Food stamps aren’t enough for families to afford the healthy diet the federal government recommends. A researcher at N.C. State University has helped define the financial distance between food stamps and healthy eating.
It would cost a family of four, with two adults and two children, as much as $627 more per month than they receive in food stamps to eat the recommended healthy diet, concluded a study co-authored by Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an assistant professor and extension specialist at N.C. State.
People who use food stamps must have a maximum income before taxes that’s 130 percent of poverty. For a family of four, that’s $2,628 a month. Research shows that most food stamp recipients work. North Carolina recipients must prove they’re working, volunteering or taking classes at least 20 hours a week.
People using food stamps often use food pantries to supplement their purchases.
Late Tuesday, Maya McDowell, 32, waited in the lobby of the Catholic Charities food pantry in Raleigh for a donation that will help feed her and her two sons, ages 3 and 8.
McDowell said she works part time at a restaurant, and her 3-year-old son qualifies for benefits from a nutrition program for young children in addition to the food stamps the family receives.
The food she buys with $346 a month worth of food stamps lasts two to three weeks, she said. After all the monthly bills are paid, she said, “whatever I have goes to food.”
The $60 she has left isn’t enough to buy food that will last for the rest of the month, so she fills the gaps with food pantry trips.
Food stamps are officially called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program is not meant to cover a family’s entire monthly food bill, but it’s hard for families – after paying for housing and other expenses – to fill the gap, Haynes-Maslow said.
“If we’re going to recommend what is a healthy diet, we should consider (whether) people can follow this diet,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers SNAP and created the nutrition guide MyPlate, showing recommended proportions of fruit, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy.
MyPlate replaced the food pyramid in 2010.
MyPlate suggests putting fruit and vegetables on half a plate, and protein and grains on the other half. There should be a bit more vegetables than fruit, and a bit more grain than protein. The daily recommendation for women ages 31-50 is 1 1/2 cups of fruit; 2 1/2 cups of vegetables; 6 servings of grains (a slice of bread is a serving); and 5 servings of protein (an ounce of meat or an egg is a serving).
It’s hardest to cover food costs for boys and men 12 years old to 50 years old because they eat the most, according to the study.
The researchers considered a variety of ways a family could meet the dietary recommendations. The most expensive way is to eat all fresh food. The least expensive diet is vegetarian, with an even division between fresh, frozen and canned food.
The researchers did not take into account that school-aged children whose families use food stamps may be eating one or more free or reduced-priced meal at school.
The researchers also included in their calculations the cost of labor involved in preparation. Kranti Mulik, a senior economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the study’s authors, said the labor costs were included because the increase in women in the workforce has led to higher household incomes, but less time for food preparation. As a result, households seek convenient substitutes. The efficiency of food assistance programs can be affected by the cost of food preparation at home.
Money for food stamps is in the federal Farm Bill, which comes up for votes in Congress about every five years. SNAP benefits are contentious, and some in Congress want cuts.
Most people who come to the Catholic Parish Outreach food pantry also use food stamps, said Terry Foley, director of the pantry. It’s the largest food pantry in the region, and provided food to an average of 8,500 people per month last year.
The pantry gives out a wide variety of food, from deli salads to desserts. Volunteers this week were directing people to carts loaded with cereal, canned vegetables, rice, beans, pasta and other staples. They also gave out meat, cake, fresh oranges, salad greens and other items.
Foley said meat is the most requested food item, since it’s the most expensive. Fresh produce is next.
People can use the food pantry once a month, she said, and people come three times a year, on average.
Sammy Hobgood, food pantry/nutrition program manager at Urban Ministries of Wake County, estimated that 80 percent of people who use the service also have food stamps.
“Anything that sells in the grocery store is popular here,” he said.
Urban Ministries operates a “client choice” pantry that lets people select what they want. For example, they can choose the brands of peanut butter, or between types of canned vegetables.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are popular choices, Hobgood said.
“It’s exciting how much produce we have,” he said. “Everyone wants to provide fresh food for their children, for their family.”