"Why does this have to take so long? Oh look, she's using the Lone Star Card; no wonder. It doesn't look like she needs food stamps anyway. Why do all the people who use food stamps buy ice cream?" The couple standing directly in front of me in the grocery store last night uttered these words as we both waited for a woman and her toddler/daughter to check out. These are the words that we are told that happen way too often these days. Couple that with the instant analyzing of a food stamp recipient's grocery cart and you have today's debate on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - formerly known as food stamps.
Now back to the situation that unfolded last night: the only thing that kept me from addressing these rude comments was the smiles of the woman's daughter at me. I did receive the opportunity to quickly "analyze" what was in the woman's shopping cart: bread, cheese, lettuce, bananas, milk, chocolate chips, flour, Fruit Loops brand cereal, hot sauce and...a half gallon of ice cream. Yes, ice cream. All purchased with the Lone Star Card (the EBT card that the state of Texas uses to store SNAP and other benefits).
It got me thinking about the program of SNAP. In this case, the debate was laced with the assumption that this woman did not need SNAP. A quick overview: the woman was wearing a tee-shirt - just like me. She was wearing mesh, athletic shorts - just like me. She had a daughter in her grocery cart - just like me. She likes ice cream - just like me. The key phrase here: just like me. SNAP recipients are no different than you and I in our food likes. However, the mere presence of a Lone Star Card automatically means we subject people to instant analysis of the items they are purchasing. It's a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. Yes, there was ice cream in her cart but for some strange reason; the remaining contents of her cart (including the produce items) were ignored in the above comments.
This is where we are in the debate of SNAP in this country and honestly, the root issue of the debate begins in the checkout line of your local grocery store. The fact that a person's perception of one using food stamps is driving most of the criticism and debate about SNAP in this country is very scary to me. Think about it: when have you ever heard of someone saying "wow, that's great - she is purchasing fresh produce with her Lone Star Card." The answer is almost never. When have you heard of someone stating "well, maybe there's a reason she's using SNAP and we should not assume that she does not need assistance." The answer is never. Perception is everything in today's society and without a second look, it's a very dangerous road to travel.
At the High Plains Food Bank, our mission is to alleviate hunger in the Texas Panhandle. Hunger relief happens in many ways. One of these ways is helping people with means other than food distribution. This is why the High Plains Food Bank assists those who need help and qualify for SNAP. It's not about driving people to welfare; it's about helping people with needs put food on the table. If you couple this with the immense amount of paper work that it takes just to apply for SNAP (if a person qualifies) and what you have to do to maintain the SNAP benefits, many people choose not to apply. This comes at a time when the High Plains Food Bank is working at stretched/maximum capacity to keep up with the demand of food needs throughout the Texas Panhandle. The proposed cuts would not only affect over 2,900 people in the Texas Panhandle by a loss of their benefits, it would also mean an increased strain on resources for the High Plains Food Bank and its member agencies. Historically, SNAP has worked as it's designed: in economic downtimes, the caseloads increase. As the economy improves, caseloads decrease (i.e. the mid-1990s).
I think this is a good lesson for all of us. The next time you are standing in line and see a Lone Star Card used, think about two things: 1) be very thankful that you have the money you need to provide groceries for yourself and/or your family and 2) let's not be the first ones to automatically perceive that we know a person's situation that is in front of us in the grocery line. After all, I certainly would not want anyone to make that assumption about me.