by Kemi Bello June 9, 2015


According to the USDA, food insecurity occurs when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 15.8 million children. Food insecurity exists in every county in America, and disproportionately affects single parent households, Black households, and Latino* households at higher rates.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, is a federal anti-hunger program meant to address food insecurity in American households. Colloquially referred to as food stamps, SNAP provides benefits (at an average of $125 a month) to low-income households, the elderly and people with disabilities through a state-administered application process.

In 2014, Congress passed a farm bill that included $9 billion in cuts to the SNAP program over the next 5 years. In addition, SNAP is also losing $11 billion in stimulus funds over the next 3 years, making many food pantries, community-based organizations, and most importantly, SNAP recipients nervous of an uncertain future looming with the threat of further food insecurity.

On Friday, May 29, 2015, the Haas Institute and the Berkeley Food Institute convened an all-day, interdisciplinary workshop to discuss the future of the SNAP program. The workshop brought together researchers and students, federal & state agency representatives, program administrators, and community representatives to share research findings, report challenges, and share policy and education recommendations for the program moving forward.

Key Highlights & Challenges

Hilary Hoynes of the Haas Institute opened the discussion and set the frame by explaining “SNAP is the fundamental safety net in the U.S. right now.” The program’s need-based and virtually universal eligibility requirements allow it to play an automatic income stabilizer role during a time when wages for low-skilled workers fail to keep up with inflation.

The SNAP program has two main goals: 1) to reduce food insecurity & hunger, and 2) to establish & maintain adequate nutrition levels. So then “is SNAP working?” asked Professor Barbara Laraia. Yes! SNAP has been very successful: in 2012 alone, the program lifted 5 million Americans, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty. Participation in the program for a period of 6 months has shown to decrease food insecurity by up to 10%, and every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.80 in economic activity.

The conversation moved to SNAP education and the myriad ways agencies and community organizations are raising community awareness about its benefits. The Oregon Food Bank uses FEAST, a “a community organizing process that allows participants to engage in an informed and facilitated discussion about food, education and agriculture in their community.” Groceryships, a 6-month scholarship program, provides families with income supplementation, a comprehensive nutrition education, and community support spaces. Other participants mentioned the promotora model as a successful model for educational outreach to Latino communities.

As Andy Riesenberg of the USDA shared ways that SNAP can improve nutrition and health, another conversation thread of interest was the idea of a SNAP-to-farm connection. Representatives from the Ecology Center, based in Berkeley, highlighted the fact that many workers in the farm economy themselves are SNAP-eligible. Only 0.038% of SNAP dollars in California are used at farmers markets. As more farmers markets begin to accept SNAP benefits, there lies tremendous potential for the use of incentives to encourage SNAP participants to simultaneously consume fresh produce and support their local farm economy. This was a key highlight of the workshop—a potential future where the same SNAP dollar can be put to use towards multiple aims, increasing social utility across the board for families and farmers alike.

As so many different voices and perspectives contributed to ripe discussion on the challenges and triumphs of the SNAP program, I couldn’t help but notice a crucial missing perspective: that of self-identified SNAP recipients [full disclosure, this was an invitation-only event]. I found it ironic to be discussing the future of the SNAP program without inviting and including the program’s greatest experts, those who have first-hand, lived experience within a food insecure household, who have received SNAP benefits, and who can directly speak to the program’s impact, challenges, and recommendations for improvement.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Alleviate Food Insecurity

This lack of visibility and voice of SNAP participants in praxis spaces such as this conference begs revisiting the question of the role of allyship at its core. There’s been a recent rise of  “celebrity SNAP challenges,” where high-profile individuals like Gwenyth Paltrow take a 1-week challenge using a food budget representative of average SNAP benefits, around $29-$32 a week. While I personally do not believe one can transfer the experience of hunger—as if it were just a matter of putting on and shrugging off a coat—this Mother Jones’ article argues that the role of celebrities is to spread awareness on the issue of food insecurity, awareness that can perhaps manifest to advocacy or charitable giving. In a similar vein, perhaps the role of academics and policymakers is to leverage their access to experimental spaces and decision-making tables in support and inclusion of, rather than on behalf of, those who experience food insecurity.

I firmly believe the best approach to addressing systemic social issues is one that centers, empowers and sources the perspectives and lived experience from those who are directly affected. This includes an interdisciplinary approach that address systemic causes in addition to immediate solutions; the most effective conversations around alleviating food insecurity must also be couched in a context of workers’ rights, environmental justice, access inequity across racial and class lines. Both the Haas Institute and the Berkeley Food Institute exemplify these values in their approach to transformative changes—in the food system, towards an understanding of othering and belonging, and ultimately, towards a vision for a fair and inclusive society.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.