The Art of War: Casualties of Politics

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Someone once told me that politics was a blood sport. While I haven’t made a career from this, I have been involved in politics for a few years and can attest to both the productive and destructive side of campaigns. There’s no denying that in politics, camps tend to form organically. To a degree, this is generally accepted and understandable as loyalties and allegiances can breed unions and coalitions.

Over the last several months in my city, so many lines have been drawn and crossed. Characters have been called into question and sometimes assassinated. Seems like innuendo has somehow become a common part of the local vernacular. These are the unfortunate casualties of politics. There are, however, limits that need be respected that unblur the line between general grandstanding and going for the jugular. The former has been around since time immemorial, while the latter is viscerally ignoble.

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It’s all but impossible to find even the most miniscule space of common ground when the din of discord and attacks drowns out the contrasts and comparisons between opponents and the differences in the messages or agendas. Even those who work hard to remain above the fray are not immune to the taint of a venomous tirade. There remains a lesson in it all, though.

The lesson is that, despite the division and rancor, there exists real opportunity to amplify the “why” and accentuate the “how” behind why the choice before us on election day is important. The thing is, regardless of who you support or don’t support, we all have a part to play in writing the next chapter of our story. The ability to stay the course in any campaign is the real catalyst which determines the outcome.

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As we get closer to the day where our voice really matters, it’s time to dig deep within ourselves and define what we want to see and who is best equipped to act upon it. After all, despite all the brow beating and gnashing of teeth, in every race there are candidates motivated by different things vying for a shot at leadership. It’s not so much about running to solely defeat an opponent, and more about promoting a vision. There is ample room for disagreement and debate – this is why we have the benefit of choice – but the constant barrage of open warfare really deters more than it supports and makes voters weary.

With only 19 days before voters flock to the polls, it’s time to start a little of that digging and ready ourselves to show up informed and secure in the choices we are about to make.

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My SNAP Challenge: Day 7

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Well, here we are. Day 7 marks the end of my journey in this SNAP Challenge.

So many things to say here, but let’s take a quick inventory. I barely made it through on the food that I purchased on Day 0. All I have left from that is a banana, 1 packet of oatmeal, a handful of dried lentils and less than a cup of milk. If not for the family gathering on Day 3, I would certainly have run out. I lost about 5 pounds over the last week, though I would not attribute it all to the challenge but really more to the fact that I did not allow myself to eat obscene portions of unhealthy things.

I ran into “Maggie” at the library again and she was raving about her new-found cooking skills – seems she makes a mean cheese omelette. She thanked me profusely and went on to say how she was making plans for getting a better paying job and move away from SNAP. There is a new lilt in her walk and she holds her head up a little higher now. She is well on her way to being one of the success stories of SNAP.

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I have received so many notes, messages and calls from people about my journey. There are far too many to list individually, but suffice it to say that my ability to get through it all was bolstered by their support and coaching. For that I am eternally grateful. To the couple that left me eggs and crackers on Day 1 – you made this challenge a little less bland and you humbled me. To my friends and family who rallied together to help celebrate my son’s weekend home from college – thanks for not judging what I could bring to the table and honoring that I could just be at the table. Finally, to all of the followers that offered tips, advice and well-wishes – I have appreciated you being constant companions along this road.

My hope is that those of you who have followed my progress over the last week learned a little more about SNAP. Understanding this issue, seeing the face of this program, defining the struggles and addressing the enabling variables to dependency versus opportunity have given me the experience of getting closer to SNAP. I have been in a unique position to be an observer, a student, an advocate and a virtual participant. I have seen the realities of SNAP and also the opportunities that it presents.The challenge of food insecurity is very real in our communities, and it is not just another social ill that can be masked with just funding. There are the imperatives of awareness, education and strategy within this equation that need more visibilty. Further, food insecurity is not a singluar issue, but is only one cog in a larger machine that drives us forward.

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While some may look at this social experiment as ending, for me it is just a beginning. The fact-finding and experiential phase gives us a foundational platform from which to build upon. Biddeford has a little more than 15% of it’s population living at or below the poverty level. On any given month, we have anywhere from 15-20% of residents who qualify for SNAP. Working to find ways to decrease poverty in our city is both a moral imperative and good for us economically. Investing in our people is always a sound proposition that realizes real dividends and paves the way for economic development and business growth. It doesn’t do Biddeford any good to forge ahead with a vision to infuse big commerce onto the landscape when it comes at the expense of those that can least afford the costs. We are stronger as a city when everyone is on a path to prosperity and self-suffiiency.

To anyone who can say that they learned more about SNAP as a result of my experience, I encourage you to consider what you can do to be an integral part of the solution. Never underestimate the power of even the smallest gesture. One need not take on the full SNAP Challenge to help. We are all in this together.

Get Social. Get Thinking. Get Hungry!

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My SNAP Challenge: Day 6

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I have to tell you all – this SNAP Challenge has been very interesting and has really opened my eyes to what this program is and what it isn’t. I am also learning that SNAP impacts so many people, places and things. This journey has allowed me to view SNAP through a different lens that opened a newer and broader window on what the challenge really looks like, the impact on consumers and who can (or should) benefit from it.

Living on a very limited food budget has been tough for me, but I must admit that good things have come out of it. It’s given me time to reflect on my current limitations while thinking of ideas to address SNAP from different angles and create new solutions to make it better, See, I’m extremely analytical by nature and very determined to fix or improve things. I built an entire business around those skills. As a business analyst, I’m the guy that businesses and organizations call to help them solve tough problems. Sometimes it involves improving their bottom line, sometimes it involves streamlining their organizational structure, and other times it involves charting a new course for becoming more customer-centric and literally every other imaginable challenge in between. This is the sandbox I play in, and I won’t lie – I’m damned good at it. So, I’ve been looking at this thing called SNAP in the same way.

Over the last several days, I have come to view SNAP as something more than a bridge to healthy eating and sustenance for individuals and families needing help. There is another side to SNAP that doesn’t really get talked about much, doesn’t make many headlines and is really an unintended consequence of the program.

You might want to sit down for this one. Ready? OK, here’s the thing: SNAP actually plays a role in stimulating the local economy. I’ll just let that sink in for a few seconds… Yep, you just read that correctly. Some of you are already questioning whether or not I’m losing my mind or if I need a Snickers bar because I’m not quite being myself as the television commercial goes. But it’s true. SNAP actually stimulates your local economy.

When food stamps get spent, we all benefit. Despite critics’ focus on the costs of SNAP, research has shown that these dollars are among the best forms of local economic stimulus. Food stamp spending generates local buying activity, jobs in the farm and retail sectors and beyond.

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Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in the economy in terms of economic activity. If people are able to buy a little bit more in the grocery store, then someone has got to stock it, shelve it, package it, process it, ship it. All of those are jobs. It’s the most direct stimulus you can get into the economy during tough times.

Food stamps are an excellent stimulus. When it comes to bang for the buck — the amount of economic activity generated for every public dollar spent — they’re arguably one of the single most effective forms of government stimulus available, and are vastly more beneficial than tax cuts.

This has been repeatedly documented. An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, “SNAP benefits are one of the fastest, most effective forms of economic stimulus because they get money into the local economy quickly.” The director of the Congressional Budget Office agrees.

It just requires a little thought. People who receive food stamps aren’t sticking the money in a mattress or a money-market fund; they’re spending it and doing so immediately because — you guessed it — they want to eat This injects demand and capital into the economy quickly, helping the beneficiaries and stimulating the economy.

So, what does this all mean for a city like Biddeford? Well, let’s first look at what SNAP benefits CAN and CANNOT buy:

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There are communities that have been pioneering very successful local programs to double the value of SNAP (food stamp) dollars when they’re spent at local farmer’s markets and small grocers for fresh fruits, vegetables. breads, cereals, meats, fish, poultry and dairy products. Funded through available federal grants working in tandem with the USDA (which administers SNAP), local farmers and grocers get paid to honor SNAP benefits by doubling the buying power of each SNAP dollar on acceptable purchases. So, think about this: SNAP recipients get to buy more healthy foods with their monthly benefits, local vendors and businesses increase their volume of patrons and sell more product at market price,and farmers have an incentive to grow more, raise more livestock, and sell more in the local marketplace. Think Supplemental Food Benefit meets Buy Local meets Local Farms Support – the dollars stay local. Keeping the money here stimulates the local economy by feeding recipients who need it most, pulls people out of poverty, keeps local businesses profitable, expands the small business landscape, and, ultimately, creates jobs. And it doesn’t stop there. Better economic sustainability translates into more discretionary cash, which translates into the ability to spend it at other local businesses, which translates into the ability to invest in wise growth and expansion within the local business sector.

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There is absolutely nothing precluding us from following, or even enhancing, this model to use and expand an existing, already funded program to grow our local economy right here in Biddeford. This is but one of a myriad of things that I propose we explore and implement in the new chapter of our story.

We have a choice to make. We can embrace the status quo and hope for something to magically happen or we can think outside the box to make bolder moves that make us stronger and reap bigger dividends now.

The business professional in me always looks for the solutions that give the biggest bang for the buck and puts you in a position to be financially solvent so that you can grow sensibly while benefiting from new revenue streams. We can dream, or we can act. The smart money is on making things happen by leveraging and uniting your existing resources now. Longer term visions that have us buying assets based on speculation and potential with the hope of business influx isn’t a strategy – it’s a gamble.

So, you see, SNAP is not just an answer to one tough problem. It’s a means and a tool that can be wielded in such a way that it solves many problems if you have the right leadership, courage and will in place to think beyond the core issue. We cannot sustain the popular view that food insecurity is merely another social ill that we just have to throw money at to solve. Every successful businessperson will tell you that the key to success is to continuously put your money to work for you. A holistic view of how we grow economically is the best investment in ourselves.

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My SNAP Challenge: Day 5

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Day 5 was an eye-opener. I found myself at the library when a young woman with her child approached me while I was looking for a book. She had been “eye-balling” me for a little while and I wondered if she knew me somehow or if I knew her but just couldn’t place her. Anyhow, this went on for about 15 minutes until she mustered enough courage to walk up to me and said, “Excuse me. You’re Daniel, aren’t you?” OK, mystery solved – she knew me in some way. I smiled and acknowledged that I was, indeed, the person she recognized. “I saw you in the paper last week. I’m a single parent who relies on SNAP benefits. I wanted to say thank you for calling attention to this so that people can understand what it’s like. I also wanted to ask you a couple of questions, if you don’t mind?” I, of course, agreed and suggested we find a fun book for her daughter while we sat and chatted.

Over the course af the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to her story. From this point forward in this post, I’ll refer to her as “Maggie” – this isn’t her real name and she asked that I do not reveal her name or take any pictures. Understanding the stigma attached to people who rely on help, I respected her wishes. Maggie is 28 years old and has a 4 year-old daughter. She is a widow whose husband died a little over a year ago in a horrible tractor-trailer accident – he was an over-the-road driver. Maggie works part-time in a fast-food restaurant and relies on friends to care for her daughter during those hours because she cannot afford the costs of full-time daycare. She wishes she could be a full-time Mom, but that just isn’t possible because she doesn’t like to be on full public assistance and accepts SNAP grudgingly because it’s the only way she can sustain herself and her daughter. There was no mistaking that Maggie has a love/hate relationship with SNAP. She doesn’t like to admit that she needs it, but is grateful that it’s there.

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Maggie doesn’t regret marrying her high school sweetheart or bringing her daughter into the world but does have a few regrets. “I got married too young. My husband and I just weren’t ready to get married or start a family. Before our daughter was born, we both worked like dogs to make rent, buy food and pay our bills. I never really learned how to cook or handle money very well. My view on money was there was never enough to pay for things you needed to pay for so you just kept your head down and worked as hard as you could.” She went on to say that she really was clueless on how to shop sensibly and how to cook. A typical weekly menu at her place consists of Hot Pockets, oatmeal, ramen noodles, soup and cereal. My first impression was that most of these are highly processed foods with not very much nutritional value: lots of salt, refined sugars and empty calories. No fruit, no vegetables, no simple staples that could be converted into healthier dishes. She never shopped with a list or planned out a daily menu. Her SNAP benefits do not usually last her to the end of the month. “There’s always more month than there is food.”, she said.

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At the end of Maggie’s tale, she asked me for help. Not monetary help, but help in the sense that she really wanted to learn how to shop better, plan better and eat healthy. I asked if she had SNAP benefits available on her card. She did. I asked the librarian for some scratch paper and a pencil and Maggie and I began to make a rough menu for the next seven days. “Let’s go shopping!”, I offered. “Really? You would take time out to do this with me?”, she asked in amazement. And off to the grocery store we went with her curly-haired daughter in tow. We had a plan, some ideas and some funds – we were armed and dangerous (well, maybe not so dangerous).

We grabbed a cart and, out of habit, Maggie made a beeline for the frozen section. I quickly re-routed her to the produce section and we started there. I could tell she rarely visited this part of the store because she was like a kid in a candy shoppe amazed at the wide variety of items there. It was a little bittersweet because although there were alot of options – the prices of fresh items is high and if you aren’t careful, you can blow your entire budget in just this one area. We learned alot, though, and carefully selected a couple of items like carrots and bananas. We got to meats and, again, found very high prices. “I never buy fresh meats. I don’t even have pots and pans.”, Maggie commented. “Well, I have a frying pan and a saucepan you can have.”, I said. She tried hard to fight back the tears. It was obvious that she was weathering all of this alone and wasn’t used to someone trying to guide her. We got a pound of ground turkey and made our way to the rest of the store. By the end of this adventure, we made it out of there spending about $48 for her and her daughter for the week. I never saw a wider smile than the one Maggie had on her face. We stopped by my house, I gave her the pans and wrote out a few easy recipes for simple meals to be made from the purchased items. Maggie was extremely grateful and we agreed to stay in touch to “talk shop” as the days and weeks progressed.

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The lesson from Day 5 was that not all people on SNAP have the basic skills of knowing how to make the best use of their benefits. Simple things like planning, making lists and menu plans, or making healthier choices aren’t always inherent within a person. You have to learn them. More needs to be done to educate both children and adults on nutrition and managing money wisely.

This new face of SNAP just needed a little guidance and learned more in a couple of hours than she had in most of her young years as a single parent, working part-time and doing all she could to keep things together. The key in all of this is that SNAP is a supplement to help you afford healthy eating, but unless you have the basic skills to make the best use of it – the goals of helping families eat healthy aren’t met. Further, lack of education around this doesn’t make for the best use of funds and creates a situation whereby recipients feel frustrated that their benefits aren’t enough to keep them above water.

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The truth is that the allowable benefits are, indeed, limiting but a little knowledge can go very far in alleviating a big part of this struggle. If you feel well and eat well, your head is clearer and you can make better life decisions and see hope at the end of the tunnel. SNAP is supposed to be a bridge to get you by so that you can get on a path to self-sufficiency. It’s a hard road when you go it alone without many tools in your toolbox.

My SNAP Challenge: Day 4

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Close your eyes.

No, really… close your eyes and visualize what a person who relies on SNAP benefits looks like. How are they dressed? What age group do they belong to? Do they work full or part-time? How educated are they? Somewhere in your mind’s eye, you might have some visual model of what the face of food stamps looks like. Ok, how about this? If you drove to your local grocery store right now and just watched random people walking in and out of it – could you spot which ones were SNAP recipients? Chances are, your accuracy rate would be surprisingly low. It turns out that people who find themselves in hard times look just like you, I or anyone who passes you on the street.

I have been asking people these very same questions and when they think about SNAP recipients, most make the easy leap to the unemployed, the disabled and the homeless. They also most often depict SNAP recipients as having second-hand clothing, poor hygiene and having little to no humility. Truth is, most people would be very surprised to learn who uses SNAP.

Last year, 620,000 households that include at least one soldier, reservist or guardsman – or 25 percent of the nation’s total active duty and reserve personnel – were seeking aid from SNAP, food pantries and other charitable programs across the country. Another 2.37 million households including veterans receive assistance from SNAP and food pantries, too. The help is sought for various reasons, experts say.

One reason for this jump in food-stamp usage among soldiers could be the relatively low pay awarded to junior members of the military, with the least experienced active duty soldiers bringing home a little over $18,300 per year. That would qualify a soldier living in a two-person household for food stamps.

But another significant issue facing military families is a relatively high unemployment rate for spouses, with female spouses between the ages of 18 to 24 suffering from a 30 percent unemployment rate, according to a study published by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. That’s almost three times higher than their civilian cohorts, the study found.

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Let’s talk about our struggling older Americans. In the U.S., over 4 million low-income adults over age 60 rely on SNAP to stay healthy and make ends meet. Too many seniors are going hungry. Millions of older Americans are at risk for hunger. In 2014, 9.3 million older Americans faced the threat of hunger, representing 15.3% of all seniors.

Food insecurity is growing among older adults. The food insecurity rate for all senior households was 8.6% in 2012, up from 5.5% in 2001. At the same time, the percentage of seniors facing the threat of hunger has more than doubled. Too few seniors are enrolled in SNAP. 3 out of 5 seniors who qualify for SNAP do not participate. This means that 5.2 million seniors miss out on benefits. Older Americans who qualify for SNAP are significantly less likely to participate in the program than other demographic groups. Several factors contribute to the low participation rate. Many seniors face barriers related to mobility, technology, and stigma and are discouraged by widespread myths about how the program works and who can qualify.

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SNAP is the nation’s biggest child nutrition program. SNAP provides families with an estimated 22 million children with resources to purchase a nutritionally adequate diet. This represents close to 1 in 3 children (29 percent) in the United States.  Almost half of all SNAP recipients are children (47 percent), and an additional 26 percent are adults living with children. Forty percent of all SNAP recipients live in households with preschool-age children (ages 4 and below).

Over 70 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children. In 2014, SNAP provided an estimated $51 billion in benefits to families with children, over half of which went to families with preschool-age children. SNAP families are low-income.  A typical family with children that is enrolled in SNAP has income (not including SNAP) at 57 percent of the poverty line.  A typical family with children on SNAP spends close to three-quarters of its income on housing and/or child care costs.

This year, 55% of students in our district qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school. Most of these are also eligible for SNAP at home either today or at various points throughout their primary, middle and high school years.

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The lesson on Day 4 is that SNAP has many faces. Food insecurity can touch any American, anytime, anyplace. Vulnerable children, the elderly and even our men and women protecting our freedom around the globe are recipients of SNAP. You may have an opinion as to whether this is right or wrong, whether policies should change or not, or whether or not we should be doing more to protect our citizens. The debates around this will not soon cease, but there’s no denying that people at or below the poverty line make programs like SNAP a necessity for over 46 million people in this country. If this makes you angry, Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Lack of livable wages in many jobs within both the private and public sectors, an expanding universe of Americans needing a safety net and the difficult road to finding affordable access to preventative healthcare programs all have a causal effect of the difficulties that many people experience today.

The mosaic of faces that depict those benefiting from SNAP is comprised of people from every walk of life and until we begin to address the basic socio-economic variables that devalue people and rob them of their dignity – we will continue to be in a position where we will have to fill the gap so that individuals and families don’t fall through the cracks. This means changing paradigms and perspectives in a way that shifts funding of SNAP from entitlements to investments. Food insecurity should always be temporary.

My SNAP Challenge: Day 3

People who are socially isolated may be at a greater risk of dying sooner, a British study suggests. But do Facebook friends count? How about texting?

So, I’m almost half-way through this SNAP Challenge and I am having a hard time keeping my mind off of food. It consumes most of my thoughts and I have to work at finding stuff to do that will keep my mind focused on other things. I remember being in this position over 30 years ago as a very young man – I didn’t miss it. Needing help to get by can make you feel alone and very moody. On top of all this, it’s the weekend. What made this weekend particularly challenging was the fact that this was the first weekend home visit from my youngest child who is now in college. A big part of my culture and upbringing has always been that food was synonymous with celebration. Here I was in the middle of the SNAP Challenge having shopped for one on a very limited, shoestring budget. Additionally, I was invited to a barbecue hosted by friends. Again, my upbringing was such that you never accepted an invitation to someone’s table without bringing something to share. It’s just what you did. The weekend had me peeling back another layer to food insecurity only to find its three wicked sisters of isolation, inadequacy and despair.

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Then, this happened: My friends and family rallied together to plan a very impromptu family night. They very unselfishly prepared foods to share and convened at my home so that we could celebrate the bounty of ourselves. We ate, we laughed and we played long into the night. I regrettably begged off the barbecue, but was so grateful for this family gathering. This was the first time in three days when I didn’t feel like food insecurity was a big yoke around my neck. I started out feeling very small because I had little to nothing to share, but ended up feeling almost obscenely wealthy to be a part of such a loving and compassionate group who didn’t care what I brought to the table – only that I could “be” at the table.

My lesson on Day 3, is that food insecurity and reliance on SNAP is really all about your health: your financial health, your physical health and your psychological health. It’s one thing to have nothing in a bank account, but you better have something in your self-esteem account if you don’t want your struggles to consume you. I stated from the beginning that I wanted to do this to raise awareness, but this whole exercise has also been a self-evaluation and discovery of myself and my place in the world. There is a stigma that society forces upon you when you are down and out. You can let it define you or use it as fuel to blaze a new trail to self-sufficiency. Moreover, if all you ever do is focus on your own day-in-the-life, you can lose sight of where you’ve come from and how others in your community have their own challenges to deal with. Moving through life with blinders on limits your ability to be a part of the solution. There are people in your neighborhood, in your place of employment, in your church and in all of your extended circles that are food insecure. Sometimes a small gesture or an invite to your table is all it takes to keep someone’s hope alive. Give a little, get alot. We’re all in this together.

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Tomorrow is another day. Day 3 was a much needed shot in the arm to make the rest of this challenge a little more bearable.

My SNAP Challenge: Day 2

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Day 2 was interesting. I didn’t get much sleep last night. I was keeping myself awake trying to figure out meals that I could make with what I bought on Wednesday. I wondered if I had enough to last me till next Wednesday, the last day of this seven day challenge. I worried about what I would have to do if I ran out of food before the end. I began to feel the anxiety of food insecurity.Anxiety is not a good feeling, and it plays with your mind. Given enough time, anxiety can morph into anger. I was beginning to get angry about the cost of food in general. I started to resent the stigma that those needing public assistance face by those who don’t have the same struggles.

I am learning just how many people rely on SNAP in this city. There were some sobering statistics in the Journal Tribune article that covered my SNAP Challenge. This is a much larger issue than most people understand. And, despite what some would have you believe, most people on SNAP don’t want to be on it. They would rather be able sustain themselves without it.

SNAP and other government aid programs have been the subjects of stereotyping and social misinformation in more than just this latest well-meaning challenge. This stereotyping and misinformation has bled into our culture to the point where recipients of SNAP and other aid programs fear their personal circumstances being misrepresented to the public.

The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service served 46,536,000 people in 2014 with SNAP. Each of those individuals received, on average, $125.35 dollars per month in benefits. SNAP and other government aid programs provide benefits for a substantial amount of people within each state.

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A traditional nuclear family in the United States has four people in its household. To qualify for SNAP, a four-person U.S. household must have an average gross monthly income of $2,584 or less. This means the average income of the household before taxes and eligible deductions must be $31,008 or less per year for the family to qualify for SNAP benefits. Once allowable deductions like legally owed child support payments and shelter costs for some homeless households are factored in, the household has to make $23,856 or less to qualify for SNAP benefits. This threshold net income amount accounts for 100 percent of the households considered to be in poverty within the U.S.

Even as SNAP enrollment has surged in the past five years, the program and its participants are still haunted by stigmas and misconceptions. Among the major stigmas associated with SNAP is the perception of Snap as a welfare program. It isn’t. SNAP is a nutrition assistance program. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all people who don’t work and who are trying to abuse the system use SNAP. Even if someone is eligible for benefits, he or she might not want to be thought of as one of those folks and may feel uncomfortable using their EBT card in a store, because someone could think they’re one of those people who commit fraud. Abuse can occur in any program, but to make a blanket assessment that all recipients commit fraud is an unfounded and unfair characterization.

My lesson learned today in this challenge is that no one really understands the stigma and anxiety of having to rely on public assistance better than those who are living it. Generalizations and labeling are really the product of a lack of knowledge and insight by those who have been fortunate enough to have never experienced food insecurity. It’s important to educate ourselves about the struggle so that we can understand the challenge and work towards solving it. A person’s dignity can be a fragile thing. We should be careful about how we address those in need.

Let’s see what kinds of revelations come out of Day 3..