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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

Filtering by Category: SNAP

The Farm Bill, SNAP, and You



As Congress weighs in on the Farm Bill-  the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government passed every 5 years- the future of SNAP (and SNAP education) is at stake.

What is SNAP?

SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities. SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net.  The Food and Nutrition Service works with State agencies, nutrition educators, and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure that those eligible for nutrition assistance can make informed decisions about applying for the program and can access benefits. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service also works with State partners and the retail community to improve program administration and ensure program the integrity.

What is SNAP education?

The goal of SNAP-Ed is to improve the likelihood that persons eligible for SNAP will make healthy choices within a limited budget and choose active lifestyles consistent with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate.  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-296), section 241, established SNAP-Ed as the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program. The Act calls for SNAP-Ed to include an emphasis on obesity prevention in addition to nutrition education.  Cooking Matters is a SNAP-Ed funded program.

It seems like everybody has their own two cents about SNAP (formerly food stamps) but we like to let the facts speak for themselves.

SNAP: Facts, Myths, and Realities

             SNAP is targeted at the most vulnerable.

  • 76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.[i]
  • Recent studies show that 49% of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households. In total, 76% of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 16% go to households with disabled persons, and 9% go to households with senior citizens.
  • SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline, but the majority of households have income well below the maximum: 83% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty guideline ($19,530 for a family of 3 in 2013), and these households receive about 91% of all benefits. 61% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 75% of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of 3 in 2013).
  • The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744

SNAP is responsive to changes in need, providing needed food assistance as families fall into economic hardship and then transitioning away as their financial situation stabilizes.

  • SNAP participation historically follows unemployment with a slight lag. SNAP participation grew during the recession, responding quickly and effectively to increased need. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94% from 2007 to 2011, SNAP responded with a 70% increase in participation over the same period. 
  • As the economy recovers and people go back to work, SNAP participation and program costs, too, can be expected to decline.

SNAP has a strong record of program integrity.

  • SNAP error rates declined by 57% since FY2000, from 8.91% in FY2000 to a record low of 3.80% in FY2011. The accuracy rate of 96.2% (FY2011) is an all-time program high and is considerably higher than other major benefit programs, for example Medicare fee-for-service (91.5%) or Medicare Advantage Part C (88.6%).
  • Two-thirds of all SNAP payment errors are a result of caseworker error. Nearly one-fifth are underpayments, which occur when eligible participants receive less in benefits than they are eligible to receive.
  • The national rate of food stamp trafficking declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1.0 cent per dollar during the years 2006 to 2008.

The need for food assistance is already greater than SNAP can fill.

  • SNAP benefits don’t last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year.
  • The average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $133.85, or less than $1.50 per person, per meal.
  • Only 55% of food insecure individuals are income-eligible for SNAP


What Congress is Proposing:

House Ag Committee cuts = Almost $21 billion over 10 years.

These cuts:

  • Limit state SNAP coordination with LIHEAP (heat and eat) payments;
    • 850,000 households, which include 1.7 million people, primarily in 15 states, could lose $90 in SNAP per month;
  • Restrict the state Categorical Eligibility option to change asset and gross income tests ($11.6 billion cut);
    • 1.8 million individuals per year could lose SNAP benefits (CBO);
    • 210,000 low-income children could lose free school meal access.
    • Eliminate state bonuses for effective SNAP operation ($480 million cut).
  • Eliminate state bonuses for effective SNAP operation ($480 million cut).

Senate cut = $4.1 billion over 10 years.

The cut:  Limits state SNAP coordination with LIHEAP (heat and eat) payments.


Considering the fact that 49 million Americans are food insecure-- 16 million of which are children-- the Farm Bill and its impact on SNAP has very real and serious consequences.

Even if politics aren't your thing, the Farm Bill affects ALL Americans.  We all gotta eat, right?

Thoughts on doing the Food Stamp Challenge

dorothy hernandez

In the documentary “Food Stamped,” nutrition educator Shira Potash goes grocery shopping with a man who is on food assistance. He prides himself on being a budget shopper but the foods he chose during this particular trip were far from nutritious: ramen noodles, pork and beans and other processed foods that were very cheap but not very nutrient-dense. The Food Stamp Challenge is typically a weeklong undertaking that puts people in the shoes of those who rely on SNAP funds. Over the past couple years, food stamp use has increased

After doing the Food Stamp Challenge for a few days, I could see why people on a fixed budget go for foods such as the ones the man was putting in his cart: they are cheap and they are quick, and when you’re juggling work (sometimes two jobs) with family, making meals from scratch is not a priority. The week I did the challenge was particularly tough on me as I had evening classes on three nights and then worked late the other two at my other job; juggling two jobs is something I only do once in a while but for low-income families that’s the reality if they want to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table. I could see why many participants at the beginning of CM classes say that they don't have time to cook; neither did I.

I also found myself grabbing some candy that was set out at my other job for Halloween; I almost never go for sweets. If I had been eating like I normally do, I would’ve easily passed them by because I would not crave them. But it was toward the end of the challenge when my food was running a bit low so I only had a sandwich and apple for lunch. When I saw the candy I didn’t hesitate to grab a handful of empty calories.

I have to admit that I came up short. I'm pretty sure I had a calorie deficit on some of the days (except for the candy binge). I ended up paying for dinner one night because I felt bad making my friend pay and then once I got to Chicago, where I was visiting my family over the weekend, my challenge ended.

But for five days I stuck to it as much as I could. Other than the food we made in our classes, dinner on Wednesday at a friend’s and two lunches that other friends bought for me I lived off the food I bought on Sunday.

There was a part in “Food Stamped” when the filmmakers, Shira and her husband, in the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy and they decide to forgo coffee for a week because it wasn’t in the budget. Shira's husband says that things that they thought of as staples were now luxuries. There’s also a part where they go dumpster diving for bread and making sure to find as many free samples as possible. One of the free samples they snagged was cheese, which they rationed for a special treat at the end of the week.

Their ground rules were:

    Whole grains, protein, vegetables and fruits at every meal
    To buy as many organic foods as possible and very little processed food
    To submit their menu for a nutrition evaluation

I was impressed by their ambitions to buy organic as possible because I know that wasn’t a consideration for me because here, you pay a premium for organic. I was trying to stay within budget. And they wanted to have protein at every single meal yet the only animal products that I could see that they bought were eggs and a can of tuna. Everything else was beans and peanut butter. From what I saw in the movie, it looked like they were sticking to their menus but turned into the Bickersons toward the end of the week, edgy because of the stresses of the challenge, no doubt. They did manage to save some of their best ingredients for last, capping off their week with a dinner of salad and frittata for their friends.

In comparison, I did not do as well as they did. I think it is doable to live off $31.50 a week and have nutritious meals but it's tough. You need to:

    You plan every meal and snack and make a list; there is no way you can wing it at the store and stay within your budget.
    You opt for non-animal, economical sources of protein; during my week I got enough turkey for five sandwiches, 3 chicken breasts and a dozen eggs. I could’ve gotten more fruits and vegetables had I just gotten beans and peanut butter for my sandwiches.
    Buy seasonal produce (especially important in ensuring you eat enough fruits, I only had four apples and 2 bananas so that came out to only one serving of fruit a day and it wasn’t even enough for the week)

Even though it wasn’t varied or met the recommended amounts for optimal nutrition, I felt like I had just barely enough food. But what about families of four? The rice and beans I made wouldn’t last a family a whole week, maybe 2 days.

Did you do the challenge? What were your thoughts? Share them with us!

Food Stamp Challenge: Living on $31.50 a week

dorothy hernandez

About a month ago during one of our weekly meetings, our fearless leader Ra suggested that our team take the Food Stamp Challenge, a national call to action to live off the food stamp allotment ($31.50) for one week. I was personally interested in taking it because I wanted to get a better understanding of where our participants are coming from.

Here are the guidelines (modified from the Fighting Poverty with Faith rules): 1. Keep your total food and beverage purchases under $31.50 for the week. 2. Include fast food and other restaurant meals and beverages in the total cost. 3. You may use pantry items you have at home like spices, but avoid staples like canned tomatoes, which should be included in purchases. 4. You may include free meals to you. 5. You can start and end anytime, and if you don’t make it, that is ok. You will know what it is like to live on a food stamp budget.

Most of us decided to start Monday, which coincided with Food Day, a grassroots effort to push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.

When prepping for my week of eating on a food stamp budget, I took a long look at my habits and likes. I know I drink way too much coffee and don’t pay enough attention to what I buy. I try to make lists that I inevitably forget at home and even though I try to plan my meals I end up eating out a lot more than I should. I love to go out for lunch and dinner with friends and family … both of which are luxuries that one on a food stamp budget can’t afford.

I sat down to write a list and after I thought I had a pretty good variety of food, I set off for Kroger Sunday to buy food for my week of eating on a food stamp diet.

At Kroger, I bought:

1 pound of yellow onions, $.81 1 head of garlic, $.75 4 jalapeno peppers, $.50 1 pound of Honeycrisp apples, $1.99 1 bag of brown rice, $.82 2 cans of black beans, $1.72 1 green pepper, $.52 Stonyfield yogurt on sale 4 for $3 with card Loaf of whole grain bread, $1 Package of corn tortillas, $2.29 1 can of diced tomatoes, $1.39 1 container of romaine lettuce, $1.59 2 bananas, $.31 Collards, $1.29 Kroger total: $17.98

Then I went to Meijer and bought:

¼ pound of deli turkey, $1.08 ($3.99/lb) Dozen eggs, $1.79 Shredded cheese $2 Granola, $2.79 Package of chicken breasts, $4.68 ($2.49/lb) Meijer total: $12.34

Total between both stores: $30.32

Yikes! Now I only have $1.18 for the rest of the week. Not much of a cushion. I figured I could use that to get more apples or bananas when my fruit runs out.

When I get home I realized I probably should’ve gotten a tub of yogurt instead of the individual cups of Stonyfield, which is my favorite but I got distracted by the pretty sign that said it was on sale. Despite the gimmick, it was still expensive. I also should’ve gotten a whole chicken instead of the chicken breasts. In terms of fruits and vegetables, I feel like I am woefully lacking in this department. I kicked myself later when I saw apples were $.59/pound at Meijer but I rationalized it by saying I only like Honeycrisp so they wouldn’t have gotten eaten anyway. I also don't have enough dairy ... definitely not enough for 3 cups a day.

While planning my meals, I figured meat and seafood would be out of the question since these are usually the budget busters. So I figure I could get some chicken and plan on making two things to last me the week. Luckily for me I like leftovers. I decide to make a huge pot of black beans that I can use in a variety of meals from my morning eggs to rice and beans at dinner. I also poach the chicken breasts and save the liquid to use like broth (I added some onions and garlic while cooking) and then I can shred up the chicken to add to the rice or to salad. Using the poaching liquid, I also made a batch of tortilla soup. Finally I cooked two cups of brown rice.

Also, I decide that this is the week that I’m going to attempt to forgo coffee because at $9.99/bag for my favorite coffee, that is a third of my budget. Even Folgers or Maxwell House coffee would be $4-5, which is not budget-friendly. For those of you who know me, no, I haven’t been abducted by aliens. Going from at least 6 cups to zero is going to be rough. But I figure I have to cut down anyway so might as well start now. (I apologize in advance to my friends and co-workers for my bad behavior.) I have a coupon for a free coffee at Starbucks that I will be cashing in when I’m going through withdrawal, probably this afternoon before my teen class.

I worked a long day Monday (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. between two jobs) so this required planning the night before. Usually when I’m doing a long day like this I get takeout, which can run up to $10.

Here’s how Day 1 went:

Breakfast 2 scrambled eggs wrapped in 2 tortillas with some beans

Lunch Food Day lunch, which we ordered from our volunteer chef Alison at the soup kitchen. We brought healthy lunches for our fellow Gleaners at our different distribution sites. Ra said as part of our challenge we could include free food, so here’s today’s freebie. I picked the turkey sandwich and there was also a small cup of potato salad, an orange and granola bar. I ate the sandwich and potato salad and saved the granola bar and orange for a snack later.

Mid-afternoon snack at about 4 p.m. Now I'm at my second job. At this point I’m getting really hungry (not to mention sleepy as this would’ve been coffee time) so I scarf the granola bar and an apple that I packed in my bag for dinner (I’m saving the orange for another time since eating an orange at a keyboard is not an easy feat). And then about an hour or so later I’m hungry again! I think it’s all in my head. But it is worth noting that I can’t just dig into my bag and pull out a snack or hit the vending machine. I drink more water.

Dinner Rice and beans with some cheese ... really craving something else, like veggies for a more well-rounded meal 1 orange

This is more or less what I’m going to eat every day; the only other variations would be to have granola and yogurt instead of the eggs in the morning or have a salad with chicken instead of a turkey sandwich for lunch. The only other thing I’m going to cook is the collards and I’ll probably do that on Wednesday so I can eat something new other than rice and beans.

What do you think of the food I got? If you’re doing the Food Stamp challenge, share your thoughts with us this week!

Changing Eating Habits


There has been a lot of talk recently about how to change the unhealthy eating habits and food choices that many Americans make. First Lady Michelle Obama is challenging schools around the United States to adopt new standards for the quality of food served, participation in meal programs, physical activity and nutrition education. Another popular news story is New York’s move to ban soda and sugary drinks from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Federal food stamp program. Proponents of the soda ban often claim that the existing SNAP ban on alcohol and tobacco could naturally extend to a ban on harmful foods as well, such as soda and sugary drinks. However, unlike soda and sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco are already heavily taxed and vendors need specific licenses to distribute them. Proponents also stress that soda hurts not only the drinker with negative long-term health effects, but the tax payer with more tax dollars going towards public health insurance costs.

Although SNAP benefits are currently largely unrestricted, The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits are restricted heavily. A brochure with of the allowed foods for WIC can be found here. It is important to point out that there are a few differences in the two programs. The federal government markets WIC benefits as a diet supplement while SNAP benefits are allotted to provide for individual’s entire diets. Also, SNAP is an entitlement program while WIC is funded through a Federal grant program. However, it is interesting that one Federal food assistance program restricts choices heavily while one hardly restricts choice at all.

Many people fear that banning soda and other sugary drinks as SNAP eligible foods is an unsuccessful tactic in promoting healthy eating habits. For example, families that receive SNAP benefits often do not worry about purchasing nutritious groceries, but about stretching their food dollars to get as many calories as possible. Also, soda is typically a cheap alternative to other, healthier beverages (besides water). Banning certain, unhealthy foods under SNAP benefits may confuse recipients and the recipients may not even have access to “approved” healthy foods. Luckily, alternatives to an outright ban do exist. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program is a good example of a different approach to getting Americans to make healthier food choices. Education programs like Cooking MattersTM help change purchasing and eating habits too.

The New York Times Opinion section had a really amazing article in it last week. The article talked about redesigning the lunch line so that children naturally made healthier lunch choices. The article is interactive and users can view all of the changes by hovering the mouse over orange spots in the diagram. Check it out here: