Although she’s been receiving federal food assistance for around 15 years, Madison resident Elizabeth Blume has never eaten government cheese. But she’s heard horror stories from people who ate the gelatinous orange substance.
Today, federal food programs no longer rely on surplus dairy products to feed food-insecure Americans. Eligibility requirements have been loosened, there are easier payment options, and the current system provides users with more choice and dignity.
While Blume, 39, has more choice than early commodity recipients, it’s still hard to maintain a balanced diet using food pantry donations and FoodShare benefits.
“Healthy food should be a basic right for everyone, but it’s just not,” Blume said.
Before the pandemic, the $155 per month she received in FoodShare benefits made it hard to buy food that matched her dietary needs, such as $5 gallons of lactose-free milk.
Instead, Blume often sticks to cheap foods like rice and potatoes and depends on food pantries for donations.
“You just feel more tired,” Blume said. “You feel sluggish. Your digestion is not quite … on par. (But) you don’t have a choice.”
Insufficient benefits aren’t the only hurdle. Participants must navigate a convoluted process to apply for and keep food assistance. And they continue to face social stigma for participating in a program that’s been around in one form or another for nearly 90 years.
A top official formerly in charge of administering Wisconsin’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as FoodShare, says the process is hopelessly complex for the people it seeks to help. In fact, nearly 1 out of 5 people eligible do not participate in the program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.
“I’m a well-educated, smart individual, (and) that was my job, and if I had to apply for benefits, I would be challenged to do so,” said Rebecca McAtee, who ran the program in the Department of Health Services from 2016 to 2021.
Benefits vary nationwide
Each state differs in how it counts assets, if it requires work and how often recipients must report their income to renew benefits.
Wisconsin’s program requires able-bodied recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 to work, do job training or complete job search activities for at least 80 hours per month. Exemptions apply for recipients who have a child in the household and for primary caregivers of people who cannot care for themselves.
Since the pandemic, all work requirements have been waived, but the waiver expires Sept. 30.
In Wisconsin, recipients cannot make more than 200% of the poverty level or risk losing FoodShare. A single recipient cannot earn more than $2,148 per month, or $25,776 a year, to qualify for help. A family of four cannot make more than $53,016 a year.
In the past two decades, the percentage of Wisconsinites using FoodShare has more than doubled from 6.8% of the state’s residents in 2001 to 15.7% in 2020.
And government funding for Wisconsin’s FoodShare program in 2021 stood at $2.1 billion — by far the highest it’s been in a decade. That has sparked concerns from legislative Republicans that the state is spending too much and possibly disincentivizing work.
Frustration sparks food stamps program
The federal food assistance program has changed in numerous ways since it was implemented in 1933. During the Great Depression, America faced twin crises: starvation and surplus. While impoverished families went hungry, crop prices declined and farmers were left with excess food. In response, the federal government bought up surplus foods and distributed them to people in need.
But the food, consisting of whatever farmers and manufacturers produced too much of, provided little nutritional balance. Families waited in line to receive huge quantities of commodity foods, from canned goods to perishables including cheese and potatoes. They ate the same foods for a month before the next box arrived.
Since federal food assistance programs were first implemented, users like Blume have expressed dissatisfaction with them. Frustration from commodity recipients, combined with lobbying from the food industry, led to the creation of the first food stamps program in 1939.
In the early days of the program, families would spend their monthly grocery budget to purchase food stamps. A $10 food stamp purchase bought $10 in orange stamps to buy any food and $5 in blue stamps to buy government-designated surplus foods.
It also subjected users to social stigma.
“People used to get paper food stamps, and they would go to the grocery store and they were segregated in lines separately from people who were paying with cash or check,” recalled Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force.
Food stamps made permanent
Twenty-five years after food stamps first began, President Lyndon Johnson made it permanent in 1964 as part of the Democratic president’s War on Poverty. The Food Stamp Act also allowed users to purchase a wide variety of foods, not just surplus products.
The food stamps program was opt-in, meaning states and counties could choose to issue food stamps, continue with the commodity system or not provide any assistance at all. Even when state and local governments implemented the program, individuals with no income or irregular income often could not afford to buy stamps, said Laurie B. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
As a result, only 18% of America’s poor were served by the food stamp or commodity programs in 1968, according to the influential report, Hunger, U.S.A.
Some progress toward greater accessibility was made in 1971, when the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon made food stamps free for those most in need. Three years later, it doubled the average benefits users received and mandated that states implement it.
But the new program had its drawbacks, requiring some participants to pay up to 30% of their monthly income upfront to receive assistance. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, remedied this issue by ending the purchase requirement for food stamps. Instead, recipients were given determined amounts of food stamps based on income.
In 2002, the EBT system replaced physical food stamps, allowing recipients to pay for groceries with funds preloaded onto a card. In 2004, Wisconsin renamed the stigma-laden food stamps program FoodShare.
‘Doing the right thing’
Growing up in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Britnie Remer used to be angry at her single father for not “doing the right things” to escape poverty. He worked multiple strenuous jobs to provide for her — but the family still needed FoodShare to make ends meet.
She told herself, “I’m going to make different choices, and (…) my life will be different and I won’t struggle.”
But in college, Remer realized it wasn’t that simple, falling into $40,000 of student loan debt despite working two full-time jobs. Later, after years without benefits — and still no degree — she signed up for FoodShare again.
Today, Remer, who now lives in Wausau, is a chair for Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign, which fights systemic poverty. She believes food insecurity is a symptom of a system that fabricates scarcity and “prioritizes profit over human life.”
Though Remer understands this, she still suffered the social stigma of poverty. It was obvious at grocery stores, when her father would pull out the green Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, the form of payment used by FoodShare recipients.
Searching for solutions
During her time as FoodShare director, McAtee realized the complex and often tedious nature of the application process, including extensive paperwork, interviews with a caseworker and notifications whenever a recipient’s monthly income rises above 130% of the poverty level — even if it’s just by a dollar.
Blume is familiar with this issue. One time, she was denied federal food assistance because she surpassed the monthly income limit by $6.
The overly complicated bureaucracy of FoodShare makes it hard for substantial changes to be made, McAtee said. She favors streamlining the program to make recipients who are eligible for other federal programs eligible for FoodShare.
In the meantime, it’s frustrating for all parties involved, McAtee said, adding that was part of the reason she left.
“You can only kind of bang your head against the wall so many times before you’re finally like, ‘This is too much,’ ” McAtee said.
Chris Kane, director of client services for Society of St. Vincent DePaul Madison, has noticed the government’s inaction in addressing food insecurity during his 26 years with the charity.
“I’ve always believed myself that it really is the government that should be taking care of people, and making it so … that people don’t need to go to a place of charity to get food,” he said.
Expansion sparks debate
Just as food stamps began as an emergency response to the Great Depression, the sweeping recent changes to food assistance programs were sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trump administration had planned to cut back on federal food assistance funding but instead raised all SNAP recipient households to the maximum benefit based on their income level and family size. Now, a no-income household with two adults and three children could receive $768 per month — around $240 more than before.
The move, part of a “robust” federal response, kept people fed despite widespread unemployment, said Judi Bartfeld, project coordinator for the Wisconsin Food Security Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As some pandemic measures lapsed in 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden permanently increased average SNAP benefits to over 25% above pre-pandemic levels, or a national average addition of around $36 per person per month — the biggest permanent change in the program since 1979, when Carter eliminated the purchase requirement for food stamps.
But in Wisconsin, pandemic-era policies that helped alleviate food insecurity may be short-lived. Earlier this year Republican legislators introduced Assembly Bill 935, which would have reinstated work requirements to receive FoodShare.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive expansion in the size and scope of government welfare programs,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, in a heated hearing over AB 935. “You can just get all kinds of money in these programs now, with more people on them than ever before.”
Given the contentious divide over food assistance policy, Bartfeld is doubtful pandemic-related measures will become permanent fixtures of Wisconsin’s approach to addressing food insecurity.
Said Bartfeld: “There’s interest in making access to food much more streamlined and less restrictive, and there’s interest in really restrictive policies, and I don’t know that either of those are going to get any traction right now.”
Former University of Wisconsin-Madison student Rachel Clark contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Finding food aid in Wisconsin
Use the 211 Wisconsin website to find a food pantry in your neighborhood by dialing 2-1-1 or texting your ZIP code to TXT-211 (898-211). You may want to call ahead because hours at pantries can vary.
For those 60 or older, Meals on Wheels will deliver meals to you and anyone living with you who also qualifies. You can find the Meals on Wheels program closest to you by searching its website, mealsonwheelsamerica.org/find-meals. Requirements vary by program and areas served, and there are some dine-in options for mobile seniors.