Healthy Eating and SNAP Benefits (Food Stamps)

It’s never anyone’s goal to have to seek help in the form of food stamps (SNAP Benefits) or other financial assistance programs. However, the current economic climate has dictated an increase in recipients. According to the Congressional Budget Office:

“Nearly 45 million recipients, one out of every seven U.S. residents, received SNAP benefits in an average month in fiscal year 2011. Total federal spending for the program was $78 billion.”

Incredible … in my 50 years of living I have never seen such plight in our country. Although, my family has been fortunate enough to rely on our survival instincts, I have friends, family members and associates, who for the first time in their lives, had to rely on monthly SNAP Benefits.  One of the concerns I have heard (while my heart is breaking) is the lack of healthy foods such as farm to table veggies and fruits, grass-fed meats, dairy, farm fresh eggs and cheeses. Organics are also a big problem for SNAP Benefit Recipients. Most folks are forced to accept the mainstay of grocery store conventional produce and industrialized meats, canned and boxed process foods. Taking this one step further, there are families who either, have no transportation or have to rely on public transportation. These folks have even a harder time obtaining healthy foods and must rely on the local convenience store or a low-income neighborhood grocery store who may not stock the freshest produce and meats. Believe me my heart just breaks for these folks. So I thought I would research some healthy alternatives for those who must rely on SNAP Benefits in an effort to help you provide farm to table produce, healthy meats, dairy, farm fresh eggs and dairy.
One of the good things that have come out of this SNAP Benefit crisis is a lot of farmer’s, farmer’s markets, roadside stands and food-coops have started to accept SNAP Benefits and there are quite a few around the country. So like any good researcher on a quest, I started at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found a very useful Agricultural Marketing Service that provides a current listing of farmer’s markets throughout the country. Hereyou can access the National Farmer’s Market Directory Search Engine for all the markets and farms in your area who accept SNAP Benefits. Score!
I was really excited in my find and decided that I would list out farm to table markets for you folks here in Columbia, SC.  What I found was a little unnerving. We live smack in the middle and are surrounded by all sides with farmland and I can count on 1 hand the amount of farmer’s markets and farmer’s that accept SNAP Benefits. 

Here is what I found whose vendors accept SNAP Benefits and are within a 50 mile radius from Columbia:

Open every Saturday in June, July, August, and September from 8 AM – Noon.

 Hub City Farmers’ Market will be open for the season on Saturday, May 12, 2012 from 8:00 a.m. until noon! The season will run until Saturday, November 10.

The Sandhill Farmer’s Market is open each Tuesday afternoon, from 2:00-7:00 pm, starting on May 1, 2012 and continuing through November 20th.
While the above markets do not list organic offerings, they do boast farm to table Certified SC Local vendors. One thing to remember, it is possible for a local farmer not to be a certified USDA Organic farm but still practice sustainable farming and natural fertilization techniques. So it’s important not to deduce these farmers but to ask about their farming practices. You will find that a lot of them are small family farms practicing sustainable methods.
Once you get to the market, in most cases, there are volunteers explaining the process and providing vouchers or tokens for EBT users. The process seems quite simple:
  • You tell the volunteers how much you want to withdraw from your EBT card;
  • The volunteer then swipes your EBT card for that amount and gives you the receipt with your remaining balance, as you would normally get after any purchase;
  • You’re then given Scrip vouchers or tokens totaling up to that amount, for use at participating stands. And you’re off!

Other places where you can use your SNAP Benefits are local grocery stores who have started slowly implementing organics in their offerings. As an example, Walmart offers a couple of organic canned tomato choices, i.e. crushed, diced and purees. When shopping the local stores make sure you uphold the cardinal rule of “READ All Labels” even those that taut “Organics.”  My No. 1 rule of thumb is if it contains more than 5 ingredients (all of which can be pronounced and all of which are healthy ingredients) then it’s good otherwise, stick to searching for the better products.
I also believe that my beloved Earth Fare, in Columbia, takes EBT cards. However, I will confirm this on my Friday Shopping Day and update this post. But, if you can’t wait you can always call them and the good thing is they are on the Bus Line going through downtown Columbia.
If I were using an EBT Card at Earth Fare I would reserve a portion of my purchases there for the bulk isle. Their Bulk Department has a great selection of organic grains, rice, nuts, flours and dried fruits at a very fair price. Then I would shop around my local grocery stores and compare prices on other organic staple goods.
Now that you know WHERE you can use your SNAP Benefits, let’s discuss, for just a minute, how to plan cost efficient weekly meals (I will be doing a separate post on this later but I just want to touch base on a few items).
Okay, just to reiterate, I’m on a grocery budget same as everyone else. We have what I refer to as ‘Cheap Weeks” where some unplanned expense has thrown a torch into my budget and blew it all to … , well you can fill in the blank. This week I had $50.00 for food and households goods to work with. So, my rule of thumb (I’ve really said that too much here huh? LOL)  in planning weekly meals is this:
Proteins to be served as a meal (sorry carnivores you will not like me here):
  • Farm raised meat
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Beans

Using this guide (lol is that better) I have already planned 4 weekly dinners using different protein sources. I do not serve eggs and cheese together, or meat and beans. I use each source as the main character in my dinner plan supplemented with whole grains, such as brown rice, organic potatoes, organic pastas and a choice of a couple veggies, i.e. broccoli and a side salad. This allows you to cut back on the more expensive meat options and incorporate more nutritious proteins,  all of which are very inexpensive alternatives while being able to afford additional veggies and fruits.
Okay, enough on that for now. I’ll give you more on meal planning later.
Well, dear Readers, I hope I have given you a lot to think about and a real good start on using your SNAP Benefits for healthy foods. Next, I’ll discuss on how to stretch your SNAP dollars in efficient, healthy and cost effective meal planning.
Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we had a local Food Coop that had a convenient pick up location and also accepted SNAP Benefits here in Columbia? What are some of the things you would look for in a Food Coop accepting SNAP Benefits?  What would be some of your challenges? Inquiring minds want to know!

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