About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,

Julie

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What would it actually take to get food stamps?


I want to back up a little bit.

From the beginning of this Blog, I have been living on a food budget that is a little lower than the maximum SNAP benefits allowed for an individual in Los Angeles County. I have titled my Blog On Food Stamps, because it explores the challenges one faces in the pursuit of a healthful diet within strict budget limits like those food stamp recipients would likely contend with.

As far as food is concerned, I'm hypothetically "living on food stamps". But, what would it actually take for me to get food stamps if I met the eligibility requirements (which I don't)?

I realize that many people reading this Blog might not be aware of just how difficult it is to actually access food stamp benefits, so I want to explore this topic a little bit.

I will start by asking you to try something. Figure out how to get food stamps in your city or county. Start with Google (lucky you, you probably have a personal computer). I'm not giving you any clues. Find the number, and call the office. Tell them you want to see if you can get food stamps and see what they say. Report back to me in the comments section, I'd love to hear your findings.

Back in February I did the same experiment. This is how it went:
  • I called the number I found online while at work, and I was on hold for 15 minutes. That next-agent-will-be-with-you-shortly music is maddening.
  • When someone finally picked up, I told them I wanted to get information about accessing food stamp benefits. They tried to get me to do the eligibility quiz online, but I said that I had no access to the Internet. (Sort of true. It wasn't set up in my apartment yet.)
  • The agent said "Ok, well then you can come in in person to fill out the paperwork."
  • I asked, "When can I come?"
  • He said, "Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM."
  • "But that is when I have to be at work," I said, "Is there any other time I can come in to the office?"
  • No, there wasn't.
  • "Ok," I said, "When can I make an appointment?"
  • "There are no appointments," he told me, "you just have to come in."
  • "Hm. I'm taking off of work to come in for this appointment, so can you at least give me an idea of how long it will take?"
  • He said he couldn't guarantee anything or quote me any type of time frame. I would just have to come and get in line with everyone else. Sounds a lot like a visit to the DMV... not so great.
The appointment I was talking to this agent about would be the first of three appointments required to get everything squared away. I would have to fill out a 7 page application (used to be 21 pages), and get my finger prints taken during one of these visits. (This is to prevent fraud.) I am an hourly employee with no vacation time yet, so I would have to hope that my boss is nice enough to let me off of work on 3 separate days for an indefinite amount of time to complete the application process. All of this work and inconvenience for a maximum of $44/week. Mind you, $44 is the benefit for an unemployed person, so I would likely be getting much less than that for my troubles.

I think you will agree with me that this process is incredibly intimidating and a quite a pain in the ass. What if English is your second language? What if you cannot read very well? What if your children are citizens, but your own immigration status is questionable? How would you feel about that whole "finger imaging" part in that case? What if you are 87 years old? What if you don't have a car? Or, an understanding employer?

It is no surprise that the food stamp participation rate in America is abysmal. According to a study by the Food Research and Action Center in October of 2008, only 68% of eligible people in the US cities and urban counties surveyed participated in the program. Cities with the lowest participation rates were: Denver County, Colorado (42%), Clark County/Las Vegas, Nevada (44%), San Diego County, California (29%) (You've got to be kidding me!) and Los Angeles, California (50%). You can download and read this study at this web page.

Such a low participation rate in the Food Stamp/SNAP program is really bad news, and not only because individuals are missing out on aid benefits. This study suggests that the following groups are also missing out:
  • Businesses in low-income communities - if residents are not accessing or redeeming the food stamp benefits they qualify for, local economies are missing out on an opportunity to have federal dollars circulating in the economy. The FRAC study estimates that in total nearly $1.5 billion in federally-funded benefits were left unclaimed by the 24 cities studied. That $1.5 billion could have provided a real boost for low-income neighborhoods if the benefits were redeemed. That money would have been the equivalent of the U.S. government pumping cash into the hands of local grocery stores, which would in turn have hired people and created some jobs. The USDA estimates that "under certain conditions each dollar of food stamp benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity." (FRAC study quoting"Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures across the U.S. Economy" - a USDA study conducted in 2002)
  • Local Governments - when people "spend" their food stamp benefits, they purchase taxable goods. Those tax revenues go back to local governments. The FRAC study estimates that my county, Los Angeles, missed out on $353 million dollars in benefits due to lack of participation in the food stamp program.
By sharing my own experience with you, I have provided some reasons why people might not be accessing the benefits they are eligible for. I mentioned language barriers, low benefits making the whole ordeal "not worth the trouble", difficulty getting to the office during the hours it is open, and all the red tape and administrative hoops to jump through, which serve as a deterrent.
The FRAC study suggests that lack of awareness about the program and perceptions of stigma might also play a role. After trying to access the benefits yourself, what do you think might deter people?

31 comments:

  1. It's true, getting food stamps is quite the challenge. What I do is live on a budget similar to the food stamp budget as well, and it's not that difficult since my family has a veggie garden.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My cousin, even though I want to help, is not very good with finances. Now she's unemployed and living off welfare. She said that life on food stamps and other government aid isn't all that bad, you just gotta learn to not be too dependent since it won't last forever.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just found this blog and I want to commend you on your approach.

    I was poking around in the fridge one day, dealing with the high cost of food and thought about all I've learned and how grateful I am to KNOW what I do about food and health.

    It occurred to me that perchance I could teach people and share what I have learned so I set up a blog, too, but mine is not as classy as yours.

    You are to be greatly admired! Thanks for inspiring others!

    Hugs,
    Mother Connie
    http://foodstampscookingclub.com/blog

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Local Governments - when people "spend" their food stamp benefits, they purchase taxable goods. Those tax revenues go back to local governments. The FRAC study estimates that my county, Los Angeles, missed out on $353 million dollars in benefits due to lack of participation in the food stamp program."

    this is a great blog idea. but to be fair the items purchased with food stamps in a grocery store are exempt from sales tax. matter of fact items that are taxable in los angeles county grocery stores cannot be purchased using the food stamp benefit at all. containers that qualify for CRV are the only items that can be purchased that have any form of tax on it. however certain eateries allow purchases to be made using food stamps. these purchases are taxed. the persons who published the study are most likely unaware that grocery items are not taxed in los angeles county.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey Roger- thanks for alerting me to that point. I will really have to look more into this since the argument that Food Stamps pump some money back into local governments is a common one, and it sounds like it might not be correct!

    ReplyDelete
  6. In response to Roger C:

    Food stamps pump additional revenue into state governments even when food is exempt from sales tax. When individuals receive food stamps, they are able to spend less of their own money on food (non-taxed), which allows them the opportunity to spend more money on taxable items. According to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, California lost about $37 million in state tax revenue and $12 million in county tax revenue due to under-participation in food stamps.

    Since 100% of the funding comes from the federal government, every dollar spent through food stamps in state is a net positive. While the bulk of the $353 million dollar figure is referring to lost benefits to individuals and the local economy, local governments have an independent incentive to increase participation in SNAP.

    James B.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Also to Roger C:

    You're correct about the consumer not paying sales tax on food stamp purchases, but the business income is taxable. In localities that have a local income tax, and in all states, an increase in business income means an increase in tax revenues for the municipality and/or state.

    In addition, there are many small businesses whose grocery sales depend almost entirely on food stamp purchases. It makes the difference between staying in business and going under for them. Every one of those businesses employs at least one person, who puts money back into the community.

    So food stamp sales definitely do contribute to the local economy.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Liz - thanks for adding to the discussion.

    The fact that food stamp usage contributes to revenues for small businesses on a significant level is certainly more and more relevant as the economy remains troubling.

    ReplyDelete
  9. As a new food assistance recipient, I will say it was a 2 month process. I am a stay at home mom and my husband is self employed. With the failing economy (especially here in MI)we consider ourselves semi employed or semi retired. I am lucky because I have a computer and internet so I was able to apply online. But in all reality, it would have probably been faster to apply in person. I waited over 30 days just to get someone to talk to me about my application. It took 1 1/2 months to get an interview and a request for proof of identity, income, etc. Then it took another 2 weeks to get approval and my EBT card. I waited until I just couldn't wait to get on food stamps any longer. I was happy to find out they would back date benefits to the application date but when I really needed it, it was no where to be seen. So my one suggestion would be to apply if you think you will need it, not when you need it.

    I have started a blog about my new EBT world. http://www.foodassistance.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
  10. Julie, your experience is pretty similar to what it's now like in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been recently laid-off and am applying for food-stamps now, I have been on food-stamps in the past but that was over 10 years ago and it is a bit different. Instead of dealing with the phone calling and going there (while it is accessible to public transportation, I have a car, and there is no place to park, you have to trust to luck with street parking), I decided to apply online. But when I was first on food-stamps, I did have to take time off from work (a new job, no vacation or comp time either). I also have 3 kids (now mostly grown). When I was pregnant and they were toddlers, we were on WIC, another government food program that IMO could use lots of help, and it was the same thing, but that took a half-day. I never happened to work near those offices, so it meant more time off from new jobs tsk. Thank goodness I had understanding bosses. Shortly before I became ineligible for food-stamps (10 years ago), they started making earlier and later office hours for the working peons who were at their beck and call. And if you missed an appointment, they could boot you out of the system and make you start the app process all over again.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Michelle -

    I am sorry your experience was so difficult, but you are certainly not alone. Some states (like CA) don't even have online applications. The process can be really challengeing, and it is no suprise that the participation rate in the program is often very low. It is so hard to get to these offices, take off work to make the necessary visits, etc. That being said, I am happy that in the last year there has been a lot more written about Food Stamps in the media. (Did you see the NYTimes article this week?) States are finally starting to simplify/improve their application processes and more and more elidible people are getting benefits.

    I really appreciate everyone sharing their stories.

    ReplyDelete
  12. An interesting fact I just read in Harper's (February): the chances that a child in America will at some point receive food assistance is 1 in 2.

    -mike

    ReplyDelete
  13. Indiana is the worse state to get Snap. Never thought I would have to apply for them - but what a nightmare. The employees seem to not know how to read or do simple math to figure out how to get the correct amount. Not only that but they are down right hostile. I have been waiting for 45 days and getting no where with them - they just don't want to do the work to get all my paperwork through - hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  14. It is actually possible to apply for Food Stamps online in CA, but the website is barely advertised and doesn't come up in the first ten results when one googles "food stamps california." The current link appears to be:

    https://www.c4yourself.com/c4yourself/index.htm

    I applied for Food Stamps online in San Francisco last January and the only accessibility issue--besides having access to a computer, for which one can go to the public library if necessary--is that in order to expedite the process you want to be able to scan in your documentation to submit with the application. If you have no scanner, you will have to bring all your documents with you to your interview.

    I actually found the process of going to the local social services office for my interview the hardest part, but I have multiple social/developmental disabilities, so any building filled with people moving about in chaotic ways freaks me out. Otherwise, my worker was very kind and I got my EBT card the day of my interview, because my assets were basically nil and I had a very low income.

    I no longer can use food stamps because I get SSI disability, for which CA chips in $170 to make up for losing food stamps. Still, it is very hard to make ends meet on the money left over after rent even in my ancient, rent-controlled apartment, so I am trying to find ways to eat well cheaply and with minimal cooking as I do not really have a working relationship with the stove. :)

    One thing I do want to point out is that if you truly want to eat as though you were on Food Stamps, you would not be able to eat at restaurants at all, unless you took the cost out of your non-food budget, which is not usually an option if your income is limited. Food Stamps cannot be used for food consumed on the premises where it is bought.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great blog Julie! Comments that follow start to sound discouraged, but I would like to interject with a little bit of positive info that my fellow San Francisco resident above did not mention. Also, an interesting case in a county where nightmare employees were making needy applicants miserable, as more than one person has described here.
      First of all, San Francisco has an excellent system in place that is efficient, relatively speedy and staffed by amazingly pleasant, helpful employees! I went in at 9 am, did about an hour of paperwork and intake, had an ebt card by noon, and money for food loaded on the card by midnight the same day.
      As for not eating out at restaurants with food stamps, in Sf if you apply as homeless, since that means you do not have a kitchen or stove to cook with, you are still guaranteef a hot meal (tho maybe not the healthiest) through multiple fast food spots that DO accept EBT cards, including Carl's Jr, Burger King, and some pizza and Chinese food restaurants. Kinda cool.
      However, like many have described here, I too have had nightmare experiences applying in other counties where employees were rude and even cut off benefits based on reasons of their own, not state or federal guidelines.
      (In short, applying with my mom as a co-beneficiary meant that the "motherisms" such as being a bit of a nag, overly thrifty and somewhat eccentric, that were a source of minor annoyance among myself and my siblings, but also provided plenty of material for stories of exasperation ending with a shrug and a laugh among ourselves, Mom the culprit included, were traits not nearly as endearing or forgivable to my caseworker.)
      This meant that after the first month, our benefits were reduced, and then denied and cut off completely before the second month was through. In her zeal to demonstrate the poverty level she was living at, complete with receipts as proof, Mom instead proved to be too much of an annoyance for our caseworker. Thus, case closed.
      What is interesting and possibly unusual in that situation, is the county was eventually sued and settled out of court in order to compensate applicants from the 2009-2010 period who endured excessive hardship and outright discrimination in applying for and receiving benefits. Apparently we weren't the only ones suffering at the hands of incompetent caseworkers, because in this county there were enough people with legitimate complaints to create a class-action lawsuit. (Class-action meaning a group not an individual is the plaintiff, which has greater credibility and is usually a stronger case).
      In the end, I still prefer SF County's services and I can't commend them enough. In fact, someone mentioned in a comment below the degrading welfare to work volunteer hours required that involve picking up roadside trash, complete with (seemingly) prison-issued orange vests.
      Well, one of the intake workers I spoke with even brought this up and mentioned that SF offers alternative volunteer options besides picking up public trash, where not only is the potential for embarassment high but poor weather conditions make such a job particularly tough. Again, SHE was the one to bring this up, frankly before the complaints had even occurred to me.
      IMO, every city would do well to model itself after San Francisco, once again one of the finest and most beautiful cities in the world, says me. ~_~)*

      Delete
  15. I qualified for expedited food stamps and got my card and money on it with in 4 days. The next month when the 8th came around I didn't have any food stamps deposited on my card when there was supposed to be. I called my social worker and she said she didn't submit my paperwork yet and she has until the 10th. Well it is the 21st and I still don't have my food stamps. I called her several times and FINALLY got ahold of her and she said I should have a letter by Wednesday stating when I will be getting them but if I don't get one call back on Wednesday!! I checked on the phone and online and it shows I am approved but it shows $0 balance for this month and $0 balance for next month when it's supposed to be $367. I asked to speak to someone else and they told me I couldn't that I can only talk to my caseworker!!! What BS!!! I guess I will just have to starve!!!

    ReplyDelete
  16. What a great blog! I am currently doing a blog on living under the poverty line (straddletheline.wordpress.com) and my last entry was about applying for food stamp benefits. Luckily, the application process for me was a lot less stressful. I was able to do it from a satellite office inside a homeless one stop center. Florida has an online application process, but like you mentioned many low income families don't have access to internet/computer/etc. I'm off to read more, this is an exciting find for me. Thanks for posting.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have to agree that getting SNAP from the state of Louisiana is an act of congress. I have worked and recently became unable to go to work and my employer denied STD; therefore, leaving me with no income. I decided that I could apply for SNAP and was told by the case worker if I got her everything that she was requiring that she could certify the case the next day because I have no income and I qualify for emergency SNAP. While I did just that and I have never received any assistance, but I have continued to check on it and she tells me that she will have it completed on the next day and she has all that she needs to work the case; however, still nothing has happen and it is unbelievable. I have worked and paid my taxes like anyone else and at this point I need a little help not forever. It is only temporary because as soon as the doctor releases me, I am back to work with a smile and will skip all the way there. I am upset with this process and disappointed that when you need assistance that you can not get it and I see families that is getting assistance and their kids are still hungry because they are trading their benefits or on even worse on drugs & trade their card to get high. I have a problem with that but no one even takes a look at that, but someone like me when is truly in need at this time can not get any assistance.

    I guess I need to know when is it time for a hard working person such as myself able to get some help until I can get back on my feet. I just really need to know when does the system help those who has put into the system and not looking for a handout. Please someone answer that for me.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Anonymous,
    I have to address your situation, you are right alot of people who have worked hard does not qualify for assistance for one reason or another. They may have just made one dollar more than allowed and has been denied. However; People who are recieving assistance has qualified to recieve them under strick regulations by the government. I'm pretty sure that the government does not make it easy to get. It is very unfortunate that people take advantage of the system, or even worse hender themselves and family from something they need, but that is neither here nor there, SNAP is there to provide nutrition for families that need it. Believe it or not hunger exist in America, even with all the food around us, it is easy for us to sit back and judge but we do not know the persons situation.I don't look at government assistance as a hand out but it can hender people from working that much harder for self sufficiency. I wish that jobs could be offered instead of food and cash assistance to provide self sufficiency but that would be to much like right! You should not let this knock you down but make you that much stronger to strive to be. The government is not holding you back it is you holding yourself back. We can point fingers all day long, I could say that you should have had enough money saved up to live on until you return to work so that you would not need govenment assistance, but that would not be fair of me to say because I do not know you just like you do not know the pleople you are judging.

    ReplyDelete
  19. www.benefitscalwin.org allows online Food Stamp or CalFresh application in 18 California Counties and has links to the C4 website for 39 other counties. LA is developing a website right now.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm having the same problems with my caseworker. I'm a single mother of two children, one of which has terminal cancer plus a cluster of rare diseases. I've applied for ssi for him but its still pending. I used to receive SNAP benefits and know I'm still eligible; I've turned in 3 reapplications plus all the paperwork and proof they need and I can't gey in touch with my caseworker to set an interview? ???..... oh, btw, both of the reapplications were delivered to the office since this March. My caseworker was out of town and my case was closed again, even tho she had everything she needed on her desk to complete the process since March. She called yesterday and told me to reapply but NOT to mention she was my caseworker. I don't get it ? Anyone?

    ReplyDelete
  21. Food Stamps should be for food, not for Twix, Twinkies and Trix!

    Hopefully, this worsening economy will help folks continue to wake up to the fact that real food grows on trees, and in the garden, and on the chicken's butt!

    ReplyDelete
  22. I had recently become unemployed and had no health care and I was denied the first time I applied for food stamps in L.A. I did not receive unemployment because I live in L.A., and like most jobs in L.A., the nature of my gig was temporary and freelance.

    The people who work in the welfare office are NOT helpful and are downright assholes. The caseworkers are very rude and condescending, they will ask "are you crazy? do you have mental health issues? what's wrong with you?" which is entirely insensitive.

    Even if you feel angry, frustrated, or even a little bit crazed from the hardship you are facing, I would recommend: Do NOT say yes or they will send you to a social worker to be evaluated in order to be approved. That is a whole other case worker you will have to make an appt to meet, then meet again after you meet them the first time and they tell you what documents you actually need to get the ball rolling.

    Caseworkers will also ask you if you are pregnant and all sorts of invasive shit when all you want is food.

    You also have to work a certain number of hours a week or they will make you do "work for welfare" programs, like picking up trash along the side of the road. Which I also think is very condescending and insensitive. I lost my food stamp benefits b/c I refused to pick up trash 30 hours a month. No one should have to pick up trash along the side of the road in order to get help with affording food to eat. It would be different if the work for welfare programs were actually helpful, like gaining skills you could actually use to get a job and get off welfare. Or helping out at volunteer centers inside public parks, museums and the like. Not belittling someone by making them do work usually reserved for inmates in exchange for food to eat.

    FYI!

    Also, even if you have an appointment, the process takes ALL DAY LONG. So yes, you will have to take the day off if you are fortunate to have a job. Then you will have to take off again. The process is very slow and time consuming. And if you mess up along the way and are denied, you have to wait 30 days to reapply. 30 days can be a long ass time when you are struggling.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I recently applied here in Brooklyn NY and received expedited food stamps. I was told to produce 2 forms of ID (birth certificate,DL,SS),which I did. I received a letter stating my case was approved pending verification. I called my local office and was told they have received my documents but I still need to wait 45 days. I played by the rules, stood outside in the cold on a line that snaked around 2 corners, traveled to 2 different parts of town, complied with the required request and I'm still waiting 45 days.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Similar situation ... I was approved for expedited FS in October (partially)& full benefits in November. December benefits never arrived even though I submitted all documents and been finger image. I took a trip down to DSS for an explanation. Only to be told that I would have to wait until the months end. Total bullshit. I wrote to the commissioner and complained about my social worker because her work ethic is abysmal! I pray my ebt account is credited because its tough in new York city

    ReplyDelete
  25. It's sad that your life has to reach an extreme low before you can get any help. You basically have to give up everything before you get any help.

    ReplyDelete
  26. If the process of attaining foods stamps seems like an inconvenience to you it's probably because you don't actually need them. For an unemployed/underemployed family (as in people who have children!) filling out paperwork and spending several hours in a government office is a small price to pay for their survival and healthy development.

    If the $44 per week (for a single working person?!) the government allows does not sound helpful to you it's an indicator that you have enough resources at your disposal and do not actually need food stamps.

    Attempting to sound compassionate to people who are truly in need, you bring up the questions: What if English is your second language? What if you cannot read very well? What if your children are citizens, but your own immigration status is questionable? How would you feel about that whole "finger imaging" part in that case? What if you are 87 years old?

    If you actually read through all of the paperwork you received you would know that there are services and resources provided for ALL of those circumstances. There are non-profit offices (called facilitated enrollers) that are designed to guide people through every step of the application process. Filling out applications, transportation to the office as well actually going to the office on the applicant's behalf are just some of the services offered.

    And as for..."What if you don't have a car? Or, an understanding employer?" FYI those are luxuries. As a member of a family with neither, you are lucky to have both and should be grateful. Working so much that you do not have time to go to the food stamp office is a nice (not to mention ironic) problem to have.

    It's a good thing you did not qualify because a more appropriate title for your post would've been "Why I don't actually need food stamps"

    ReplyDelete
  27. Yikes! Why so critical? The writer put up an informative piece. As a person who doesn't need food-stamps, I found this writer's piece very informative. I would never know what it's like for those who have to apply. She has increased my knowledge and understanding and I thank her.

    And there are plenty of people who work so much they don't have time to go to the food-stamp office and still NEED the help they provide.

    Is there a problem with this writer informing us of her opinions on what it might be like for folks applying for the benefits they are eligible for?

    ReplyDelete
  28. which office is safest for a single attractive petite short woman w/o kids on foot to apply for welfare and short term disability who has 3 drs notes saying she cant work through fall this year. has out of state id, ca native birth cert, sscard, hasnt worked since injury 2011,
    IS ranch park-60 office on 11,111 w. pico safe?
    staff professional?

    ReplyDelete
  29. is safe taking amtrak train into la then a bus to rancho park social svc office

    ReplyDelete
  30. Indiana is still the worse state to apply, They have an outdated computer system from the early 1980s that is a mess. If you get the card and money, then the caseworker calls your landlord and employer multiple times a day wanting to know where you are - leading to a lost job and eviction. This is purely snap benefits - not the welfare program. The employees routinely throw applicant's documents in the trash. You can only submit documents through the office in your county - and I am in one of the worst.

    Grant County, Indiana needs to be investigated.

    ReplyDelete