Column: Eating on food stamps

Janet Stevens

I’ve been thinking lately of taking the SNAP Challenge, an exercise in which those who participate agree to feed themselves on a food stamp budget for a given period of time. The subject is timely: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other federal nutrition programs eat up about 80 percent of the farm bill, which was recently passed by Congress.

There are problems with the challenge itself, however — at least in the way I’ve seen it work. Those who agree to it agree to feed themselves on $4.50 per day — or $1.50 per meal. That’s the amount the Feeding America organization, which sponsors the challenge, says SNAP recipients get each month to feed themselves. It’s not much.

At the same time, however, it misses a key point about SNAP. The program is not and never was designed to provide all the money a family would need to feed itself each month. SNAP, the new name for the old food stamp program, is by definition supplemental.

In fact, says a nice woman at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, the amount SNAP allocates is based on the idea that you will put about 30 percent of your own income toward food each month.

So how much should I assume I’d get from SNAP? Using my own and my daughter’s incomes, nothing. But figuring out numbers that actually work has been a challenge in itself.

Christy Sinatra, a communications officer with the state Department of Human Services, and I have been kicking numbers around for a couple of days. We’ve been helped by Kate Scott of the state’s SNAP policy team.

Here are the assumptions going in:

We’re talking about a two-person household just like mine, one of us over 60 and one of us disabled. From here on out, the assumptions we’re making do not match my reality.

One of our imaginary pair is working full time at the Oregon minimum wage. Her monthly gross pay is $1,565.20 per month. The other does not work.

Then come the deductions. Standard Oregon and federal deductions would, according to a website called Your Money Page (yourmoneypage.com), amount to $406.52 a month, leaving our family $1,158.68 to live on.

It will be tough. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Bend right now is $800 a month, Sinatra says, so that’s the housing number we’re using. That may change, however, in the next couple of days.*

We’re using last year’s rough average for Bend sewer and water bills — or $60 a month. And because we cannot afford a snazzy new apartment in Bend, we’re assuming we’re living in an older one, almost surely heated with electricity. This time of year, the folks at NeighborImpact tell me, our power bill is likely to average another $300 a month. Garbage bills in Bend are $16 a month for a single small can.

If you’ve been keeping track, you know that fixed expenses have already reached $1,176 per month — or $17.32 more than what we assume net income is. That in itself is a problem, and there are others.

Not only is there no money in these numbers for food, there’s no money for transportation. We cannot purchase gas or pay car insurance or even ride Cascades East Transit buses. If our shoes have holes in them, we cannot replace them.

We cannot afford a telephone. Or cable, even the lowest-priced version of cable. We can never go to a movie, and if we have pets, we cannot afford to feed them.

Nor can we use our SNAP benefits on anything but food, and even that comes with restrictions. No restaurant meals. No booze nor cigarettes, no laundry soap or paper towels. Nothing that is sold hot from the grocery — presumably, then, no fried chicken from the deli counter.

As this now stands, our poor family cannot survive for long; even the barest minimum in expenses require more income than it has. So that’s the first challenge. We have to find numbers that make sense but still allow a family to live. We’re not there yet.

*To get us out of our mythical financial hole, we’ve changed the housing number by adding a mythical roommate at $300 per month who is on her own for food. Our total SNAP benefit will be $224 per month, which I will supplement with one-third of our net income, another $224, leaving us with a whopping $76 for everything else. Wish us luck.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.