The deeper we get into this experiment, the more we realize it’s not about the SNAP allotment. That was merely a jumping off point. The greater issue is that we’ve created a system where low-income families are unable to provide for themselves, leading to a loss of dignity, poor health, and far-reaching environmental consequences.
Let’s make up an example of a two-income family with two kids, one of whom requires daycare. If both parents make minimum wage, they’re bringing home about $2136 per month after taxes. Now subtract $700 for rent, $250 for utilities, $500 for daycare, $240 for gas (assuming $30 each week for two cars to get them to work), $100 for car insurance, and $70 for phone. We’re down to $276 and haven’t even touched health insurance, doctors visits, medicine, school supplies, food, and non-consumables like laundry detergent. And don’t even think about savings or retirement.
So now that family, even if they are getting SNAP benefits, is probably going to scrape by on cheap food that’s processed in a factory, stored in packaging destined for a landfill, and shipped across the country on a gas-guzzling truck. Consumption of the empty calories will result in fatigue and poor general health (best-case scenario) or obesity (worst-case scenario). Which eventually increases their medical bills and lowers their lifetime earning potential.
Well, now I’m depressed.
But I don’t like to bring up problems and then sign off. I want solutions. So what’s the answer?
There may be no silver bullet, but there are a lot of things we can do to make things better for our children, the elderly, the disabled, and the working poor. (Those first three categories account for three-quarters of households receiving SNAP benefits.)
1. Teach people to plant food, not lawns.
The biggest expense for our dinner tonight was a $2 seed packet. I’ve babbled a lot this year about the wonders of carrots, but it’s true. Find the right variety for your climate, and you can grow them in a bucket with almost no effort. And since the greens are edible too, we’ll be enjoying angel hair with carrot green pesto and a side of sauteed carrots, all for the price of a little olive oil and an 80 cent box of pasta.
Lots of veggies are easy to grow, not just carrots. Lettuce, green onions, herbs, and tomatoes are great for beginners, even those who are restricted to container gardening. Fruit trees and bushes are another way to provide delicious nutrients, and SNAP will cover the purchase of seeds and food plants.
If you like dirt, volunteer to help others discover the satisfaction of providing for themselves. There are lots of organizations, like Strong4Life or Habitat for Humanity, who would welcome your knowledge and energy. Which brings us to….
2. Get to know your local Extension Office.
They’re an incredible resource when it comes to nutrition, financial planning, gardening, and healthy living. I’m convinced our Muscogee County Extension Office is staffed by people in capes who do all manner of heroic feats, including developing gardens in low-income neighborhoods and at rec centers.
Looking for ways to talk to your kids’ school about nutrition? Ask their advice. Want to take the lead on tackling a food desert in your community? They’ll point you to all the resources you need to make it happen.
3. Learn to cook. And if you know how, teach others.
We’re now three generations removed from those who last grew and preserved their own food. And how many decades has it been since home economics was a required high school course?
The result is millions of people who don’t know how to cook a simple, healthy meal for themselves. Some of our kids can’t even identify common vegetables. Even if we could offer them fresh, local fruit and veggies, it would be intimidating. Imagine being in their shoes and going to a farmers market, trying to make sense of kohlrabi and bok choy. Heck, I can’t even make sense of kohlrabi.
But what if the community got together and started offering basic cooking classes?
If you love to cook, contact a church, housing authority, or a food bank, and find out if they’d like to offer classes to lower-income families. And if you’re interested in preserving food, ask the Extension Office about the Master Food Preserver certification. It’s a dying art, but we can bring it back and share it with the folks who need it most. Or if you’ve got a thriving farmers market in your town, why not partner with a local farm to do a cooking demonstration with whatever’s in season?
There are lots of options. So let’s get more teachers out there, showing people how to do more with less, eat tastier food, support local farmers, and save money in the long run.
4. Support groups like Wholesome Wave.
The mission of this non-profit is to double each federal or state nutrition benefit dollar spent at farmers markets. So at a market who’s partnered with Wholesome Wave, every one SNAP dollar buys two dollars in produce. Or you could ask if a local farm takes donations to offset the costs of CSA subscriptions for low-income families. Both are good options, so if you’re lucky enough to have the means to feed your family well, share a little love with those who don’t.