Hunger pains

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Photo credit: Sarah Manriquez

Two cans of beans, two cans of vegetables, a soup or ramen, fruit cup, pasta item and a breakfast item; as of early February 2017, 64 students have stopped into the Wood Center Food Pantry to take advantage of the weekly access to canned goods meant to help stretch the often tight student budget.

A student may only need the pantry once to get past a rough patch or a week without a chance to get to the store, but for others it is a key source of calories. The Wood Center Food Pantry is a welcoming, simple source of aid run off of generous food donations and a yearly budget of $500 from the student government. All one needs to use the pantry is a student ID card.

But what of the larger federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly and still colloquially known as “food stamps,” or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a mouthful more commonly referred to as WIC? Who uses them and how do they work?

Over 83,000 Alaska residents utilized food stamps in November 2016, the most recent month for which there is publicly available data according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. That comes out to roughly 1 in 10 people, or put another way at least 11 percent of Alaskans live at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, the cut off for food stamps.

Given the statistics, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I reached out to friends to see if anyone knew food stamp or WIC users that might talk to me several of my own friends came forward. Hunger or food insecurity isn’t often visible from the outside. One, Bradley Bryant, sent an email to me explaining some of how the programs work.

“SNAP benefits use an EBT card with an attached pin, similar to a bank card. [It’s] very easy and convenient, with the benefit of being more discrete,” Bryant said.

When used at the store the EBT credit is automatically applied only to food. Any non-food items remain as a balance to be covered out-of-pocket. If the recipient has any leftover benefits the credit rolls over to the next month. Additionally, Alaskans living off the road system are unique in their ability to use food stamps to purchase hunting and fishing gear.

“WIC vouchers are similar to large payroll checks. They have very specific guidelines on what they cover, and you generally receive some sort of info brochure detailing sizes, types and brands the vouchers cover,” Bryant said.

The government is walking a fine line between wanting to support healthy food choices for moms and children while also wanting to save money making statements like this one from Alaska’s current WIC list “least expensive brand peanut butter, 16-18 oz. jar” not unusual.

“I’d say SNAP definitely helped break a bad habit of eating mostly processed food,” Bryant said. “[Processed food] is cheap, and not having that money coming directly out of pocket made it easier to make choices based on quality/health reasons.”

In 2015 Washington University researchers found nearly two thirds of Americans will live a year in relative poverty at some point in their lives, but that’s what these programs are ultimately for right? Whether the Food Pantry or Food Stamps we have these programs in place to give people a hand when they need it, to give enough of an edge so perhaps health can win out over just finding calories.

Wood Center Food Pantry Spring Hours:

Tuesdays 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Fridays 1:30-3:30 p.m.

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