State's Foodshare cuts may strain private food banks

Sarah Ropson, a single mother of two, receives $36 per month in FoodShare, and occasionally visits the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in order to make ends meet (Kait Vosswinkel/Madison Commons).Sarah Ropson, a single mother of two, receives $36 per month in FoodShare, and occasionally visits the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in order to make ends meet (Kait Vosswinkel/Madison Commons).The U.S. Congress voted on Sept. 19 to cut nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, by reinstating pre-existing work requirements that had been waived by most states due to high unemployment.

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), who led the efforts in the House of Representatives, said the bill was based on changes made at the state level, including those in Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-15 budget.

Some efforts to reform Wisconsin's FoodShare program were seen as largely symbolic – the U.S. Department of Agriculture rarely grants waivers to local governments trying to restrict SNAP benefits. Yet advocates of food assistance say that increased barriers to the program will cut off access to benefits and overwhelm private food aid programs.

Michelle Kramer, FoodShare Outreach Manager at Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin, expressed concern about the proposed legislation, especially after recent amendments to the program earlier this year.

“The food bank, in general, is against any sort of restriction on FoodShare because you have to look at the entire picture,” Kramer says. “You might be trying to stop a few from abusing the system, but how many are you going to hurt?”

Proponents of the changes to Wisconsin's FoodShare program argue that changes to the FoodShare program helped both financially and ethically.

Kitty Rhoades, while Secretary-Elect to the Department of Health Services, told a legislative committee in March that the reform was not only an effective tool against fraud, but also a successful budgetary move.

“The Governor’s budget for the Department of Health Services preserves the health care safety net for our most needy citizens while reforming entitlements back to their true purpose of transitioning people from a cycle of dependence to independence and self-reliance,” Rhoades said. “(Under this plan), Wisconsin continues its tradition of combining compassion with responsibility, while also re-inventing government to meet the challenges of the future.”

Kramer anticipates negative impacts from Gov. Scott Walker's budget, which requires 20 hours of work or job training per week in order to qualify for FoodShare.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates 50 percent of able-bodied adult beneficiaries without dependents will lose their benefits due to the new requirements. Kramer believes this will cause increased strain on private food-aid programs in the state like food pantries and churches.

Kramer also is concerned that proposals limiting the variety of foods available through the program will do further damage.

Sarah Ropson, a new analyst at Covance, is one of many parents who use both public and private food aid programs. A single mother of two, Ropson said she struggles to make ends meet with limited FoodShare benefits, and occasionally ends up at St. Vincent De Paul Food Pantry.

“When I was unemployed, I was getting $400 a month for food stamps,” Ropson said. “Now I'm getting $36 dollars a month. Now I have daycare to pay for. It makes it hard as a single mother to balance everything.”

Kramer said that churches and pantries across Wisconsin may not be able to handle the overflow brought on by increased regulation, and is concerned that new limitations to the program will only increase public need.

“Any policy put into place to make the FoodShare program harder to access will increase hunger,” Kramer said.

Kramer said restrictions on the foods available through FoodShare will create costly transitions for retailers. She said they will increasingly stigmatize the program, while also failing to account for how low-income families make food choices.

Many receiving benefits are dependent on “unhealthy” food choices simply out of necessity. The elderly, the homeless, and students, for example, do not have time to cook for themselves, lack access to freezer spaces, or do not have well-equipped kitchens.

Nick Hunter, for example, is a student living on limited means at UW-Madison, who has been on FoodShare since last December. 

“I'm not ashamed of it but...there is a stigma to it,” Hunter said. “Maybe it's just part of the way our national culture works. We have this very 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' kind of culture.”

Hunter does believe that the system works well currently and supports current restrictions to the program.

“I do see merit in not allowing just crap food to be bought with it, but I think it works pretty well the way it is,” Hunter said. “It gives you a lot of options as to what you want to eat. It doesn't allow you to buy cigarettes and alcohol. You can't go to restaurants.”  

Hunter believes a large part of the problem in junk food lies not in the FoodShare program, but in education about nutrition.

“Do people know what healthy decisions are? I think there's an education issue there, too, because a lot of people don't understand...bodily health and what foods will actually be good for them,” Hunter said.

In order to reduce junk food purchases through SNAP, Kramer believes a more proactive approach could make a bigger difference at lower cost.

Pilot projects like the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) have experienced relative success by crediting SNAP users 30 cents per dollar of fruit and vegetable purchases.

“Instead of taking such a negative tone on it, you could take a positive tone on it and incentivize healthy purchases,” Kramer says.

Farmer's markets in Wisconsin are also trying to make healthy foods more widely available through FoodShare. 

Shellie Pierce, of the South Madison Farmer's Market, sees incentivizing healthy food choices as a strategy for long-term changes in SNAP recipients' lifestyles. 

“We're accessible to all. We take food stamps, WIC...senior vouchers, and checks,” Pierce said. “We keep our prices down. At the end of the day, if they're eating healthy, that's our goal.”

Instead of increased restriction and regulation, proactive approaches towards healthy lifestyle choices within the SNAP program are the nation's best bet, according to Kramer.

“It's in all of our best interests to protect the integrity of this program,” Kramer says.