The Hunger Games —
The Fight for Food Stamps

Lisa Cooper, a 28-year old full-time student, writes the price of personal pizzas on the side of the cardboard boxes at her part-time job in a Memphis Target. Cooper explained that her hard work will pay off after she graduates college. Photo By: Jonathan A Capriel

Falling Short of Making Ends Meet

By: Jonathan A Capriel

Four nights a week, Lisa Cooper, 28, scrapes the charred bits of food from the personal-pizza oven at her part-time job as a Target food café cashier.

During her six-hour hustle behind the register, she cooks and rings up an array of fast food dishes, she said.

When her shift ends at 9:30 p.m., she hangs her apron and drives away from the mostly empty parking lot with the smell of popcorn lingering in her hair.

Lisa Cooper, 28, works at a fast-food café at a Memphis Target. She earns just above minimum wage, but said that it’s not enough to survive. Cooper lives on government food assistance and student loans. She goes to school full time and majors in criminal justice. Photo By: Jonathan A Capriel

She often leaves hungry too, she said.

“I don’t have time to eat between classes,” the full-time student said. “I leave school and head straight to work… I try not to eat at school because the food is expensive, and they don’t take food stamps.”

Cooper lives on student loans, the just-above minimum wage she earns and government food assistance.

Her situation is not unique. More than 38 percent of the Shelby County’s households received aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) according to data collected from the Tennessee Department of Human Services and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s like, you try to get ahead and work hard, but the system holds you back.” — Lisa Cooper

Nearly 9 percent of the city’s residents work in the food-preparation and service industry like Cooper, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Memphis’ average pay in this sector is $9.29 — about 11 percent lower than the national average.

“I started off at minimum wage,” Cooper said. “But after six years of consistent and good employment, I now make $8.44.”

Lisa Cooper works at Target’s cafe four nights a week. After six years of employment, Cooper earns $8.44 an hour. Photo By: Liz Joiner

She’s tried balancing two part-time jobs and a full class load, but the second job cut into time she needed for studying. She also lost her food assistance.

“They told me I make too much money, so I have to work less,” she said. “I mean, I disagree, but I can’t fight the system. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.”

With the income of two part-time jobs added together, she earned more than $1,200 a month — not enough to survive on, but too much to receive SNAP.

The maximum income she can earn monthly and still get the aid she needs is $973, according to TDHS.

“They said it was like I was working a full-time job,” Cooper said. “The jobs didn’t pay enough, so I had to quit one of them. It’s like, you try to get ahead and work hard, but the system holds you back.”

She covers her rent by taking out student loans — which are not counted as income by the TDHS — so she can study and eat without becoming homeless, she said.

She expects to graduate more than $45,000 in debt. But Cooper said her debt doesn’t bother her.

Only six credit hours stand between her and a diploma in criminal justice. Cooper said she’ll pay back the loans in her own time.

“(After graduation) I want to become a juvenile probation officer,” she said. “It’s what I was destined to do. I want to help young people. At one point I was a juvenile delinquent. I know their struggle and I want to help them.”

While some assume food assistance programs like SNAP are taken advantage of by those who do not want to work, Cooper has held the same job for six years and only used SNAP when she needed it.

“We are living on food stamps and fighting for funding — It’s really like ‘The Hunger Games.’” — Le’Trice Donaldson, adjunct instructor of history at the University of Memphis

In fact, the majority of SNAP recipients were employed while getting the subsidy, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“The data also indicate that SNAP receipt does not create work disincentives,” according to the same study. “The overwhelming majority of non-disabled, working-age households that start receiving SNAP do not stop working. In the mid-2000s, only 4 percent of SNAP households that worked in the year before starting to receive SNAP did not work in the following year.”

However, many of the working poor go without SNAP.

In Tennessee, more than half a million working poor were eligible for food assistance in 2012. Yet, 21 percent of them went without SNAP, according to USDA numbers.

Exacerbating this problem is the high number of below minimum-wage workers in Tennessee.

More than 7 percent of the state’s hourly workers earn below or right at the national minimum wage — a higher percentage than any other state — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These low wages cause a heavy reliance on government assistance, according to a study released by University California Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

“Stagnating wages and decreased benefits are a problem not only for low-wage workers who increasingly cannot make ends meet, but also for the federal government,” according to the study released this year. “Higher wages would significantly reduce federal expenditures on the earned income tax credit and SNAP.”

Increasing Tennessee’s minimum wage to $10.10 could reduce the number of people relying on SNAP benefits by nearly 10 percent, according to research by the Center for American Progress. Increasing the pay for Tennessee’s low-wage jobs would save taxpayers across the country an estimated $156.20 million.

Low wages and high unemployment may contribute to Shelby County’s rising reliance on SNAP. Graph By: Jonathan A Capriel

However, the working poor’s plight goes beyond traditional minimum wage jobs.

Le’Trice Donaldson does not make enough money to feed herself as an adjunct instructor of history at the University of Memphis. She relies on the $120 in SNAP she receives to survive.

“We (Graduate students) used to earn $1,600 per class we taught, but they (U of M) cut that to $1,500,” Donaldson said. “We are living on food stamps and fighting for funding — It’s really like ‘The Hunger Games’.”

About 25 percent of part-time university faculty members across the country receive SNAP, according to UC Berkeley’s study.

Breaking down the time Donaldson must spend teaching, preparing lessons and meeting with students outside of class, she makes less than minimum wage for each class she teaches, she said.

Each group makes up at least 6 percent of the overall Memphis job market. Added together they represent more than 60 percent of people employed in Memphis. Healthcare practitioner and technical 6.4 percent, Food preparation and serving related 8.2 percent, Sales and related 10 percent, Office and administrative support 16.3 percent, Transportation and material moving 13.9 percent, Production 6.3 percent. Graph by Jonathan A Capriel

Donaldson is also a breast cancer survivor and must watch what she eats.

“I try to eat organic, which is more expensive, so it cuts deeper into my expenses,” she said. “I take vitamins too — those aren’t covered by food stamps.”

In Memphis, workers in almost every sector earn below the national average in their professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The city’s low wages could explain why Shelby County has seen an increase in SNAP recipients during the last 10 years.

Cheese Selections at Superlo Foods in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo By: Liz Joiner
Video of Superlo Foods in Memphis, Tennessee. Superlo Foods offers reasonable prices and accepts EBT. Video By: Liz Joiner & Daniel Pylant

Facts and Figures Feed

Food Stamp Debate

By: Daniel Pylant

Families in America struggle to put food on the table, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) — a leading national nonprofit organization aiming to improve public policies and eradicate hunger.

“Food Hardship” — described by FRAC as a marker for households struggling with hunger, harms everyone including children, seniors and individuals with disabilities. Of the 20 states with the worst Food Hardship Rates, Tennessee ranks fourth at 21.7 percent. Memphis ranks eighth out of the 20 largest Census Bureau-defined metropolitan cities with a rate of food hardship at 22.7 percent.

The same message is displayed in Feeding America’s message. “Our mission is to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.” In Tennessee alone, 1 in 6 people are hungry, more than 200,000 people in Shelby County. Out of the 200,000, more than 57,000 are children who are fighting hunger.

Tennessee’s estimated population is 6,346, 105; 1,318,529 people in Tennessee are participating in SNAP. Just over 20 percent of the entire state’s population is on food stamps, and the number continues to rise. Since 2007, there has been a 27 percent increase in the amount of people using food stamps in Shelby County.

Food insecurity continues to plague not just Memphians, but many people all across America.

More than 49 million experienced some sort of food insecurity, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’s 2013 Report on Hunger and Homelessness.

The report covered 25 American cities. More than 70 percent of the cities said the number of requests for emergency food assistance had increased in the last year.

Congress strengthened SNAP in 2009 through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act — allowing monthly food stamp benefits to increase from $95.38 to $133.65 as a result of the law.

There was a 29.3 percent increase in the number of SNAP participants from 2008 to 2013, according to FRAC.org.

However, when that fund went dry in 2013, monthly averages declined to $85 — lower than it has been in decade.

Now, nearly 85 percent of the cities surveyed expected emergency food requests to increase in 2015. Many food banks may not have the resources to meet the need.

Vegetables, Fruit and Produce Section at Superlo Foods in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo By: Liz Joiner
This graph shows the number of people receiving SNAP by Congressional District in Tennessee. Colors in the graph correspond to the map of Tennessee. The red bars represent the number of people in that district receiving food assistance who are also living below the poverty line. Graph By: Jonathan A Capriel.
Superlo Foods hangs the Tennessee State Flag and the American Flag for shoppers to see. Photo By: Liz Joiner

Memphis’ Politicians Fight Over Food Stamp Funding

By: Liz Joiner & Daniel Pylant

Named “The Hunger Capital of the U.S.” in 2010, Memphis has struggled to provide adequate food to its residents.

Memphis remains ranked as the top city in the nation with serious hunger problems. The main factors contributing to this crisis are the poverty and unemployment rates, along with low wages.

More than 25 percent of Memphis residents are living below the poverty line.

Memphis’ hunger crisis is a widely debated topic among state representatives.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tennessee, and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, both represent Memphians. However, their views on the issue could not be more different.

The 8th Congressional District
Representative Stephen Fincher

Fincher whose Congressional district encompasses parts of Memphis, is very outspoken about his views on food stamps, as he is adamantly against SNAP benefits.

“The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country,” Fincher said in a quote attributed to him on his website.

Although Fincher said he believes that government assistance equates to “stealing” from Americans, he was the second largest recipient of farm subsidies in the United States Congress in 2013.

Fincher also supports a proposal to expand crop insurance by $9 billion during the next 10 years, while simultaneously gutting SNAP.

Fincher was unavailable for comment despite one phone call to each of his three offices and two emails.

However, Fincher is very outspoken with his views on his website and in the media.

“In May, during the House Agriculture Committee markup of the farm bill, one of my Democratic colleagues used a Bible verse to justify food stamps. I responded with the verse from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,’” Fincher said in a quote attributed to him on his website.
Tennessee’s 8th congressional district — since January 3, 2013

The 9th Congressional District
Representative Steve Cohen

Cohen is the Congressman for District 9. Cohen supports SNAP benefits for Tennessee residents. While Fincher voted in favor for the Farm Bill, Cohen voted against the bill.

Cohen stated on his website, “Instead of cutting benefits to families and taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, I believe we should work to keep Americans out of poverty. That is why I have co-sponsored Rep. John Conyers’ Extend Not Cut SNAP Benefits Act, to prevent even more citizens from going hungry.”

Cohen has voted in support of funding for SNAP benefits. However, Republicans in Tennessee have worked tirelessly to cut government funding for food stamps.

Fincher issued a statement about the Farm Bill. “Today’s farm bill serves to provide certainty for America’s farmers,” Fincher said. “I am pleased the House was able to rally together to allow our country’s farmers the certainty they need to make important long-term planning decisions and to carry out the vital work of feeding our nation.”

Cohen does not share Fincher’s opinion. “I am disappointed that Republican leaders broke their own rules and used this flatly partisan maneuver to strip out of the Farm Bill critical nutrition and food stamp programs that children and families in Memphis and across the country rely on,” Cohen said.

The debate over funding for food stamps is still ongoing. Many changes need to be implemented to satisfy both Republicans and Democrats. Or perhaps, there is a bipartisan solution. The debate is still heated, and food stamps will continue to be a hot button issue for the foreseeable future.

Tennessee’s 9th congressional district — since January 3, 2013.

An Eligibility Counselor Speaks Out Against DHS’ Procedures

By: Joseph Echie

Shirley Bradley worked for the state Department of Human Services as an eligibility counselor for almost 17 years. The regulations and rules DHS follows are created and enforced by the government. Bradley retired in 2010, which was before DHS began doing phone interviews in 2012. Bradley thought phone interviews were a bad idea.

When she was still employed DHS had face-to-face interviews with clients, which were called “home interviews.” The eligibility counselors need candidates to verify identity, citizenship, address, employment and income. People ages 16 to 59 must register for work, participate in the Employment & Training Program, accept offers of employment and cannot quit a job.

The counselors ask how many people are living in their household and if they have kids. When people are enrolled in colleges or vocational schools, they must show how many hours in which they are currently enrolled.

“I inquired about the individual’s resources, which could include a car or a bank account. A car could not be valued over $4,600. The applicant’s savings account cannot be over $3,000,” Bradley explained.

“The phone interviews were impersonal,” Bradley said. With the phone interviews, the eligibility counselors are not able to get a better understanding of the person with whom they are speaking.

“I believe that face-to-face interviews are the best way to get a feel for the recipients, rather than phone conversations,” Bradley said.

When eligibility counselors did the face-to-face interviews, they re-certified the recipients every three months. The phone interviews were put into effect; as a result, DHS cut the certification times to one time per year.

“The Department of Human Services has problems and needs work. But they do not need to eliminate food stamps because people really need the benefits.” — Shirley Bradley

A person becomes certified for food stamps for one year; however, a person’s situation can change within a year. An individual’s financial situation, employment status and living arrangements may fluctuate radically from year to year.

“The Department of Human Services has problems and needs work. But they do not need to eliminate food stamps because people really need the benefits,” Bradley explained.

This example is one of the reasons Bradley said, “The Department of Human Services has changed, and not for the better.”

Looking for an Oasis

in the Midst of

Memphis’ Food Deserts

By: Liz Joiner

Map By: Jonathan Capriel

Food deserts are areas where it is difficult to purchase healthy, fresh, and affordable food. Often, corner stores, gas stations and fast food restaurants are the only locations where residents living and working in food deserts can purchase food. The corner store prices for basic goods is inflated compared to supermarkets in affluent neighborhoods.

Vegetable section at Mediterranean Grocery in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo By: Liz Joiner

These communities with limited access to supermarkets tend to have higher rates of obesity. Limited access to food affects minorities more than whites in Memphis.

On nearly every corner in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, markets and gas stations with overpriced goods and junk food can be found. Without access to reasonably priced, high quality food, local residents must either purchase cost-inflated goods, or travel to another part of town to buy groceries.

The Mediterranean Grocery in Memphis, Tennessee. The grocery store accepts EBT. By: Liz Joiner

While many credit Memphis as one of the one of the most charitable cities in the South — 14.8 million pounds of food and $3.7 million dollars were donated to Mid-South Food Bank in 2014 — food banks and charity are not enough.

The city of Memphis and its residents need to reinvest time, money, and energy into the black and poor communities. While gifts of food and money to food banks are helpful, these donations are merely surface solutions to a deeper problem.

Metrotrends.org provides a year-by-year breakdown of poverty by race.

The link below allows users to view changes in poverty and race in every major metropolitan area in the United States.

Nonprofit & Activists Work Toward

Policy Change

By: Liz Joiner

The Downtown Farmers Market is busy on a beautiful Saturday morning. Photo By: Liz Joiner

A few Memphis farmers’ markets now accept SNAP benefits. The Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, South Memphis Farmers Market, and Urban Farms Market became among the first in Tennessee to accept SNAP benefits market-wide, in January 2015.

Whitton Farms is one of the many vendors at the Memphis Farmers Market Downtown. Photo By: Liz Joiner

The Memphis Farmers Market’s Mission is to:

  • Improve public health nutrition options by providing a vehicle to educate the community on nutrition and good health
  • Provide access to local food choices
  • Assist area farmers, producers, and artisans with sustainable business opportunities
  • Generate a sense of local pride while furthering the economic development of our community
  • Serve as a community-gathering place
Girls Inc. has a green house and a farm where young girls plant flowers, tomatoes, and other produce items to be sold at the Memphis Farmers Market. Photo By: Liz Joiner

GrowMemphis launched the Double Green$ program in 2011. The initiative began as a way to provide more healthy, affordable, and fresh food to shoppers with SNAP benefits, especially in the food desert areas surrounding or near these markets.

Farmers Market Volunteers help customers with SNAP benefits receive their wooden tokens to use as they shop. Photo By: Liz Joiner

Double Green$ will match a person’s EBT benefits dollar-for-dollar, up to $10. People using SNAP benefits are able to swipe their EBT cards at the farmers markets in exchange for wooden tokens which act like currency.

A Vendor’s Sale Log from the Downtown Farmers’ Market. Wooden tokens have been used as payment for tomato plants. Photo By: Liz Joiner

The individuals using the wooden tokens and the farmers markets both benefit from the Double Green$ program. Vendors are able to provide a larger number of shoppers with fresh food, and shoppers now spend $20 instead of $10, which helps boost sales at the farmers markets. Attendance at farmers markets in Memphis has increased since the markets began offering the Double Green$ program.

Double Green$ is a program available at the farmers market from April through October. Photo By: Liz Joiner

The Double Green$ program begins with the farmers markets’ openings in the first week of April, and runs until the end of October.

The Memphis Farmers Market downtown includes more than 40 stalls displaying goods from vendors. As patrons peruse the farmers market, they will notice the variety of goods being offered.

Doris Blaine is a University of Memphis student who currently has an internship with GrowMemphis.

“I am the volunteer coordinator for GrowMemphis events. I also executed a performance measurement where I evaluated GrowMemphis’ programs to see if their programs are meeting their mission goals,” Blaine explained.

When asked about funding, Blaine said, “GrowMemphis receives the majority of their funding through grants. We have programs involved with the local farmers markets, community gardens, the Double Green$ program, and the Food Advocacy Council.” The main office is located at 258 N. Merton.

The Memphis Farmers Market and GrowMemphis help provide fresh food to residents who live near the market. Many Memphians live in food deserts and are unable to find affordable, healthy food in their neighborhoods.

Flowers for sale at the Memphis Farmers Market on Main Street Downtown. Photo By: Liz Joiner

The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Seedco, Whole Foods Market, and The Wholesome Wave Foundation have donated funds for the Double Green$ program.

GrowMemphis’ Annual Garden Party is an event to raise money for the nonprofit organization. This year’s event will be held at the High Cotton Brewery Taproom at 598 Monroe Ave. The event will be held on June 14th from 2–6pm.

Guests will enjoy live music, raffle, a silent auction, food and drinks. Proceeds will be donated to GrowMemphis, supporting their programs in the Memphis area.

Purchase Tickets to the GrowMemphis Annual Garden Party at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1446907

Contact volunteer coordinator Doris Blaine at GrowMemphis for volunteer information.

TWEETS

The people fight for food, while the politicians fight for funding. #TheFightForFoodStamps

Local nonprofit organizations and farmers markets feed the Memphis community. #TheFightForFoodStamps

The fight for food stamps has people looking for a hero in #TheHungerGames.

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