The SNAP rundown

By Killeen King

More than 45 million people nationwide receive food stamps. In the Rockbridge area, the number has nearly doubled since 2005.

But despite the increasing reliance on the program since the 2007 recession, most people who aren’t on food stamps probably know less about it then they think they do.

“I talked to a woman who was in here before 8:30 on Monday morning who said she needed food stamps right away,”  Sharon Leech said. “She was starving. She actually had the shakes. She was desperate, and she wasn’t old, I would say maybe 35.”

For one thing, they’re no longer called food stamps. Since 2008, the program has been known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The name was changed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, to show its focus on “nutrition and an increase in benefit amounts.”

The USDA oversees the federally funded program. But each state has an agency to administer its program. In Virginia, that responsibility falls to the Department of Social Services. The VDSS office in Lexington also serves Rockbridge County and Buena Vista.

Individuals whose income after taxes is less than $909 and who have less than $2,000 in their bank account qualify for SNAP benefits. For a family of four, the income threshold is $1,863. People older than 60 or who are disabled are allowed up to $3,250 in a bank account.

The Shift from Food Stamps to the EBT Card

Most of us probably remember seeing people in grocery lines handing over the coupon-like food stamps as the cashier rang up the pile of food in their carts. But that hasn’t happened in 10 years. By 2002, all states had implemented what is known as the EBT system.

SNAP recipients now use the Electronic Benefit Transfer card. Those who qualify for the SNAP program receive the EBT card in the mail.  It looks and works like a debit card, with the card’s spending limit set at the user’s monthly allotment. For an individual, the maximum is $200.

Sharon Leech, local social services food stamp supervisor, said the card has made things much easier.

If someone is starving and needs food right away, social services can issue a "vault card" to be used at a local grocery store. (KILLEEN KING)

“The EBT card is great [for users] because those benefits are attached the first of each month,” she said. “They don’t have to wait for things in the mail, they don’t have to worry about their food stamps getting lost in the mail.”

The card also transfers from state to state, and if the user loses the card or it is stolen, all the user has to do is call in for another.

But Leech said the EBT card met some resistance when it was introduced.

“We had a lot of elderly people that said, ‘Forget it, I just don’t want to fool with that,’ because it was different from what they were used to,” she said.

One of the nicest things about the new card is that it does not draw attention in grocery stores, Leech said.

“When they’re in line, no one knows if they are using a food stamp card or if they’re using a debit card, and that’s a nice thing,” she said.

What You Can and Can’t Buy

But the EBT card has built-in limits.

“You can buy almost any food,” Leech said, “but you can’t buy certain things. You can’t buy pet food. You can’t buy food already cooked in the deli. It’s kind of sad, when you think about someone that’s homeless, that he can’t buy something already cooked, but it’s more expensive, so I guess [the government is] trying to economize.”

Local social services director Meredith Downey said EBT card holders also can’t buy alcohol or tobacco with the card.

Some SNAP recipients wish that other necessities were included in the SNAP program.

“What Virginia doesn’t realize is that there are other things people have trouble buying,” said David McCormick, a 34-year-old single father who receives $367 a month in SNAP benefits. “It would be nice if there were another benefits card where you could buy cleaning supplies. Even just $10 a month would help.”

Downey agrees.

“I think it’s also sad you can’t buy toothpaste or deodorant or soap or shampoo,” she said.

Where You Can Shop

The major grocery stores in the Rockbridge area — Kroger, Wal-Mart and the Food Lions in Lexington and Buena Vista — all accept the SNAP EBT card. So do convenience stores, local food pantries and even farmers markets.

Kroger Manager K. J. Sobolewski says Kroger sees more SNAP recipients than Food Lion and Wal-Mart because lower-income housing is closer to Kroger, so it is easier for people to walk to.

According to The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, in order to be eligible to accept food stamps, a store “must sell food for home preparation and consumption.”

The store must also regularly sell food from at least three of the four staple food groups — dairy, fruits and vegetables, bread and cereal, and meat, poultry and fish.

And more than half of the store’s sales must be of food.

How You Shop

In this video, SNAP recipient Patsy Camden explains how she stretches her food money.  

Many people probably think of the SNAP program as a supplement to a family’s food spending.  But some recipients would go hungry without it, Downey said.

“I talked to a woman who was in here before 8:30 on Monday morning who said she needed food stamps right away,” she said. “She was starving. She actually had the shakes. She was desperate, and she wasn’t old, I would say maybe 35.”

Downey gave her an emergency EBT card known as a vault card. Lexington’s social services have vault cards on site for extreme hunger cases. They activate the card within a couple of hours so that people can receive food almost immediately.

“Sometimes it’s what you have to do,” she said. “You give them a vault card if they’re in need.”

Most SNAP recipients are not starving. They are what advocates call food-insecure. That means they don’t always know where they will find their next meal, according to the Feeding America website.  Feeding America is a nonprofit organization and the nation’s leading hunger-relief charity.

Being food insecure also means that grocery shopping is not just an afternoon activity. It has to be carefully planned and organized.

“You use your food stamps like you would regular income,” said SNAP recipient Patsy Camden. “You shop around and you check for sales, and whatever is on sale, you buy it, and you try to make your food dollars stretch as far as you can. Like me, I start with my meats, whatever meats I need for the month. Whatever is left over I use for the other side items, whether it be coffee or bread or what have you.”

The first of the month is a big shopping day for many SNAP recipients.

“It gets pretty busy in here,” said Sobolewski of Kroger. “I would say that we’re primarily a big food stamp store. We do quite a bit of business with it.”

McCormick said he avoids shopping on the first of the month because the shelves are already empty.

“Everyone else has beat you to it,” he said.

Aid for the Near-Poor

The SNAP program provides relief for those who qualify, but people who earn even $5 or $10 a month above the income limit have to look elsewhere for help. That includes local food pantries that can distribute food free, as well as nonprofits like Washington and Lee University’s Campus Kitchen.

Campus Kitchen Coordinator Jenny Davidson says the near-poor who can’t get SNAP benefits aren’t being adequately served.

“Twelve percent of the Rockbridge area’s population is dealing with food insecurity, but less than half of that population actually qualifies for SNAP,” she said. “So there is still a much larger need that is not being met by those guidelines.”