The new food stamp user might look a lot like you

40 million people collecting SNAP food stampsThis recession may have blown away forever the preconception that food stamps are used only by the chronically indigent. As of March 2010, more than 40 million Americans received help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for the food stamp program. Many of these people are professionals or blue-collar workers used to paying their own way, and some are even college students. Some 6 million of these people, according to The New York Times, have no other source of income.

Among the new recipients is Ed Murrieta, former restaurant critic for the Tacoma News Tribune. When his restaurant review website failed to bring in enough income to support its cost, Murrieta was left with an income of only $200 a month. Ironically, the food and restaurant guy was forced to apply for food stamps.

WalletPop talked via e-mail with three other people who have found themselves using SNAP for the first time; their backgrounds may surprise you.
Aimee Brittain is known as The Coupon Diva, which is also the name of the blog she runs to help shoppers play the coupon game to their best advantage. Even her expertise, however, wasn't enough to keep food on the table when she was laid off this winter. She is now in school and working part time while looking for full-time work, and manages to parlay her SNAP payments, along with coupons, into an adequate diet.

Since she works in a grocery store, Brittain's fellow employees treat her with respect even when she uses her SNAP electronic benefits transfer card. However, she says, "at other stores, I sometimes get eye rolls."

Even more poignant is the story of Kimberly Morales, who writes the blog Poor Girl Eats Well, chronicling her "adventures in tasty, nutritious eating despite [a] very tight shoestring budget." Unable to find a permanent job during the recession, Morales has been doing temp work to make ends meet. When she came down with pneumonia late last year and had to miss some work, she had no recourse but to turn to public assistance, including SNAP.

A California resident, Morales found the process of applying for SNAP lengthy the workers rude, and the sheriff's deputies on site to quell trouble disturbing. She was eventually approved for $200 a month of SNAP aid.

Like others I interviewed, she says the debit-style cards that have replaced printed food stamps are very simple to use, and unless the clerk chooses to announce loudly any products that weren't permissible under the program (wine, cat food or prepared ready-to-eat foods, for example), she suffers little embarrassment.

While the government expects SNAP households to spend about 30% of their resources on food and bases payments on that, Morales does better.With her expertise in stretching a food budget, she now receives more in SNAP funds that she previously spent on groceries in a month.

Another man who chose to remain anonymous had his IT business fail last year, and the bankruptcy depleted his savings. Unable to find work, he was approved to begin receiving assistance. He finds his SNAP payment does in fact cover the cost of his food, and he too hasn't run into much prejudice at the cash register. He does, however, write that it's "not fun to have the manager called over and loudly tell the cashier how he misentered the FOODSTAMP something."

I asked him how he felt about using SNAP. He replied, "Not good, but I'm glad it's there. I wish the excess balance could be put toward my mortgage."

Could you be eligible for food stamps? Many people don't realize that, in calculating eligibility, the government doesn't count funds set aside for retirement (IRA, 401k, pensions and the like), or cars, if they are essential. Child care can be deducted from your icnome, as can medical expenses for some, and child support. Adding up the deductions, those who are cash-poor could well find help with SNAP. Check out this pre-screening tool to get an idea whether you qualify.
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