Though LSA senior Bethany Oudersluys no longer lives with the convenience of University residence hall meals in her off-campus home, she doesn’t have to worry about paying for food. In fact, she doesn’t pay for it at all. By possessing a Michigan Bridge Card, the federal government pays for all her grocery needs, as long as she spends $200 or less on food each month. But Oudersluys hasn’t always had that luxury.

Prior to February of this year Oudersluys made her meals as affordable as possible.

“I know how to make the cheapest macaroni and cheese,” Oudersluys said. “It’s a package of Ramen noodles and a slice of American cheese.”

A part of the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Bridge Card is the most recent and modern form of government-issued food stamps. Food stamps originated with the anti-poverty Food Stamp Act of 1964 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson when crop surpluses coincided with high levels of hunger in the country. The government could give food to the needy and help farmers move their crops. Since then, food stamps have gone through many reforms to become the Bridge Card, but still serve the purpose of providing food to those who may otherwise not be able to get it.

Oudersluys has had a Bridge Card since February and feels she can eat healthier because of it — abandoning the cheap mac-and-cheese option for something more filling. A frequent Whole Foods Market shopper, Oudersluys said she thinks she eats better than many of her friends who buy their own food.

“I feel like I can buy nicer things with it,” Oudersluys said. “I feel like all my friends are like, ‘Yeah I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Ramen all the time,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool, I’m eating fruits and veggies.’ “

Recipients of Bridge Cards have money deposited into their Bridge card accounts by the federal government every month on a scheduled date. Generally, for students like Oudersluys, the amount is $200. However, the amount is dependent on how many people the card is supporting. The card is similar to a debit card except funds can only be used to purchase food — not prepared meals, cigarettes or alcohol. When the card is used at the checkout, if any of the prohibited items are being purchased, the card will recognize those items and not allow the funds to pay for them.

Oudersluys said she heard about the Bridge Card Program through a friend who also had the card.

“It’s extremely helpful because I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to be able to buy groceries or when am I actually going to be able to eat food,” Oudersluys said. “It’s one less thing I don’t have stressing me out anymore.”

In 2009, The New York Times collected information about Bridge Card usage in every county. In Washtenaw County, 9 percent of the population, or 30,224 people, were SNAP recipients compared to neighboring Wayne County, which had 427,676 people, or 22 percent of its population receiving food assistance.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, the state of Michigan received more than $2.8 billion for the SNAP program from the federal government in 2010. In February, about 1.8 million people in Michigan were recipients of the money. About 20,000 of them were students.

Previously, status as a college student deemed many students eligible for the program. The federal government put optional work requirements in the qualifications for the program. However, it is up to the state to enforce the requirements — something Michigan previously chose not to do. But when a state bill revisiting the qualifications passed last spring, the work requirements were added to Michigan’s program qualifications.

Additionally, when state legislators voted to change the qualifications to become a part of the SNAP program in February, the state cracked down on the number of college students able to obtain a Bridge Card. Currently, college students looking to enter the SNAP program must either claim a child as their dependent or work at least 20 hours each week, and they may also not be declared a dependent to their parents.

Though Oudersluys is still be eligible for the program, all students who previously had the card but do not meet the new qualifications received a notice saying that they would be responsible for finding a new way to pay for groceries, starting April 1.

However, even after the policy changes, an LSA senior who wishes to remain anonymous was able to obtain a Bridge Card and said he was not asked whether or not he was a dependent.

“It wasn’t a terribly difficult procedure,” he said. “They didn’t ask about my tax status. They did ask if I had any supplemental income from things like family or friends.”

He said he applied for the Bridge Card because he doesn’t earn enough to pay for all the expenses in college.

“I’m working 17 hours a week and taking 18 credit hours of class, and I’m still not making enough to pay tuition and rent and I needed a little break somewhere,” he said.

To get the card, he had to fill out an application online and then participate in a half hour phone interview. After that, the card was mailed to him with the funds already in his Bridge Card account and ready to be used. The last step in the process will be for him to send photocopies of official documents, including his paycheck, to validate the information he submitted on his application.

“It wasn’t obvious (what the qualifications were),” he said. “The fact that I got the card in the mail surprised me. I was expecting to have to get a phone call at first or something.”

The state’s decision to change the program’s criteria created substantial confusion when announced because it occurred during the same time when Michigan lawmakers developed a plan to balance the state budget. However, limiting the number of students possessing a card played no part in balancing the state budget since SNAP is funded entirely by the federal Department of Human Services. The stricter qualifications simply save money for the federal government.

University alum and State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) opposed the legislation change. He said he believes the boost the cards provided for the state economy should have been further considered before reaching a decision.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea to rush into turning down money from Washington D.C.,” Irwin said. “It doesn’t save the state any money. In fact, more food stamp-eligible individuals bring more money into our state to buy food and support our economy.”

State Rep. Dave Agema (R–Grandville), who voted in support of the qualification change, said in a March 7 Michigan Daily article that the formerly lax SNAP application process made it simple for students who were not a part of the target recipients to get the card.

“It was too easy to get on, and it’s too easy to lie,” Agema said in the article. “That’s why Indiana had almost no students on (food assistance support) and we had (thousands), on Bridge Card because some were coming from wealthy homes. People were getting a Bridge Card that weren’t financially needy and didn’t qualify by other standards.”

Rackham student Sarah Himes was the director of Michigan’s Coordinated Access to Food for the Elderly for the last three years. MiCAFE is a private, non-profit organization that advocates for the elderly in getting food assistance, and Bridge Cards if needed. Himes said the Bridge Card serves as a direct stimulus to the state because it is federal money being spent.

“For every $5 spent in food stamps, $9 is generated in the economy, and that’s because they’re spending it at local stores,” Himes said. “They’re keeping those stores open, and keeping people employed and they’re supporting Michigan farmers.”

Though the change was not part of balancing the state budget, the Michigan Department of Human Services, which oversaw the qualification change for the state, explained in a Feb. 9 press release that it was done to stop college students from abusing the federally funded card.

Himes said while she was working with people seeking the card she didn’t knowingly experience fraud, however she said she never knew if everyone she worked with was 100% truthful.

“I think that the majority of people are really hard-working people who are using this to supplement their budget,” Himes said.

Irwin said qualifications should have only targeted those abusing the card instead of all students.

“It probably would have been a better policy to target the change toward people who were abusing it rather than just say, ‘We’re going to cut all students off regardless of what your financial need is,’ ” he said. “It would be my preference if the policy was tailored towards people’s bona fide needs — not these broad categories that don’t have a great correspondence to the need.”

Irwin also said it is not impossible to still possess or apply for a card as a college student, as Oudersluys exemplifies, so long as the new qualifications are met.

“If you’re a student, and you’re also caring for small children or caring for a disabled family member, then you can still apply for a Bridge card under those circumstances,” Irwin said.

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