Surging food stamp recipients leave town to stretch spending

For 11 years, Kathy Podgers has been getting food stamps, making her a veteran in a program that even in affluent Cambridge has nearly doubled its recipients over the past four years.

As of December, 6.8 percent of the city’s population got food stamp benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up from 3.5 percent in 2006. Cambridge residents get $9.8 million a year in benefits, which they can spend pretty much as they see fit on food in supermarkets, convenience stores and, soon enough, farmers markets.

The program offers no nutritional counseling, though, meaning recipients can use their benefits on items with scant nutritional value.

Podgers, who has lived in Cambridge since the 1960s and twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council, is fine with the lack of nutrition counseling. She had eaten a macrobiotic diet for years and is still not the type to buy liters of soft drinks and bags of potato chips. Most of her shopping in done in the produce aisles.

Cambridge is hardly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which used $64 billion in taxpayer money last year to pay for the state-administered benefits program, calls a “food desert” — a place where fresh, nutritious food is hard to come by. But recipients of the benefits interviewed by Cambridge Day said affordable foodstuffs can be hard to find in the city. Cambridge food vendors took in $4.2 million from SNAP cards last year, less than half the amount the state gave to city residents.

Cantabrigians are using their food stamps elsewhere.

Somerville’s Market Basket appears to be a favorite. In the 12 months ending June 1, the store, on Somerville Avenue a mile from Porter Square, got more than $11 million in food benefits, including from Podgers. The biggest food benefits vendor in Cambridge, Shaw’s in Porter Square, got slightly more than $1 million during the same time period, or 8.9 percent of spending at Market Basket.

Predictably, those getting food benefits in Cambridge varies by neighborhood.

In the Harvard Square and Brattle Street neighborhoods, the benefits go to 2.45 percent of residents. In contrast, 9 percent of those in North and East Cambridge ZIP codes, and 10 percent in Central and Inman Squares, are on food benefits.

In all, about 7,172 of the 105,162 residents of Cambridge get food benefits, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which supervises the program for Massachusetts. Five years ago, it was 3,518.

Although the percent of residents on food benefits is a little over half the statewide average of 12.3 percent, the reason the rolls have soared is the same: the Great Recession. In November 2006, Cambridge boasted an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. By January of this year, it had risen to 5.3 percent.

Longtime recipients such as Susan Jordan, 67, who began getting benefits in 1994 after a disability left her unable to work, said vendors as well as the public have become more accepting towards SNAP recipients as the number of people in the program has increased. “Because the economy is so poor, people are more open-minded,” she said. “The stigma went away when [the state] made it into a card rather than paper stamps. Now people don’t notice too much.”

Jordan shopped recently at the Harvest Cooperative Market in Central Square, swiping her bright blue SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card to pay for a small bag of produce and groceries. She typically does her grocery shopping at Market Basket, but happened to be in the neighborhood that afternoon. She said she gets $160 a month to support herself. “I get enough that I can just use food stamps,” she said. “They’ve really helped me a lot.”

To qualify, a person must demonstrate financial need under Department of Agriculture guidelines. A single person can make no more than $1,174 a month or, as head of a four-person household, up to $2,389. If income increases, the food benefits allotment is lowered. Recipients must visit state counselors every six months to prove eligibility.

There are some limits on what can be bought with the benefits. For example, the funds cannot be spent on hot meals, alcohol, tobacco or nonfood items.

Otherwise — from produce to frozen food to popcorn and cookies — there are virtually no nutritional restrictions for the program. Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, said her office supports high nutritional standards, but that the USDA has stayed clear of mandating such standards and with the statewide surge in recipients, her department is not equipped to do nutritional education. Food benefits counselors have caseloads of 900 to 1,000 apiece.

Podgers

“I think there are real limits to why low-income people aren’t buying the healthiest food, and I don’t think it’s just because people are making bad choices,” Kehoe said. Poor people often have no choice but to shop at convenience stores because they live in neighborhoods with no ready access to a supermarket.

Last year, nearly 16 percent of food benefits used in Cambridge was spent at convenience stores.

Massachusetts has not abandoned the idea of improving nutritional standards for recipients. Recently, the state won a $20 million grant from the USDA for a healthy-eating incentive program to be tested in Hampden County, which includes two of the poorest cities in the state, Holyoke and Springfield. In the program, participants get extra benefits when they buy produce instead of junk food.

Cambridge is trying to do its part. This summer, some of the city’s farmers’ markets will follow a year behind Boston — and join 58 Cambridge vendors — by accepting SNAP cards as payment.

Podgers, however, took exception to the notion low-income shoppers need their eating habits regulated.

“I don’t understand the confusion we have here of people who think that if you’re poor, it’s your fault and you should be punished,” she said. “Most people complain about people who use food stamps not when they buy Cheetos and Cheerios, but when they buy steak. Of course they should buy steak, and they should buy salmon.’’

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