Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Putting SNAP on the Map: When it comes to eating, place matters.

It’s no secret that where you live affects how you live—everything from the length of your morning commute, to the quality of your neighborhood park, to whether your child’s teacher writes with broken chalk or SMART Board™ technology.

And the same is true for food. You likely know from shopping and eating and penny pinching that where you live affects how much your groceries cost. As a Texas native recently transplanted to D.C., I have endured the wide-eyed, light-wallet symptoms of supermarket sticker shock. The same items—bread, milk, eggs, and other staples—I enjoyed in my home state cost far more in D.C. stores. Though the mechanisms that drive such food price variation across regions, states, and neighborhoods are many and entangled, the effects on consumer buying power are substantial: the more food costs, the less we can afford.

When I decided to participate in the Arizona SNAP Experience from afar, my Texas-to-D.C. sticker shock got me thinking: How does food price variation affect buying power for people who rely on SNAP to cover their grocery bills? The answer was not difficult to uncover. The USDA publishes a table on the average per capita SNAP benefit for every state, and Feeding America, the nation’s largest emergency food provider, recently released Map the Meal Gap, an interactive map with food insecurity and food price data for a variety of useful geographies.

Using two simple formulas, I calculated the average weekly SNAP benefit per capita in each state in the U.S. and the average cost of food for an individual for one week in each state, assuming s/he consumes three meals per day. By dividing the average SNAP benefit for a week by the average cost of food for a week and multiplying the quotient by 100, I found the percent of average food costs covered by SNAP for each state in the nation.

And I couldn’t believe what I found. First, SNAP covers far less of an average shopper’s food budget than I was expecting. For example, SNAP covers just 44% of the average weekly food cost for a shopper in D.C. That's just 9 of the 21 meals you will eat in a week. Although the USDA admits that SNAP is “supplemental” and therefore not meant to cover an individual’s entire food budget, 44% is simply insufficient, especially since many families cannot afford to spend money out-of-pocket. Second, I was surprised to find that there is incredibly high variation across states. In the best case, SNAP would cover 68% of your food (Ohio); in the worst case, just 44% (Vermont and D.C.). The national average is 58%. In Arizona, the number is 59%.

Check out the interactive map for information on other states. After the map opens, use the slider at the right to zoom out, place your cursor over the state of interest, and the relevant percentage will appear in the map legend.

The biggest problem resulting from such variation is obvious: if your food costs are high and your state’s SNAP benefit does not rise to meet them, you must leave some items on the shelf or reach deep in your pockets to pay for food not covered by your benefit. This is a problem for low-income people, who are often stretching their budgets to cover things like rent/mortgage, child care, health care, and utilities. I would hypothesize (though I haven’t formally researched these claims) that other phenomena may be related to geographic variation in what SNAP buys you, such as the following:

• Geographic variation in which foods (type and quality) families choose to purchase with their SNAP benefits.

• Geographic variation in food insecurity rates. (SNAP provides a different level of in-kind benefit to families depending on where they live!)

• Geographic variation in health outcomes associated with food insecurity and/or consumption of unhealthy foods.

• Geographic variation in SNAP participation rates. (One might ask him/herself: Why participate if SNAP only covers a small portion of my bill?)

These questions require formal analysis, but it’s easy to see how a failure in the SNAP “system” to account for geographic variation in food prices could result in important differences in health and other measures of well-being based solely (and unjustly) on where people have chosen to lay down roots.

Of course, food price variation is local. Examining food prices in your state is better than looking at food prices nationally, but using more localized estimates is even better. For example, within New York State, the average cost per meal in New York County (Manhattan) is $3.72, whereas the average cost per meal in Chautauqua County (rural NY county near the PA border) is $2.27.

Use the three simple steps below to calculate what percent of an average food budget in YOUR county or congressional district is covered by SNAP. Compute the number for your community, reflect on your week participating in the SNAP Experience (or the blog posts describing the experience), and write your state and federal politicians about it! I would bet your whole food budget and mine that your elected officials don’t know just how little SNAP is doing for your most vulnerable neighbors.

Easy as 1, 2, 3: Calculate “Real” SNAP Benefits on Your Own

1. Visit Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap site at http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx. Locate your county or congressional district of interest and trace your cursor over the area until it changes color (to orange). Note the average cost per meal in the right hand corner of the data that appears. Multiply the average cost per meal x 21. This is the average cost of food for a week in the geographic area you’ve chosen.

2. View the USDA chart of average SNAP benefits per person for FY 2010 at http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/18SNAPavg$PP.htm. Find your state's average monthly SNAP benefit per person and insert it into the following formula: Monthly benefit x 12 / 365 x 7. This is the average SNAP benefit per person for one week in your state.

3. Divide findings from STEP 2 by findings from STEP 1. Multiply the result by 100 to get the percent of an average weekly food budget covered by SNAP benefits in the geographic area you’ve chosen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A new leaf?

Life is very good right now. I've started my new job, and I'm very excited to be assisting four accomplished journalists with their book projects. I'll be working on a number of topics, including immigration, education, political philosophy, and economic policy. I've already had opportunities to be involved in the design and planning of new projects as the organization looks to bring on a "food fellow" who will write on agroecology--the urgent need to feed the growing masses and preserve the shrinking planet at the same time. I've also made good on at least one resolution from a previous post: I joined a gym near my office, where I plan to do all manner of de-stressing, muscle-building, dessert-ameliorating, sweat-inducing exercises. And I'm currently thinking I'll do all of that in the morning before work. We'll see how it goes.

In other news, I recently returned from yet another round of traveling. My first "trip" was local, but long overdue. I hiked across D.C. on Upshur to the end of a quiet residential street and into Rock Creek Park. I had a nice time convening with nature and temporarily escaping the city. The following week I went to Lake Tahoe to see my grandparents and lots of loved ones I've not had the opportunity to bug in a long time. (Incidentally, in so doing I avoided both an earthquake and a hurricane back in D.C.) And finally, I went with Jimmy and friends to New York City for his roommate's wedding. Though the travel logistics got tricky and stressful at times, the wedding was beautiful, the food was bountiful, and Jimmy and I had a great time on the dance floor. See a few choice photos in the previous post.

This coming week I'm looking forward to meeting more of the journalists and academics I'll be rubbing elbows with at my new job. God- and coffee-willing I'll also make a few trips to the gym I paid so much for. I'll also spend the tail end of the weekend planning for next week's food stamp challenge, hosted by my previous employer, Arizona Community Action Association. Check out this year's blog or the online chronicle of last year's efforts,"Challenging Preceptions". I'll blog at least once here and on ACAA's blog about the experience of eating on the budget afforded a low-income household of one by SNAP, formerly called The Food Stamp Program.

Being crunchy