that two thirds of SNAP participants last year were children, elderly, or had a disability. In January of 2018, 81,809 individuals in Davidson County alone received SNAP assistance. Currently, eligible individuals or families receive their approved amount of funds each month directly to a debit-style benefit card. The allotted amount can be spent on eligible food items from participating vendors. The average amount of the benefit tends to be about $1.52 per eligible person per meal.
Recent proposed changes suggest eliminating the debit type card which allows participants to choose ingredients and construct meals like non-participating families. These benefits would be replaced, at least in part, with a monthly government issued box of non-perishable staples. Reports suggest that these boxes would include items such peanut butter, pastas, and canned vegetables.
These proposed changes have The Nashville Food Project team actively thinking and talking about why we believe access to fresh foods and freedom of choice when thinking about food is essential to effectively supporting the families that rely on SNAP to supplement their grocery budgets and make ends meet.
Here are some of our reflections on what we believe are essential components to good food support:
Access to fresh foods
We believe that all people deserve access to fresh, nutritious food. Take a look at TNFP’s vision statement: “The Nashville Food Project embraces a vision of vibrant community food security in which everyone in Nashville has access to the food they want and need through a just and sustainable food system.” We believe that a just and sustainable system means families having access to foods that haven’t undergone extensive processing, foods that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Fresh lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and peaches that aren’t drowning in heavy syrup shouldn’t be considered the food of the elite.
Self-Determination and Dignity
Years of working with individuals who are straddling the poverty line has taught me that people are the experts of their own experience. The most resilient folks I have known are people who manage to grow riverside food gardens while living in a tent or who hand deliver a birthday card after spending the night sleeping on a church stoop. In college, one of my professors once said that if someone’s situation or struggle was simple, they would have already figured it out themselves.
Poverty is the result of complex systems, years of discrimination, resource access issues, and income inequality. Removing everyday choices and elements of self-determination from SNAP participants inherently suggests that their experience of poverty is purely the result of a personal failing, a failing so great that they now require someone who hasn’t struggled in the same way to tell them what is or is not acceptable to purchase, prepare, and serve to their families. Many families already feel an element of shame for needing to utilize a supplemental program, but to remove the ability to shop alongside non-participating families would further alienate already marginalized groups of people.
Value of Cultural Identity
Do you have a favorite holiday dish that your grandmother made or a cake that your family bakes for every birthday? Many of us were raised with meals and recipes passed down for generations. However, traditional meals for a new American family from Burma might look very different from someone raised in urban areas of Chicago, which would vary greatly from meals prepared in New Orleans.
Food is deeply personal and tied to who we are and where we are from. We create traditions utilizing food and share who we are with others through its preparation. When freedom of choice is eliminated from the foods we eat and replaced with “cookie cutter options,” we discount the way that culture and tradition influence our eating habits and vice versa. We believe that limiting control over one’s own food choices, choices that reflect one’s tastes and traditions, would render a serious flaw in any type of nutrition assistance program.
While SNAP isn’t a perfect program in its current state, it’s essential that any changes to the program serve to increase participants’ access to a variety of fresh foods and allow for food choices that reflect the nutritional and cultural needs of each participant. Without these, any program would be a step backward.
Obviously, SNAP is not the only way to increase access to fresh, nutritious foods for families in need. Here are a few things you can do to help support and increase in fresh, nutritious food for families experiencing food instability:
1. Share extra fresh produce from your gardens with a local food bank (or if you are in the Nashville area, with The Nashville Food Project, of course)!
2. Support community gardening initiatives which increase land access for under-resourced neighbors to grow their own food.
3. Help de-stigmatize nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP by sharing factual, well researched information. Here is a good starting point to learn more.
Most importantly, we must remember that there is enough. It’s easy to fall into a mindset of scarcity. However, it’s essential to recall that 40% of the food produced in the United States goes to waste. There is plenty of food to meet the needs of all people and plenty of room at the table.