In the belly of the SNAP dragon

26 Jan
Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

So, forgive the tortured metaphor, but SNAP (aka food stamps aka CalFresh here in the Golden State) really can appear very differently to different people, depending on their situation, emotional state – and how long the line they are standing in stretches.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the polarized views that food stamps trigger in the community at large, but this is also true amongst those who are eligible for or receiving them. Most people do not want to or enjoy being on food stamps. Some feel intimidated from signing up or come off the program before they are really able, sometimes because they can’t keep up with the reporting requirements or because they take a hopeful view on how their income will hold up. Then you have those who are afraid of the government having detailed information on them or applying when they are in the middle of putting forward an application for citizenship. There are many fears, myths and barriers which prevent people from taking the help they are entitled to.

Sometimes they are afraid that the hand that feeds might also bite.

So, cuddly or spiky, I got a chance this week to enter into the belly of the beast. I took a visit  local DSS office, which is at the County complex in Goleta to interview three staff members. As you can see, the building looks pretty classy on the outside:

DSS in SB

DSS in SB.

Inside it is still nice, but it is hard to escape the cubicles and glass barriers environment completely, and a waiting room full of people, who I did not want to take a photograph of. (The feeling was mutual on their side).
Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

The DSS version of the iPad!

The DSS version of the iPad! And you can only push one button.

I spoke to Maria, Mario and Maria, which could be a wonderful mariachi group, but who are in fact Maria Gardner, Deputy Director County of Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services, Mario R. Velasco, Division Chief Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services and Maria Dwyer, Eligibility Supervisor for Calfresh in Santa Barbara.

These are nice, hard-working, dedicated people, and they indicated that SB County has a current total CalFresh participation of approximately 14,000 households or 31,000 people.  (Out of a total population of 400,000). They saw an 8% increase last year alone and indicate that they are seeing a different population of people, more middle class.

Mario: We process 2000 applications per month during busy time and partnering with the food bank to do outreach helps us draw people in.  We start interviews at 7am and can go through to 6pm to try and accommodate people’s schedules. We tried doing interviews on weekends but out of the 20 clients we scheduled only 3 showed up. If it is a rush application, we guarantee to process it within three business days.

Maria Gardner: The lives of clients can sometimes be pretty chaotic which makes it hard for them to make interviews sometimes. If their car breaks down they don’t typically have AAA to come to the  rescue. So there are lots of perfectly understandable reasons why clients can’t show.  

Maria Dwyer: They don’t realize that they can call to reschedule and don’t show and then reapply again later, slowing things down.

Maria Gardner: The amount you receive will only get less if the household composition or circumstances of income change, but otherwise they stay consistent. People are coming off and on the rolls all the time (especially in Santa Maria, where there are a lot of agricultural workers whose income yo-yos). People don’t want to be on the program, so sometimes they come off the program prematurely and that causes a lot of ‘churn’ and reapplications, which slows things down somewhat.

We try and dispel myths about fraud and waste in the system and we often find ourselves in the defensive mode of justifying why we are administering these programs which are a basic safety net for our community, rather than being able to present the positive side that 99% of all these recipients are legitimate and not defrauding.

Mario: Often people see someone using their EBT card in a supermarket and think: ‘ How dare they buy this extravagant thing, when I am in line to buy this frugal or unhealthy thing’, so there is judgment about that. They might not see that person next week because they have no benefit left. It is down to individual choice but we try and steer things with education.

Maria Dwyer: There is a large nutrition education element to Calfresh these days. There are publications and recipe cards and we partner with public health for some of these activities.

Erik: Thanks for letting me speak to you.

As with most things in our lives today, getting any attention or help comes down to how much we want to wait in line or hang on the telephone or answer questions. The CalFresh program is a complex administrative machine which can be unyielding and sometimes impersonal, but this is the system we have, so we first need to protect it and then steadily improve it, from within and without.  I’m sure I’ll get plenty of comments about people’s experiences with the DSS.

Not so much time to dip into the food stuff this post and will report more next time. Still, I have been pleased how many great comments I have been getting from people about their experiences. Please take a moment to take a peek at the comments on some of the posts if you have not already done so. These include the challenges of people facing food insecurity. Someone also wanted to know where I got the fish I mentioned in one of my meal logs but not in my list of purchased items! I’m glad people are keeping an eye on me. (And by the way the fish was purchased with my food stamp money but after the first listing I provided).

On Thursday I braved hellish rainy traffic to go to Orange County for a board meeting of the California Association of Food Banks (I serve on the board). We work very closely with them through the Farm2Family program which helps us purchase low-cost produce from across California and we also work with them on State level advocacy.  For the meeting, I planned ahead and packed a lunch for myself and warned them not to get me one.

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

Captain Virtuous - I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

Captain Virtuous – I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

This Friday I spoke at a National Conference of State Legislators Hunger Partnership meeting which breezed through town, featuring  Senator Renee S. Unterman, Georgia and Representative Dwight Evans, Pennsylvania and a bunch of others. We had been asked to speak to them about our innovative programs at the Foodbank and I mentioned about the Food Security Challenge. There was a lot of interest from representatives around the country about adopting the type of approach espoused by our organizations and which I have been pushing through my ‘From Hunger to Health Blog.’

I have been super diligent about not taking any of the food and snacks that are offered to me at meetings and other business situations that I have to navigate. I have only been taking tea or water so that at least people don’t feel that I am totally snubbing their hospitality. However this time I definitely didn’t snub the hospitality because I took home 5 of my favorite tea bags from the presentation. Call me a thief, call me a cheat, but no one’s going to miss that from a huge hotel catering department, and you have to be aware of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in your environment when you’re on food stamps!

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative's business card?

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative’s business card?

Next week I am going to Chicago for three days. I sit on the National Advisory Council for Feeding America (the nationwide network of Foodbanks) and we meet five times a year to advise the senior management team of Feeding America about the issues involved in taking what can be perceived as a very local issue (hunger) and giving it a national perspective and solution. There is a lot of focus on joint advocacy, food sourcing and training. Hey, I know I go to a lot of meetings, but they do actually lead to things happening or I wouldn’t go.

So, Chicago is a very beautiful city, but the problem is that I’m on food stamps, and all my food is, like, in Santa Barbara…

I’ll be offered nice dinners and lunches and I’m going to have to ‘Just Say No’ again. The bigger challenge will be sourcing food and being able to keep to my budget while staying there. If I try and smuggle any more packets of my frozen chili, the TSA will be convinced that I am trying to smuggle plastic explosives on the plane – and my chili just doesn’t have that kind of kick.

In Chicago I’ll be meeting with SNAP experts at Feeding America and also checking out a SNAP outreach/ Food Distribution on Chicago’s South Side. It should give me a chillier view of the world of food stamps, where having a nice little salad might not cut it if it is freezing cold outside.

Let’s see how this Santa Barbara ’60 degrees is freezing’ wimp does in the Windy City!

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6 Responses to “In the belly of the SNAP dragon”

  1. eatinginsb January 26, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Ok So I checked in tonight to see what new thought you have…and ..wait…don’t take this the wrong way, but boy you don’t know how to be poor! I am shaking my head with a smile….turning down FREE FOOD? Why on earth? You have to stretch your dollars and food you have. Take every free meal, snack and tea that comes your way. That is fair game and I certainly looked down on you for it!

    • eatinginsb January 26, 2013 at 1:57 am #

      Oh gosh…I just re-read…that….I meant to say I WOULD NOT – not have looked down on you. Please accept my type fasting and clicking hands. I would love to attend those meetings BTW…sound very interesting.

    • Erik Talkin January 26, 2013 at 4:59 am #

      It would be too easy for me to do that. Doing the job I do, I could probably get lots of free food and drinks by attending one of the numerous charity events all week long. (But I’d have to listen to lots of worthy presentations…) For the purposes of this I wanted to experience a little of a situation where someone doesn’t have that much ‘freeloading’ access.

      • eatinginsb January 27, 2013 at 12:06 am #

        Fair enough ..I prob come into free food about three times a month. I would say at least 3 free lunches/dinners would be acceptable. Keep up the good work.

  2. ddsprncs January 29, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    I agree with eatinginsb, I would totally take advantage of free food I think that if par for the course. I go to a lot of church activities and friends homes (who are MUCH better off than I an) I not only eat there but also take a plate to go! Some time I will take a plate of fresh fruit and veggies to supplement a lunch fir the next day. My friends are know me so they usually just make me a plate to go. :) I understand you may have access to too many freebies but think a couple a week would be fair game. Enjoy Chicago!

  3. ddsprncs January 29, 2013 at 6:33 am #

    Sorry for all the typos…

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