Marisol is stretched thin. As a single mother to two children, she does her best to make ends meet in her hometown of Taos. Job opportunities are scarce, so Marisol patches together two part-time, minimum-wage jobs to support her family. Marisol’s income, at $1,300 per month, falls well below the federal poverty level.
The shifts offered to her vary significantly, often falling outside the school day, and she has no benefits or sick leave. When the shifts Marisol is offered fall outside the traditional school day and she has to pay for child care or a baby sitter, finances get even tighter.
Marisol qualifies for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, which helps her family get by. Some months she can piece together her income and her SNAP benefit to make sure her family is fed. When she doesn’t get enough hours at work, Marisol must make difficult choices. The utility bill doesn’t get paid so her children can eat. When utilities are about to be cut off, she turns to her local food pantry, Shared Table, which gets food from The Food Depot in Santa Fe, to help fill the gap. SNAP benefits keep the family afloat for about two weeks each month, which makes a difference, but it isn’t enough.
This story shows that the partnership between the SNAP program and local food pantries is crucially important for keeping food on the table.
The SNAP program is the bedrock program for hunger relief in New Mexico. Last year, SNAP reached 461,000 New Mexico residents, or 1 in 5 of our population, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Almost all of these SNAP recipients live below the federal poverty line (86 percent), and most are in families with children (73 percent).
Working is an important part of the SNAP program. Current SNAP requirements stipulate that recipients must work. However, SNAP recipients typically work in jobs with low wages, inconsistent schedules and no benefits — all of which contribute to high turnover and spells of unemployment. SNAP helps low-wage workers such as these add to their income by supplying food. The Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, noted that SNAP lifted 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015.
SNAP benefits, though important, are not adequate for many of these low-income families. In 2018, SNAP supplied only an average of $127 per person per month, or about $1.41 for each meal. This does not adequately fill a family’s need for food — in fact, it falls nearly a dollar short of the average cost of a low-income meal ($2.36/meal, according to FRAC). Not surprisingly, SNAP benefits — which come at the beginning of the month — do not last the whole month.
Families begin running out of funds for food about 10 days before the end of the month. This leaves families in a “hunger gap” before the next SNAP benefit arrives. That is the time The Food Depot and other food pantries see an uptick in families coming in for food to see them through the month.
Thus, both the federal SNAP program and local food pantries are important for relieving hunger for New Mexicans. The Farm Bill, which includes SNAP, is up for renewal — a bill passed the House last week, with the Senate still to weigh in.
The SNAP budget is under threat, and burdensome new work requirements are being considered. If the budget were to be cut, families would run out of food earlier in the month, or fewer families would be on the program. Food pantries would not be able to fill these gaps. That means that hunger would be even more acute here in New Mexico. We urge you to tell your congressional representatives to support a strong, well-funded SNAP, free of additional work requirements. We also urge you to support the local food pantries through donations and/or volunteering.
Gerry Fairbrother, Ph.D., is president of Fairbrother Policy Studies and a member of RESULTS, an anti-poverty advocacy group. Sherry Hooper is the executive director of The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank.