Critiquing SNAP and WIC

The main governmental programs that directly deal  with food insecurity are SNAP and WIC. Below, we briefly outline and address what each program aims to accomplish, as well as the systemic issues with both programs – specifically for the peoples these programs most negatively affect.

SNAP (or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as Food Stamps.

This is a federally funded program that helps low-income individuals and families purchase food. Through SNAP, they can only shop at licensed stores and must use their EBT (Electronic Benefits Card). Stores must receive a permit through the Food and Nutrition Service, a part of the USDA; meet program requirements; and be reauthorized every five years in order to accept EBT purchases.  Foods that cannot be purchased through SNAP include: beer, wine, liquor, tobacco, cigarettes, vitamins, medicine, hot food, food eaten in store, pet food, household items, and toiletries (Healthy Foods Here, 2016).

Additionally, many farmers markets serve as SNAP vendors, which gives participants further options to purchase fresh produce.  This is often done locally, and can provide organic options at a cheaper price than large retailers. Furthermore, SNAP can be used to purchase seeds or plants to grow food at home (MDHS, 2016). To be eligible for SNAP, one must meet program income restrictions, (typically) be working, have a SSN for every person in their home, be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen, and cannot be a participant in the Tribal Food Distribution Program (MDHS, 2016).

The information one needs to supply in order to enroll in SNAP is: an ID showing name and address, SSN for oneself and every household member, pay stubs to prove monthly earnings, proof of unearned income (other benefits), proof of household costs, proof of immigration status for all household members, and medical bills for those 60+ as well as for disabled household members.  The amount given to each SNAP participant varies based on income, expenses, and the size of a household. For Minnesota, you can apply at  www.applymn.dhs.mn.gov. Benefits are given within 30 days of submitting an application (MDHS, 2016).

SNAP often requires participants to be employed and working. There is an employment and training program to help participants prepare for and become employed. Those excused are those who: care for young children or an incapacitated household member, receive unemployment benefits, participate in a chemical dependency treatment program, work 30+ hours a week, participate in an approved training program, or have a permanent/temporary disability. SNAP works with human services to offer participants other forms of assistance for shelter, food, medical costs, etc. through: General Assistance, Diversionary Work Program, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Minnesota Supplemental Aid, and MNsure (MDHS, 2016).

A Critique of the SNAP Challenge

In an attempt to recognize the difficulties of living on a SNAP-approved food budget and diet, many liberals have recently begun to simulate what they believe is a week in the life of a SNAP recipient through the “SNAP Challenge.”  This process, however well-intentioned, provides us with a fruitful ground for critique: not only do participants often not make it through the challenge on a diet with the requisite nutrition/calories (or make it through at all), but the process of simulation acts as a form of food tourism which completely ignores structural factors as well as one’s own privilege in being able to afford food without government assistance.  This form of roleplaying may make one somewhat sympathetic to the limitations of a SNAP budget and diet, but it cannot make them empathetic to these situations or concerns.  It furthermore does not do anything to improve conditions for those that are on SNAP; while some donate the money they saved during this week, that does not lead to structural or overall change of capitalism, hunger, or poverty.

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WIC, (or Women, Infants and Children)

This is only a state-run program, rather than a governmental one like SNAP. WIC focuses on helping low-income families purchase healthy foods and offers education on nutrition and breastfeeding. WIC uses checks rather than a debit card, which can only be used for specific food items under specific brands and amounts. It is incredibly difficult for stores to become WIC retailers: they must be a SNAP vendor for at least a year; be open six days a week for eight hours; stock a certain number of WIC-approved items; purchase WIC items from a wholesale vendor; and stock at least five varieties of fresh/frozen meats, fish, or poultry. To apply, stores need to contact the WIC offices to request an application packet. Approvals last one to three years, and stores will then need to reapply (Healthy Foods Here, 2016).

Beyond this, WIC is only available to pregnant women, new mothers, and their families. In order to be eligible for WIC, participants need to fit into one of the following categories: be on medical assistance, on Food Stamps, a part of the MN Family Investment Program, on Fuel Assistance, a part of Free or Reduced School Lunch, or have children in Head Start. However, you may also qualify for WIC if you are pregnant, nursing, or have a child under 5.

WIC offers checks for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals, bread, tortillas, low fat milk, and baby foods (MDH, 2016). The WIC website for Minnesota is http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fh/wic/shopforwic/index.html, and provides information and videos about their programs as well as how to use WIC in stores.

On SNAP and WIC

Both of these programs, while helping lift the food financial burden for families, also police family choices and are selective in determining which families they consider worthy of help. Because of the specificity of many government programs, it can be difficult to apply for disability assistance as well as SNAP, for example. Applying for medical assistance can also work against you, as it is included in your household income when calculating the amount of assistance given (USDA, 2016b). Beyond waiting for paperwork to be correctly filed and approved, there are many families who are specifically left out of the equation when it comes to government assistance programs: families with incarcerated members, families dealing with addiction problems, homeless people, non-citizens, Native Americans, and people without children. Additionally, there is the aspect of surveillance regarding what foods the government permits you to buy, having to play a numbers game between people in your house versus the necessary income to receive SNAP or WIC, and the very real state surveillance meant to determine if there are convicted felons (The Sentencing Project, 2013) or drug users within your household (NCSL, 2016).

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