President Biden speaks at an event in Chicago May 11. Sarah Boeke/Daily. Buy this photo.

President Joe Biden released a national strategy in September to address issues related to hunger, nutrition and health as part of his goal to end hunger in the United States by 2030.

The Biden administration issued five pillars to target these problems: improve food access, integrate nutrition, empower consumers to make healthy choices, support physical activities and enhance scholarly nutrition and research.

One of the largest programs mentioned in the plan is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), originally known as Food Stamps. Since the Great Depression — when the first Food Stamp Program was introduced in 1939 — the U.S. government has made increasing efforts to combat food insecurity.

The Breakfast Program at St. Andrew’s has been fighting food insecurity in Ann Arbor since 1982 by serving free breakfast daily. Unlike SNAP, no eligibility or paperwork is required at St. Andrew’s. Shannon Floyd, a volunteer at St. Andrew’s, said the early 1980s recession led to the founding of the program.

“Looking back when (Breakfast at St. Andrew’s) started 40 years ago, Michigan was in a recession,” Floyd said. “The auto industry and Detroit had troubles, and a lot of people were laid off. Our unemployment was quite high, so the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at the time wanted to find a way to help. So that’s when the breakfast started. In the beginning it was kind of our proximity to Detroit and Metro Detroit.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress temporarily increased SNAP benefits by 15% in April 2021. The benefits provide eligible low-income families with a transfer card that can be used to purchase eligible food at certain food stores. In October 2021, the Thrifty Food Plan update permanently increased SNAP benefits by an average of $36.30 per person per month. Kate Bauer, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said this increase in benefits made a big difference to families.

“SNAP got easier and you got more money from SNAP over the pandemic,” Bauer said. “The cynical viewpoint is that communities of Color have experienced food insecurity forever. This is not something new. But now during the pandemic, we … all of a sudden saw white middle-class families lining up for food. And again, the cynical side of that is once problems start affecting those in power, then someone does something about it.”

Bauer said she liked the plan’s focus on expanding SNAP eligibility and providing families with more financial support. However, Bauer said there needs to be more focus on making the application process more accessible.

“There is not a person who has struggled to buy food who was not aware of SNAP,” Bauer said. “Knowledge is not the problem … I would say the biggest barrier that we’re hearing from families, though, is how burdensome the actual application is.”

Food Gatherers is a Washtenaw County food bank that provides food to those in need and advocates for policy change at the local, state and national level. Markell Miller, director of community food programs at Food Gatherers, said eligibility of SNAP should take into consideration the local costs of living.

“In some communities, like Washtenaw County, many people struggle to make ends meet but aren’t eligible because of those federal poverty guidelines,” Miller said. “They’re not adjusted for local costs of living. So really making sure that SNAP is available for people when they need it and it provides meaningful support (is what we should focus on).” 

Miller added that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased accommodations for college students, which she said will hopefully continue into the future.

“I know there’s been a lot of flexibility with eligibility during the pandemic, especially around college students, and that’s something we’d like to continue to see,” Miller said. “There’s an awareness that many college students are struggling. There are ways for college students, even prior to the pandemic, to be eligible for SNAP but it’s often very confusing and difficult and so (it’s important to us to) just really making sure that for those who need it (that) it’s easier for them to access those benefits.”

SNAP benefits can be redeemed at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, which has been accepting SNAP/EBT and Double Up Food Bucks since at least 2010, according to a statement from market manager Stefanie Stauffer. In 1994, the Electronic Benefits Transfer system was introduced to reimburse businesses for accepting food stamps. Today, individuals who are eligible for SNAP benefits are provided EBT cards that function like debit cards.

Stauffer said so far in 2022, customers have redeemed $37,516 in SNAP benefits at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and $39,013 in Double Up Food Bucks.

“How it works is that customers swipe their Bridge Card at the market office to purchase market EBT tokens that they can use to spend on food items at the market,” Stauffer wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily. “At the end of the day, vendors turn in their tokens to market staff and we send that information over to the city finance department to issue payment to the vendors. The city of Ann Arbor reconciles the funding with the state of Michigan and the federal government, the administrators of the program.”

Stauffer added that the Farmers Market hopes community members will have more purchasing power to find locally-produced food through the SNAP program, as well as support their own health and wellness. 

“In addition to increasing the benefits we already see, increasing awareness, eligibility and incentives will also decrease the stigma many associate with food assistance benefits,” Stauffer wrote. “As a result, more people will have access to fresh, locally produced food, market vendors will sell more of their produce and products, and the community as a whole will be more food secure.”

In an email to The Daily, Public Health junior Aarushi Ganguly, CSG vice chair and finance and fundraising manager at U-M Sustainable Food Program, said she believes the Biden administration strategy has the potential to address larger issues.

“(Biden’s plan) is wide, encompassing and acknowledges the social issues like transportation and housing access that relate to hunger, nutrition and health,” Ganguly wrote. “I certainly think it’s possible for this to help create a healthier population, but policies must work to remove corporate food interests that have only served to further inequities.”

Bauer explained that what is needed to combat food insecurity is often beyond the federal government’s control because of the complexity of hunger mitigation strategies.

“I think some of these things are very narrow, and (that’s) just because that’s what’s within the federal government’s control,” Bauer said. “There’s a lot to be done at the state level that obviously couldn’t go in (Biden’s plan) and I think for Michigan specifically, where there’s a lot of distrust of the government, like in Detroit and in Flint, and I think it’s gonna take a lot of on the ground work to actually make a big difference.”

Bauer said she maintains hope that the plan will make an impact, even if not all of the goals are met.

“There’s not the resources or public will or congressional will to do all of these (goals),” Bauer said. “Maybe 10%, maybe 20% of things will end up happening. But if they are the right, the most impactful 10 or 20% of things, like giving families money, then it will make a difference.”

Floyd said that she doesn’t expect much to change right now, emphasizing the need for local, state and national support to realistically achieve a world without hunger.

“It’s still business as usual and I think it’ll continue as long as we have people show up,” Floyd said. “We do hope eventually we’ll live in a world where (St. Andrew’s) programs aren’t needed, but for as long as they are we’ll be here. It requires all of us as a community, as a nation, stepping in to fill the void for food insecurity in whatever small ways we can.”

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