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Cuts in food stamps mean hard choices for families
For most families, $36 doesn’t seem like a lot of dough.
For Kasi Skaarer and her family, it sometimes means the difference between having meat or cereal for dinner.
Skaarer’s family is one of hundreds of families in Kitsap County who rely on food stamps to be able to eat.
A mother of two young children, with a working husband, she knows she has only a guaranteed $668 each month with which to buy groceries. And as of Nov. 1, that amount will be reduced to $632, due to federal budget cuts.
“There are days when I know I don’t have anything nutritious to feed my kids,” she said. “When it gets down to the end of the month, often times there’s no more meat in the house. So we have cereal for dinner.”
The U.S. House voted to cut $39 billion from federal food assistance programs during the next decade, thus resulting in cuts to all participants in the program, including the 1.11 million in Washington state who get help. In Kitsap County alone, in 2012, 44,523 residents received food assistance with an average of $1,165 per participant annually. State officials said last month, 33,300 residents of Kitsap County received food assistance funds.
In their nine years together, Kasi and her husband, Tom, have moved several times for his work. He’s currently working construction for a company based in Belfair and his hours vary depending on how much work there is. He’s been a Teamster for years and has a college degree. He worked more than a dozen years as a garbage man. He also went back to school to get his CDL so he could drive semi-trailer trucks, when the housing market slowed due to the bad economy in 2007 and there were no construction jobs. He also has training in welding and metal fabrication, but has found it hard to get work in those trades.
Kasi also recently lost her job after working two and a half years for an agency that helps parents navigate state programs for children with special needs. She went back to school, too, to earn an associate’s degrees in counseling, but had to leave school when the family moved for her husband’s job.
Their children, Aden, 6, and Adison, 5, make up their family of four, and because their annual household income is less than $28,665, they qualify for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called SNAP. The program, which issues the family $622 a month, is the modern-day version of food stamps.
With the allotment that the family gets, Skaarer knows that she has about $38 (less than $1.80 a meal) per person per week to work with. When her husband has work, they have a little bit more, but they pay $900 in rent (with Section 8 help) and have utilities to pay, along with gasoline in the car to get her husband back and forth to work, take her son to school and get to the grocery store.
They also have student loan payments of $250 a month for both of their time in community college.
They don’t receive any other assistance, although her children are on a state-funded health insurance program. Her husband doesn’t qualify for unemployment because he hasn’t had full time steady work recently. And neither of them have health insurance, although she said she’s looking into the new programs being offered under the Affordable Care Act.
Most months, her SNAP card (which looks like a plastic debit card) gets loaded with her $622 on the 5th day of the month. By then the pantry and the refrigerator are empty, so she heads out shopping.
“I usually try to buy for two weeks and spend about $300,” she said. “And I don’t buy anything if it’s not on sale.”
She likes to shop close to home to save on gasoline, but she watches the ads and will go a couple of places if it makes sense.
“I’m probably one of few people who know that usually, bread is $1.39 at Walmart, but I can get it for a $1 at QFC,” she said. “And most of the time I can get in on a good buy-one-get-one-free roast special, if I go to the store before they are all sold out.”
On her list every two weeks are milk, bread, cheese, eggs and cereal. She will only buy meat if it’s on sale and buys whatever meat is on sale, be it beef roast, pork roast, or chicken.
The kids like hot dogs and there’s always mac’n’cheese. She stocks up on cans of tuna and canned soup, too, which helps them make it through the month.
Just recently she was able to get her son enrolled in the school lunch program, so he gets both breakfast and lunch at school for free, because their family income is below the poverty level.
“There have been times when I’ve bought 20 boxes of cereal because cereal was on sale for $1 a box,” she said. “I know how to shop smart and I can cook, but I know that my kids aren’t getting the fresh fruit and vegetables that they should because they are just too expensive.”
Recently, she’s thought about going to a local food bank, so she can get fruit and vegetables, but she’s hesitant to do that.
“I know there are people who need help more than we do,” she said. “So I’ve held off on doing that. But it’s an option.”
Last week, two days before her October food money was posted to her card, she served her children chili dogs for dinner.
“That was the last meat in the house,” she said. “Tonight, it’s tuna and mac’n’cheese. That’s all there is.”
There probably would have been a few dollars left on her card at the end of the month, but she chose to buy her son a birthday cake earlier in September.
“I could have probably made one cheaper,” she said. “But every time we’re at the store he goes back to the bakery and talks about which cake he’s going to get when it’s his birthday. He wanted a fancy one and I just couldn’t let him down.”
It wasn’t easy for her, though, because she said she could feel the stares when she paid for it with her SNAP card.
“People do make judgments,” she said. “I know they do. Even the bagger was staring at me.”
Skaarer said she knows there are some people who think anyone on food stamps is lazy and doesn’t want to work.
“And that might be true of some,” she said. “But not us. My husband has tried so hard and sent out so many resumes. And we both have worked and paid our taxes and paid into the system.
“We’re good parents and we want to take care of our kids. But right now we just need some help.”
Other things that are especially hard are when it’s her turn for snack day at school.
“My son wants me to bring good stuff, but I can’t really afford that,” she said. “We try to find crackers or something that’s cheap. Same thing with snacks when there’s sporting events and it’s his turn to bring something.”
When there’s not money for buying any dessert, she’ll talk the kids into chocolate milk as a treat.
“Last night they wanted dessert and I could’t find anything,” she said. “But I found some Starbursts in the cupboard and they ate them. I think they were from last Halloween.”
To keep within budget, Skaarer has given up her flavored coffee creamer and just uses milk and sugar now. With the reduction in SNAP benefits, she thinks she and her husband are going to have to give up coffee.
“Probably coffee’s next,” she said. “We’d hate that, but if we have to, we’ll do it.”
Difficult times call for difficult choices, she joked.
“But really, we’re good people,” she said. “We’ve worked hard all of our adult lives and we’ve gone to school to get better jobs. Things are just not working right now.”
What's on Kasi's list?
Here's what Kasi Skaarer bought on a recent trip to the store:two loaves of bread, carrots, cauliflower, onion, two pork roasts (buy-one-get-one free)mayonaise, bacon, beef grinds for stew and four day-old donuts. She had already purchased milk, cereal and hamburger a few days earlier.Her total bill was $51.23.
With her QFC Advantage card, she saved $3.60 and earned fuel points for a savings on gasoline.
Her sales receipt showed a year-to-date Advantage Savings of $996.78.
By SNAP program regulations, participants cannot buy the following items with their SNAP card:
pet food, soaps, paper products including diapers, household supplies, vitamins or medicines, food that will be eaten in the store, hot foods, beer, wine, or liquor, cigarettes or tobacco.