In this op-ed, writer Kim Kelly explains how young people in the United States rely on benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
This week, the Trump administration unveiled a proposal in the president’s budget that would drastically change the way poor and working-class Americans receive food benefits. Under the proposal, recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as “food stamps,” would see their monthly benefits slashed. Half of their benefit funds would be replaced with a “Harvest Box” packed with preselected foods, such as peanut butter, canned goods, pasta, cereal, and “shelf stable” milk, with no fresh fruit, vegetables, or meats.
This type of preselected box echoes the commodity boxes sent to low-income households on Native American reservations, via the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)initiative; the ration boxes FEMA sends to disaster areas like Puerto Rico; and the private-prison vendor system, which impacts the ways families send goods to their incarcerated loved ones. The announcement of the proposal — which would potentially impact 16 million American families, according to a Politico report — was met with profoundly negative reactions from Democrats, business leaders, and advocates for SNAP recipients, and it generated reams of outraged press coverage.
At the heart of all of these programs lies the inherent removal of agency and choice for low-income or distressed populations; the Trump SNAP plan follows that same “ur-capitalist” blueprint and ramps up the cruelty. While it seems as though the proposal is DOA for now (and, as some have reported, may have been nothing more than a mean-hearted attempt to troll liberals, as a Salon article theorized), the fact of the matter is that food insecurity is an extremely pressing issue for millions of people in this country, and SNAP remains a cornerstone of our social safety net. Cutting it could be deadly.
“The administration’s proposal to implement major cuts to the SNAP program and substitute it with a food box program is absurd and will be extremely detrimental to families that rely on SNAP benefits to support their families,” Rebecca Telzak, director of health programs at Make the Road New York, an organization that serves and engages poor and working-class communities of color, tells Teen Vogue. “Individuals and families should be able to choose the food they eat and should have access to the resources needed to purchase healthy, fresh foods. Instead of cutting this essential program, the administration should expand its investment in SNAP and expand funding for emergency food assistance programs.”
Kiana Davis, benefits adviser in the Civil Action Practice at the Bronx Defenders, manages SNAP benefits for its clients, and she tells Teen Vogue, “The proposed change is ill-informed, overly bureaucratic, and further punishes and stigmatizes low-income children, young people, and families who rely on this crucial nutrition assistance. Working with thousands in the Bronx community every year, we know how difficult it already is to qualify for and maintain SNAP benefits, due to highly restrictive eligibility requirements. These changes would make it even harder for families to put food on the table and implies that the government knows what food we should be buying and eating better than we do.”
SNAP affects a wide range of lower-income Americans, from families to the elderly to college kids. Kate, 19, a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is currently enrolled in the SNAP program, says she receives $184 per month for food. She enrolled earlier this year and tells Teen Vogue that she cried out of happiness when her case worker called to tell her she was approved. Kate says SNAP benefits have impacted her daily life in a hugely positive way, adding that being able to choose what she cooks and consumes has been hugely beneficial for her health and overall well-being.
“It brings me a lot of joy to have variety in my diet, and experimenting with new recipes a few times a week gives me a feeling of control over my own life,” she says. “I feel more confident now that I can make decisions about how I fulfill a basic need. For me, and for most SNAP users, I don’t think this feeling of control exists in most parts of our lives. I don’t really have housing options, I don’t have a car. But I can cook whatever I want. There is a certain amount of desperation, but receiving these benefits helps to breed the confidence of knowing how it feels to live well and to eat well. I don’t have to be afraid of being hungry anymore. I wish the government understood the psychological effects of being able to choose what you eat for breakfast in the morning.”
Kate also told me how frightening she finds the prospect of Trump’s “food box” plan, citing concerns about many of the same issues raised by the proposal’s critics.
“I can’t imagine how hectic the food boxes would be; I don’t really have a ‘home’ or an address I’m at for more than a few months,” she says. “What if there’s an error with the contents of the package and I don’t receive as much as I need? What if it rains and the food molds or the packaging caves in? There’s so much risk involved, and I wouldn’t even get to take the risk in my own hands. I’d be scared of something I couldn’t even touch — and I’m sure the customer support lines would be even busier than they are now. I just want to be in control of some part of my life.
“Taking that away, even in part, seems unnecessary and cruel. Also, when the government gives large benefits out through cards, it helps to support local grocery stores and ends up going back into the economy in a ton of ways! I don’t know why Trump, who is supposedly anti-government and pro–small business, would try and take this agency away from individuals. I mean, I do know, but you know.”
Ezra, a 16-year-old currently enrolled in SNAP who lives in Georgia, tells Teen Vogue how much he wishes that the general public and the government would stop buying into harmful stereotypes about the way people use their food benefits.
“I feel like a lot of people think that people on SNAP buy whatever food they want regardless of price to treat themselves, which is not really how it works,” he says. “For my family, we have to set weekly amounts we’re allowed to spend so was to stretch the credits through the whole month. We definitely run out by the third week, leaving the fourth in kind of a scramble. Also, even if they are being more frivolous, they are human people who might want to enjoy something, which I don’t really find harmful. Food is one of the more achievable ways to feel a sense of enjoyment, and in completely setting what foods people get, you’re reducing that.”
Alex, a 25-year-old from Denver who grew up on SNAP, cites the program as the reason his mother and grandmother were able to keep food for him and his three siblings on the table.
“I honestly believe SNAP helped me have a more normal childhood/teenage years than what I would have experienced without it,” he tells Teen Vogue. “My mom is permanently disabled and SNAP is how she feeds herself and her kids. I always thought there was never enough food, but I can’t stress enough that there would have been a lot less food without SNAP. This was how my grandma’s household of six, which included a young child, survived, and I’m incredibly grateful to have never felt the impact of food insecurity.”
“People are fighting every day of their lives to survive, and there are so many things — visible and invisible — that impact finding a job, holding a job, budgeting bills . . . People are working themselves to death to provide for themselves and the people they love,” he continues. “Lazy? Not in their vocabulary. No one should go hungry. No one. Period. Food and housing are a right, not a privilege to be earned, and anyone who believes otherwise needs to have a long, hard look in the mirror.”
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