Tag Archive | SNAP

The SNAP Challenge Gourmet | Dented Can Chili

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The other day I was in the market, grocery shopping and as I was grabbing a half gallon of milk, I glanced in the dented and discarded bins. I often peek, but have never bought anything but soup vegetables. Instead of the usual completely useless crap, there was a pile of canned goods. I took a closer look. Chili. Black beans. Refried beans. Tomato puree. Hmmm. White beans. More chili. This is starting to look like a plan.

Here’s what I scooped up.

Nalley Big Chunk Chili (no beans) .99¢ (reg. $2.00)
Nalley Big Chunk Chili (no beans) .99¢ (reg. $2.00)
Hormel Beef Chili with Beans .69¢ (reg. $1.29)
Dennison’s Chili with Beans .89¢ ($1.83)
Rosarita Refried Beans .49¢ (reg. $1.00)
S&W White Beans .49¢ (reg. .89¢)
S&W Black Beans .49¢ (reg. .89¢)
Hunts Tomato Puree .69¢ (reg. $1.33)

For a grand total of $5.72 and a savings of $5.51.

How to bring this pile of salty swill up to some semblance of acceptable nutrition, wholesomeness and deliciousness without a lot of effort or spending?

I’ve got onions and fresh garlic at home, so first stop is a 28 oz. can of store brand diced tomatoes. $1. Then a big sweet potato. .69c. Next stop Trader Joe’s for a one pound bag of frozen red, yellow and green bell pepper strips. $1.69 (What can I say. My building has a walk score of 100).

Big pot. Chop and sauté two onions. While those are going, chop and add frozen peppers. After ten minutes, add a few cloves of chopped garlic for five minutes. Dump in all the cans. Add two tablespoons of New Mexico chili powder. I get the packets in the Mexican section, much cheaper. Peel and grate in the sweet potato. Heat through and simmer for an hour.

I also had some frozen corn that I thought about tossing in but didn’t. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t.

Add in $1.00 for the ingredients for home and the grand total looks like:
$10.10 (the amount Obama is proposing for the minimum wage. Coincidence? You be the judge.) That worked out to about $1.44 a quart or 28 servings at .36¢ a serving. It took about 12 minutes to get in the pot. An hour and half on the stove with occasional stirring. Less than ten minutes to clean up and break the chili into plastic containers for freezing. Just over one minute per serving.

Let me emphasize that opening the cans was the hardest part.

So what was the verdict? My room mate cooks for a living. He’s no push over. Around lunch time the next day, the call came out from the kitchen, “What’s in this chili, it’s great.”

“You don’t want to know.”

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Incentivizing Work in SNAP with Vegetables

Farmer's Market photo farmersmarket_zps618c3199.jpg
Louise Putnam | Missouri State Archives

Against the backdrop of the foolish pearl clutching that has greeted the CBO report that shows Obamacare will give people the freedom to choose to work less, I stumbled across a piece by Reihan Salam on Representatives Nikki Tsongas (D-MA) and Tom Petri’s (R-WI) push for a commission to improve co-coordination between federal and state anti-poverty programs. Petri is particularly interested in dealing with the disincentives to work that are built into many programs, sometimes in the aggregate.

For instance, consider the scenario of a single mother with two children making $17,000 a year living in Wisconsin in 2009 who claims all available deductions and participated in all eligible benefit programs. If this single mother were to work extra hours or receive a raise so that her earnings increase to $21,000, she would only see $540 of that $4,000 in new earnings—she would have lost $3,460 in benefits. That amounts to almost an 88 percent effective tax rate, leaving the hard-working parent and her children little to show for the extra effort. Even more shocking is that if this mother received a raise or worked more to raise her earnings another $1,000 to $22,000, she would actually have less in disposable income than she had when earning $21,000.

How can this be?

It all comes back to benefit phaseout schedules. For instance, SNAP benefits for a single mother in some states gradually diminish as income rise and eventually stop when earnings reach $23,000 annually, leading to over 100 percent in effective taxation at some point—meaning that you lose more than you bring in.

Reihan points to Oren Cass’ Flex Fund idea as one way of dealing with the issue. There is a lot for liberals and conservatives to like in Cass’ ideas. The biggest obstacle the idea faces is that it is a broad omnibus reform. Those are really, really hard to do. I’d like to suggest a small bore solution to a program that I’ve thought a lot about and have some experience with.

I’m going to lay the case for a tiered phase out of SNAP benefits as participants income rises. The three tiers would be the current basket of goods covered by SNAP, the WIC basket of goods or perhaps the WIC basket and finally fresh produce as covered in the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program. But first, let’s look at the case for whitelisting SNAP benefits in the first place.

I’ve long thought that the basket of goods covered by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) should whitelisted. That is, SNAP should pay for foods that provide sustenance. It should not pay for things like soda and cookies. Another reform would be to forgo the whitelist for recipients but require a mandatory basket of goods for participating retailers must carry and keep in inventory. Using the already existing WIC package would be a simple way to do this.  Another popular idea would be to simply exclude sugary beverages.

Whitelisting SNAP would accomplish a number of important things:

  • It would end a large indirect federal subsidy to junk food manufacturers
  • It would increase the indirect federal subsidy to non-junk food producers
  • It would improve the eating habits of a substantial number of Americans by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption that is too low and decreasing sugar consumption that far to high. There is a reasonable expectation that this would lower medical costs. Those are medical costs which are most likely being picked up by the taxpayer.
  • It would serve as a strong public health message that diet matters and that junk food is not just empty calories
  • It would nearly end the problem of food deserts over night. If corner stores needed to carrying a certain basket of goods to certify for SNAP, store in low income neighborhoods would start stocking fresh produce and whole grain bread and cereal over night. Problem solved. I’ve worked with corner stores to achieve WIC status. They respond to incentives and WIC participation changes their product mix for the better.
  • It would insulate SNAP politically. A program that only pays for nutritious food is much harder to attack politically and would be less vulnerable to budget cuts.

The idea faces a few obstacles. First, anti-hunger groups won’t lobby for a change like this. They argue that it is demeaning to recipients that they couldn’t shop like everyone else.That it is stigmatizing to have pay for some items with their EBT card and for other by other means. They point out that SNAP participants eat about as well as everyone else. They argue that cheaper foods provide cheaper calories.

These arguments are easily dealt with.

There are lots of everyday necessities that you can’t pay for with your EBT card: aspirin, dish soap, tooth paste, sandwich bags. Shifting soda and potato chips into that category doesn’t make the check out any more demeaning than buying tuna and cold medicine in the same transaction. I’ve been on SNAP and I found room for a little ice cream here and there, but I would have traded that in a second for dish soap, tooth paste or double coupons for fresh produce. SNAP is by nature paternalistic. If we want a less paternalistic program, we would do a straight cash transfer. Given our cognitive biases against budgeting and the fact that a lot of SNAP spending is intended for kids, compartmentalizing an in kind transfer for food makes more sense. Now with the federal government on the hook for a lot more low income health care spending, it makes even more sense to exclude junk food. In fact, given what we’ve learned about behavioral psychology, done right, a SNAP whitelist could have a significant positive effect on participant’s food choices. That’s a topic for another day. Read More…

How Would the New Farm Bill Affect SNAP?

Marc Brazeau

An overview of what’s going on with the ag part of the bill can be found here.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe on cuts to SNAP:

Negotiators found a way to cut about $8 billion in funding for the program over the next decade.

Most of the savings will come by tweaking federal “heat and eat” benefits that House and Senate aides say have been exploited in recent years by several states and the District of Columbia to boost how much money some people receive from SNAP.

The changes will require the states and D.C. to pay more in “heat and eat” money, a move that will reduce, but not eliminate, SNAP payments by about $90 monthly for about 850,000 households.

The Farm Bill also cuts SNAP funding by prohibiting the Agriculture Department from spending money on television, radio and billboard ads to promote the program and on programs designed to recruit new beneficiaries. And in response to years of documented evidence of misuse and abuse of the program, USDA will need to ensure that illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students and the dead cannot receive food stamps and that people cannot collect benefits in multiple states.

About Heat and Eat:

Lawmakers may tweak the “heat-and-eat” arrangement so that households must receive $20 in heating assistance before automatically qualifying for more food stamp benefits, according to media reports. Now, the threshold is as low as $1.

Advocates for the poor said that under the proposal, 175,000 households in Pennsylvania would lose an average of $65 in food stamp benefits each month.

New Jersey also utilizes the “heat-and-eat” arrangement.

Bill Clark, president of the hunger relief organization Philabundance, said the “heat and eat” setup makes it easier for low-income families to get the public benefits they need.

“It was just a more administratively efficient way of finding people who really needed the help, so it’s possible that this isn’t going to save anybody anything,” he said. “In fact, it may cost administratively more.”

Proponents said the change would eliminate a loophole that states take advantage of at the expense of taxpayers.

Robert Greenstein of The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities is fairly supportive, in a “If there are going to be cuts, this is how you do it” kind of way.

. . . it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

The SNAP cut that remains is a provision to tighten an element of the SNAP benefit calculation that some states have converted into what most people would view as a loophole. Specifically, some states are stretching the benefit formula in a way that enables them not only to simplify paperwork for many SNAP households, but also to boost SNAP benefits for some SNAP households by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur. Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way, and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend. Moreover, a future Administration could close off this use of the rules administratively, without any congressional action.

Two-thirds of states do not use the current rules this way, and no SNAP beneficiaries in these states are expected to lose any benefits under this provision. Across the other one-third of states, CBO estimates that 88 to 89 percent of beneficiaries would remain untouched, while 11 to 12 percent would remain eligible for SNAP but face a benefit reduction because their state has used this practice to boost their benefits above what they would otherwise be.

Nationally, 4 percent of beneficiaries would face a benefit cut, CBO projects. Over the coming decade, total SNAP benefits would be 1.3 percent lower as a result. The 850,000 households that would lose benefits would, however, face a significant benefit reduction — costing them an average of $90 a month.

The final package also includes a number of other provisions designed to strengthen SNAP and to address features of the program that affect an infinitesimal number of households but can be used to stoke public hostility toward the program. For example, the agreement bars big lottery winners from receiving SNAP and clarifies that recipients may not deduct medical marijuana expenses to claim a larger SNAP benefit. The agreement also includes provisions designed to provide SNAP households with more access to healthy food outlets such as farmers’ markets, to ensure that retailers that participate in the program offer a healthy variety of foods for sale, and to tighten retailer compliance with SNAP rules. In addition, the proposed agreement would establish up to ten demonstration projects to test ways to provide more effective employment and training services for SNAP participants, which could provide useful information on how to better enable participants to secure and retain jobs.


Hemp, farm-raised fish, food labels and food stamps: What’s in the farm bill?
Ed O’Keefe | The Fix | The Washington Post | 29 January 2014

Commentary: Nutrition Title of Farm Bill Agreement Drops Draconian Cuts and Represents Reasonable Compromise
Robert Greenstein | The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities | 27 January 2014

Healthy incentives are farm bill bright spot
Oran Hesterman | Congress Blog | The Hill | 28 January 2014

Changing ‘heat and eat’ benefit threatens food aid in Pa., N.J.
Holly Otterbein | Newsworks | 13 January 2014

Nuts to Soup?

A recent Wonkblog post looked at the drop in supermarket soup sales and asked the question: “Is America Over Soup?”

And concluded, Maybe, but maybe not:

Campbell’s soup figures, though, may be deceptive. Soup is actually selling well elsewhere: People are opting for organic and non-GMO lines from companies like Pacific Foods and Amy’s, while grocery stores are offering more and more private label varieties. Frozen soup sales were up 17 percent in 2012, General Mills’ Progresso soups have gobbled up market share with a boomer-friendly healthful message, and fast-casual restaurants — some soup-only! — carry the perception of quality (even if they’re just reconstituted from the same powdered stuff that goes in cans).

“The soups served in Panera and Au Bon Pain benefit from the consumer perception that they are fresher as well as from the accompaniment of freshly-baked bread,” Euromonitor wrote in a January report. The “freshness” fetish also affects juices; Campbell’s V8 line took an even bigger dive than soups, as consumers go for just-squeezed over shelf-stable.

What surprised me in the post, was that it was never considered that maybe more Americans are making soup from scratch. It seems the natural extension of that impulse to freshness and quality. Given both that we are 5 years into the worst economic downturn since the 30’s and 20 years into a renaissance in American cooking that has increased on a log scale the during the last decade, it seems a reasonable variable to consider.

That hypothesis turned out to be harder to test than I expected. Then only recent polling only offered a snapshots, nothing about changes over time. Neither CBS or Harris asked the same questions over time to get an accurate sense of the change over time. A May 2012 Harris poll did find 71% of respondents saying that they were cooking more at home to save money.

And this from Danny Meyer’s summary of last year’s Cooking Matters poll:

Seventy-eight percent of families reported cooking and eating dinner at home five or more nights a week (on average they reported eating takeout or at a restaurant less than once a week.) The typical breakdown of a week included four dinners made from scratch, two made at least in part from packaged foods like boxed macaroni and cheese, or boxed flavored rice, and one fast food dinner. Note this: the lower a family’s income, the more they cooked from scratch.

But between the recent increases in both American’s shopping at farmers markets and the 47 million Americans trying to make due with a diminished SNAP allotment, it’s worth pointing out that scratch made soup is far and away the best way to stretch your food dollar and to put all those random farmer’s market vegetables to good use.

Soup is the grand champion for putting scraps and odd bits to good use. Keep a bucket or a bag in your freezer for collecting onion skins, carrot peels and other vegetable scraps and herb stems. Keep another for bones and meat scraps. Simmer what you’ve saved for a few hours to make a simple, flavorful broth. Simmer what you have on hand in that broth, and ‘Baby, you you’ve got a stew going.’ Potatoes, yams, cabbage, carrots, dried beans, frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes: all dirt cheap, all perfect for soups and stews.

Carl Weathers may have said it best:

When researching how to cook something, I always start at Saveur. Here’s the link to their collection of soups and stews. The recipes may not always be the simplest or the cheapest, but they are always sound and almost always the best, most authentic recipe for a given dish. Remember, you can always simplify and substitute. Especially with soups and stews.

My secret weapon for flavorful, easy cooking on the cheap is something we call The Singularity in my household. It’s essentially caramelized bacon and onion confit. Cheap, easy and intensely flavorful, it improves nearly anything it comes into contact with. The name came about because I had started cooking it without a plan and just kept going and going until we thought we might collapse the universe if we went any further.


1 Lb. Bacon ends and pieces, chopped
6 Medium yellow onions, chopped

Add bacon to crockpot. Allow to render while chopping onions. Add onions with out stirring. After 20 minutes or so stir onions and bacon together. Stir every 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cook for 5 – 10 hours. You will need to stir more frequently after 4 or 5 hours to prevent onions from burning on the side.

“Is America Over Soup?” | Lydia DePillis | The Washington Post | November 20, 2013
Seven in Ten Americans Cooking More Instead of Going Out to Save Money | Harris Interactive | May 16, 2012
Three in Ten Americans Love to Cook, While One in Five Do Not Enjoy It or Don’t Cook | Harris Interactive | July 27, 2010
How And Where America Eats | Sean Alfano | CBS | November 20, 2005
How Americans Eat Today | CBSNews | January 12, 2010
Cut in Food Stamps Forces Hard Choices on Poor
| Kim Severson and Winnie Hu | The New York Times | November, 7 2013
Wait. So People Are Cooking? | Daniel Meyer |The New York Times | February 1, 2013


In thinking about writing a piece on the SNAP battle going on in Congress, I put together some of the most interesting stuff I’ve read this week. I thought I’d share it.

Environmental Working Group

If you live in one of America’s 100 hungriest counties, there is a one-in-three chance that you rely on food stamps.

There is also a pretty good chance that your member of Congress just voted to kick you off food stamps.

And, if you live in Haywood County, Tennessee, or Shannon County, South Dakota, you can be sure your representative not only voted to kick you off food stamps but also voted to give him- or herself more farm subsidies.

Sadly, two-thirds of the 39 legislators who represent America’s 100 hungriest counties voted yesterday to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $40 billion over the next ten years.

What’s more, the same legislators voted last month to increase unlimited subsidies for the largest farm businesses at a time of record farm income.

Frank James | NPR

President George W. Bush isn’t fondly remembered by progressives for much. But anti-hunger advocates credited him during his administration for strongly supporting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the formal name for food stamps) and other policies to help unemployed or low-income workers and their children escape the fear of not knowing where their next meals would come from.

Under Bush, . When I fairly early in the Bush administration, they were already praising Bush for doing more than President Clinton to directly respond to the food insecurity crisis affecting many people.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times

To the extent that there’s any rational argument here at all, I think, it rests on the observation that while SNAP enrollment did fall during the boom of the 1990s, it was flat or rising during the expansion of the middle Bush years. This supposedly shows that the program’s use was being driven by things other than economic factors.

But there’s a crucial point such analyses miss: the “Bush boom,” such as it was, never did trickle down to lower-income Americans — the kind of people who might use food stamps. Here’s a chart comparing income, in 2012 dollars, at the 20th percentile (left axis, inverted) with the percentage of the population on SNAP:

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The Clinton expansion led to a substantial rise in incomes near in the lower part of the distribution, and was accompanied by a sharp fall in SNAP usage. The Bush expansion never did reach many Americans, so it’s no surprise that SNAP use didn’t fall. And then, of course, SNAP use surged in the crisis, which is what is supposed to happen with a safety net program.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times

Spending as a percentage of GDP was no higher in 2007 than it had been in 1990. It then soared when we experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — which is exactly what should have happened. True, spending didn’t fall during the Bush-era economic expansion, but as I’ve already explained, that expansion didn’t trickle down to the people who use food stamps.

You also want to bear in mind that we used to have another major poverty program — AFDC — which was replaced with TANF, which has virtually withered away. In 1990, spending on AFDC was 0.3 percent of GDP; by 2011, it was down to 0.07 percent of GDP. So food stamps were, in effect, picking up some (but only some) of the hole left by the end of traditional welfare.

Jonathan Cohn | The New Republic

The 2002 and 2008 laws re-authorizing food stamps streamlined enrollment, eased the asset test, and made other changes that both boosted benefits and boosted participation. Conservative publications are full of anecdotes that suggest food stamps are fostering dependency and, I’m sure, some beneficiaries live up to stereotypes of lazy people living on the dole. But the percentage of SNAP recipients who are working has actually risen steadily for two decades. It’s up to about half. (See the next graph.) And the program’s design actually arguably encourages work, for reasons the Center on Budget details:

the SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive. For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline by only 24 to 36 cents — much less than in most other programs. Families that receive SNAP thus have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. States further support work through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.

More generally, 95 percent of SNAP participants have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $30,000 a year for a family of four. Forty-four percent have incomes that are less than half the poverty line, or about $12,500 for a family of four. SNAP doesn’t seem plagued by waste or fraud, either. Ninety-two percent of the program’s funding goes to actual benefits. A 2011 report from the General Accounting Office found that program errors, including both people getting too much assistance and people getting too little, affected less than 4 percent of recipients.

See also: