On Monday, Feb. 12, the Trump administration proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would cut the program’s budget by over $200 billion over the next ten years.
In the proposed changes the government would distribute pre-packaged boxes of canned food to households and families on SNAP. This would take up about half of the SNAP benefits a household receives, and in order to save another $80 billion, the Trump administration wants to cut off around $4 million people who live in states that have relaxed some of the eligibility requirements, according to NPR.
California is one of those states, Judi Pierce, manager of wellness and community outreach at Mills, said.
“One of the things that was really tricky for a long time was usually what your aid for being a student is connected to your parent income,” Pierce said. Before, if a student was declared on their parents’ taxes, they were ineligible. Now, California allows students who live away from their parents for a majority of the year to apply.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of really strategic and intelligent advocacy on the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s part to really ensure that people that need resources get them, and as we all know to live in Alameda County is expensive,” Pierce said. “I think it’s been great that the food bank has been so focused on how to expand eligibility for those who otherwise wouldn’t have qualified.”
Over 21 million households and 43 million people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and more than 11% of households in California’s 13th congressional district which includes Oakland are on SNAP assistance according to their 2018 internal data.
Federally known as SNAP, California’s program is called CalFresh. CalFresh issues monthly electronic benefits, usually on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that then can be used at many grocery stores in California.
UC Berkeley just accepted EBT cards at their market at the beginning of February. Pierce is working with students and staff to provide students who have food insecurity with access to resources. Pierce also mentioned that she is working with Bon Appetit to change the system to accept EBT cards.
ASMC Student Services Representative Mi Rae Park became involved in the issue of food insecurity when she found that there were other people who were also food insecure at Mills.
“I am food insecure myself, and I was speaking to friends about common food issues and I realized there were resources that were there,” Park said. “We are currently working on a food pantry and I am continuing to promote the access to resources and fast relief ways for food insecurity.”
Mills Alum Toni Gomez’s thesis focused on food security at Mills and striving for academic success while struggling with financial and nutritional needs. According to Gomez’s thesis, a food security survey at Mills found that 48 percent of survey participants identified as food insecure with moderate to severe hunger.
According to Gomez’s thesis, besides from financial issues, one of the main reasons why students leave Mills is mentally or physically health related. Gomez makes a point to draw a line between mental health and food insecurity, and argues that making Mills a food secure institution could potentially prevent students from leaving Mills.
“In 2002, a study conducted by the University of Michigan found that there is a strong association between food insufficiency and depressive disorder and suicidal symptoms in U.S. adolescents,” Gomez wrote. “We also know that almost one third of all college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning. Hunger is not the only factor in student mental health, rather we can think of it as a variable which, when present, can trigger or compound existing mental health issues.”
Two of the four solutions Gomez suggested were to open an on-campus food pantry and support access to CalFresh on-campus.
Currently, those options are being considered, according to Pierce.
“There’s a food insecurity workgroup that I’ve been working with that’s with ASMC, CAPS and the Dean’s office, to do a multi-pronged effort to address food insecurity,” Pierce said. “One component is we’re thinking about a food pantry, we’re a little concerned about capacity, so if we hear students want it, we could do it.”
If the bill is passed, one of the worries is that it will increase the stigmatization of being poor. The current method loads all the benefits onto the EBT card, allowing individuals to shop in many grocery stores around California, which is less conspicuous than going to a place to pick up food or having it delivered to a home.
“I think there’s an issue of agency for people individually, but I also think there’s an issue of the local economy as well,” Pierce said. “In terms of agency, I feel like many programs really are designed to make poor people feel bad for being poor, and this seems like yet another deliberate hit to low-income people’s dignity.”
Mills student Jillian Mosley finds that not only might there be external stigmatization, but food insecure people may internalize that message as well.
“On a macro level the first and foremost problem takes away choice from the individual and their families and when we already have such a bootstrap mentality here in our country it is hard for people to ask for help,” Mosley said. “It’s hard for people to not feel that they are somehow being a burden for asking for this basic right. Everyone has the right to have access to healthy food and food that fits their lifestyle and needs.”
Not only does the proposed plan reduce individuals ability to choose for themselves, but the proposal doesn’t take into account a lot of variables, Pierce said. For instance, if a family has different religious or cultural customs around food, lives in a rural area or is homeless, or someone needs to avoid certain foods for health reasons, the pre-packaged box of government-distributed food would not take that into account.
“It’s the assumption that the federal government knows what’s good for you better than you know what’s good for you,” Pierce said.
Pierce noted that while canned goods may seem like a good idea — picked at peak ripeness, saves money because of abundance — the amount of preservatives and sodium makes it hard to apply the idea to some people’s diets.
“And as we’ve seen with Hurricane Maria, we can’t necessarily trust the federal government can provide certain things that are materials,” Pierce added. “The federal government is very good at providing checks, and can distribute things that can go in bank accounts really easily or your benefits but a physical object for whatever reason is just a little more tricky.”
If you are interested in getting involved in easing food insecurity at Mills, please contact Pierce or Park. The Alameda County Community Food Bank is a great resource, Pierce said, as they host a lot of fundraisers and drives for helping out food insecure people, as well as have good volunteering opportunities and other ways to get involved.
If you are food insecure, you can contact Pierce or Park or take a look below for more resources.