Thursday, January 31, 2013
Debbie Rohr worked as a clerk for Monterey County for 25 years before losing her job to budget cuts. Since 2005 she hasn’t been able to find regular work, so she keeps her family afloat with the help of CalFresh and a cash assistance program.
With CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps, and federally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) supplementing her husband’s income, Rohr didn’t have too much trouble putting dinner on the table. But since her husband lost his job at a food equipment manufacturer late last year, the family has struggled to make ends meet.
A new report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture could make a difference in how the government thinks of benefits for people like Rohr. The report, by the Institute of Medicine, says geographical location, housing, medical costs and other variables should be factored into SNAP allotments.
The report didn’t specify whether allotments should be raised or lowered, or how it could impact local recipients, but it says the formula for determining the allotments is outdated.
SNAP assistance is a set amount across the nation based on things like family size, according to Barbara Laraia, a UC Berkeley professor who was part of the study. This can be a problem when some states in the country, like California, tend to be more costly to live in than other states.
Rohr, 50, gets $526 a month from CalFresh to support her husband and two teenage sons—not enough now that both adults are unemployed, she says. To put enough on the table, the family also gets emergency food from The Food Bank for Monterey County, where Rohr volunteers as part of a job-training program.
Lee Hulquist, the food bank’s program manager, says about 10 to 15 percent of Food Bank users are also CalFresh recipients. “What that tells me is that people run out of money for food with their CalFresh,” Hulquist says.
A 2012 USDA report finds 54 percent of food-pantry users reported SNAP participation in the previous month. The maximum SNAP allotment for a family of four, $668, amounts to less than $1.90 per person, per meal.
“Generally if you’re living in poverty month to month for years, you learn how to keep your household costs as low as possible,” Hulquist says. “If they’re getting CalFresh, they’re doing their best to stretch it as far as possible.”
Cost of living isn’t the only factor the new Institute of Medicine report brings up. It also considers that some families may not have the time or skills to prepare meals from scratch.
The study recommends that the USDA consider allowing SNAP recipients to purchase partially or fully prepared meals. Under current rules, they are restricted from using the benefits to purchase hot, prepared foods sold at grocery stores.
Rohr is at the food bank nearly full-time, and she also tends to her sons’ after-school activities. She says she wouldn’t mind being able to bring home something like a rotisserie chicken with her benefits every once in awhile.
The overall health implications of this is something the USDA would have to consider, Laraia says.
But Rohr didn’t complain. “I’m just thankful they give you what they give you,” she says.