Friday, April 17, 2015

Missing the Point

There’s a form sitting on my desk that I really should be filling out. 

But, every time I start it, it gives me a headache. 

It’s one of those forms that I very highly suspect was created by bureaucracy to perpetuate bureaucracy. This particular form has 17 pages of instructions alone and the agreement to participate in the program is 5 pages long. There are definitions and restrictions and ramifications if you don’t comply.

All of this so we can participate in the SFMNP (senior farmers market nutrition program).  This program provides qualifying seniors with $40 from July to November specifically for the purchase of fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.  (that is $40 for the entire time…not weekly or monthly) We have had a lot of customer requests, so we decided to participate.  It was my understanding that we could also provide for those under the WIC (women, infants and children) program as well…but, I’m beginning to think that will be yet another agency and another set of forms. (and quite possibly another headache)

We are committed to providing quality food products to our customers, and it seems only right to accept anyone/everyone as customers. There is a big movement to encourage those participating in food assistance programs to buy fresh, buy local.  Since we are in the business of growing food, these programs are a topic for ongoing discussion.

Looking to escape the paperwork headache, I turned to the internet (okay, I was just goofing off on facebook…don’t judge me). My newsfeed was full of stories revolving around SNAP.  SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). 

SNAP is under scrutiny by Congress and is scheduled to have some very major cutbacks as they attempt to curtail fraud and misuse.  It is hoped that by restricting the use of SNAP benefits to purchase many products, the program can be put to “proper” use. The entire subject is highly divisive. This funding makes up a huge part of the Farm Bill, so the Ag sector has been talking about it for some time. And, now that it is possible to use SNAP benefits at Farmers’ Markets, it is a recurrent topic of conversation here on the hill, as well.

-TLWomack image
Several years ago, Farmers’ Markets across the nation began to accept SNAP benefits in an effort to get program participants to eat more fresh food. By encouraging market shopping, the consumers get incredibly fresh food directly from farmers, thus stimulating the local economy. The number of SNAP shoppers at farmers’ markets has been growing by leaps and bounds. However, it is not possible to use an EBT card with the vendor directly.  In yet another effort to curtail fraud and misuse, there is a centralized station that exchanges the EBT benefits for wooden shopping tokens. These can only be used at that Market and change cannot be given. (as per the agency in charge, not the market) Personally, I think this requirement simply re-introduces the stigma that users felt prior to the introduction of the “charge card” system.  I’ve seen shoppers’ faces when they hand me those wooden nickel things. But, that is a story for another time.

Political wrangling and personal opinion aside, the real reason SNAP was in the news was that yet another celebrity had jumped on the “survive on SNAP benefits for a week” challenge. This time, it was Gwyneth Paltrow…who had been nominated by her good friend and famous chef, Mario Batali, in an attempt to bring attention to the programs in New York City.  

You see celebrities participate in this type of challenge from time to time to “build awareness”…   With all the stories I saw, “awareness” must have been reaching some sort of peak. Google noted over 27 million mentions of Ms. Paltrow’s purchases! It should be noted here that “Gwynnie” is one of those celebrities that people seem to love to hate.  So, much of the publicity was anything but positive.  However, the public was indeed being made aware…

SNAP benefits provide something like $29 for a week’s worth of groceries. The actual rules and benefit amounts vary from state to state, so the numbers used in the challenge are fairly arbitrary.  There are very real restrictions as to what types of products can be bought with these benefits and it must be pointed out that this program is intended to be supplemental and not one’s only source of funds for food.

When Ms. Paltrow posted the picture of her purchases (that were later donated to a NYC food bank), all sorts of comments started flying.  The point of the challenge was lost as countless people griped and sniped about her choices. It seemed everyone had an opinion about her perceived dietary needs and food choices. While I did wonder WHY anyone would buy 7 LIMES if they were looking to “survive” for a week….as least the public was discussing the subject of food insecurity and need in this country.

SNAP food purchase - Gwyneth Paltrow
Could YOU get by on this for a week?

Or, were they?

Not really.  The readers/writers were too focused on the fact that the very rich are out of touch with the “normal” folks. Oh, and that would include those holding government office making rules.  I would point out here that there is a very real possibility the “normal” folks are just as out of touch with the truly needy who rely on SNAP and other programs. (with no personal experience, we are left to speculate) Then there were those who just wanted to point out all the things wrong with the programs to start with…

But, here’s the thing…

it is estimated that 47 million people are dependent on food assistance programs. 


For a myriad of reasons, many find themselves reliant on SNAP, WIC, SFMNP and other government programs to get the nutrition they so desperately need. (and, no, I do not intend to discuss the fallacies of the programs or the participants, although I do admit…they do indeed exist)

The need for assistance is very real.

While I cannot pretend to know what it’s like to need government assistance to feed myself and my family…I do understand food. $40 over five months isn’t going to make a real big difference to anybody. And, if you are dependent up on the SNAP program, it will NOT (and cannot) fill all your nutrition needs. Having your food choices dictated by folks with no real knowledge of your situation can only make a difficult situation more stressful. I do understand that any time there is money involved, fraud will follow…and this multi-page form/farmer agreement (and the whole wooden nickel thing) was designed as protection against this…it certainly seems that there must be a better way.

If we really are trying to help people…why does it have to be so hard? 

By focusing on building “awareness” by watching/discussing/emulating celebrities, endlessly debating and discussing the subject and devising more rules and regulations to protect ourselves and “the system” from fraud, by waiting until we can solve the problem entirely, by trying to dictate a diet based on a perception of need and not true knowledge, we are totally missing the point.

The point is…

There are people who need help.

We shouldn’t have to have celebrity stunts to make us aware of that need. Or have special rules on how to meet it. Nor should any one group dictate whose needs are important enough for action.

Each of us has some unique way that we can indeed aid our fellow humans. And, even though we will never entirely solve every problem, or satisfy all the needs…we can indeed try. (without fanfare or tweets…or added restrictions or regulations.)

Just see a need and meet it. 

Lend a helping hand.

…and the effort, no matter how small, WILL make a difference.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said from beginning to end Barbara. Forms are much the same here.
    As regards 'charity' for those in need of food banks - it is so important how they are run. I know that my own mother, who had an extremely poor and deprived childhood (as did so many of her generation) would have died rather than be seen to accept help from a food bank. And yet these people need our help. Our supermarkets have boxes in which folk can donate things and the boxes do fill up as the day goes on - but often with quite unsuiable food. And yet, because of regulations, much of the fresh fruit and veg in the supermarkets is thrown away or sold cheaply to staff at the end of each day because of food regulations. So much of the world starves while other folk can buy 7 limes and still feel they are doing good.