One out of every five Americans uses the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called ‘food stamps,’ to help feed themselves and their families. While enrollment nationwide is at an all-time high, many who qualify in our region don’t enroll. Who qualifies, what benefits buy, and why your local government wants to ensure every eligible resident participates in the program.


  • Audrey Rowe Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)


  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, shopping for groceries, looking around for dry cleaners, home insurers or roofing contractors? Why not talk with the experts from Washington Consumers' Checkbook? But first, one in five Americans receives food stamps.

  • 12:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo if you're in a metro car with nine other people, the odds are good that two of them receive food stamps. The number of Americans relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP is at an all-time high. And while the stigma long associated with the program has started to fade, a lot of area residents who qualify for the program don't use it. Joining us now by telephone is Audrey Rowe.

  • 12:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe is the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, in Washington, D.C. Audrey Rowe, how are you? Good to talk to you.

  • 12:07:51

    MS. AUDREY ROWEI'm great. Good to talk to you, too. It's been a long time.

  • 12:07:54

    NNAMDIIt certainly has. Nationwide, Audrey, the number of food stamp recipients is at an all-time high. Why do you think, locally, people are not taking full advantage of benefits?

  • 12:08:06

    ROWEWell, one of the concerns that we always have when -- with this program is the outreach and information, that we're able to share with people through state and municipal governments, making sure that individuals know that these programs are available to them, particularly when they are now unemployed or having other kinds of financial challenges during these economic times, that this is a program that is there.

  • 12:08:38

    ROWEIt is for them to be able to meet their nutritional needs and to put food on their table and to explain what the eligibility criteria are. Often, people think that you have to, you know, give up everything. You can't have a home. You can't have bank accounts. You can't -- there are lots of stereotypes with regard to the program. And, you know, that's not who we're serving today. We're serving individuals who are just facing hardship.

  • 12:09:09

    ROWEWe're serving fewer elderly than we ought to. The number of elderly who can participate in this program is very low. But, for them, it's the stigma of what is this going to mean in terms of how it affects any of my assets. So it's explaining and making sure people know that these programs are available for them.

  • 12:09:30

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Audrey Rowe. She is the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you've recently lost your job or you're going through a tough financial patch, are you considering applying for food stamps? Why or why not? 800-433-8850.

  • 12:09:54

    NNAMDIDo you work, worship or volunteer with people who could benefit from the use of this program, yet don't use it? What reasons do those people give you? 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website, Join the conversation there. Audrey, if someone listening is struggling to make ends meet and is considering applying for benefits but is not sure they qualify, could you tell us what some of the criteria are?

  • 12:10:21

    ROWEWell, I can tell you it differs from state to state. And -- but if someone is interested in, like, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. may have a different criteria that they have in place for participation. But if someone is interested, there's a 1-800 number, which is our SNAP hotline. It's 1-800-221-5689. That's 1-800-221-5689. They can call that number, tell them what state they're in. It has a pre-screening tool.

  • 12:10:54

    ROWEThey can do all of this without engaging the government at that point at all, and then be able to find out if they're eligible and then where they need to go and what kind of documentation they need to bring.

  • 12:11:06

    NNAMDIRates of participation among those eligible in this area tend to vary widely from less than 1 percent in Fairfax to a whopping 98 percent in Manassas Park. How do you account for such a wide range? Are some local governments just better than others at getting the word out?

  • 12:11:24

    ROWEWell, I think, it's a number of things. It's the economic situation of many of the individuals that are in those counties that have low participation. But it's also how the House counties and state governments provide SNAP education, information, where the information is provided.

  • 12:11:46

    ROWESome information for seniors, for example, being able to provide it through area agencies on aging, having it available for individuals who previously participated in food banks as volunteers and are now having to turn to food banks to meet their own basic needs, making sure that individuals have information at those locations: churches, libraries.

  • 12:12:11

    ROWEThere's a great deal of outrage. And what people need to understand is that it is a pathway to help them meet their basic needs at this moment. It's temporary. It allows them to take care of their family and their needs, as individuals -- or disabled or elderly at this moment. And then, if these circumstances improve, they're able to move on.

  • 12:12:37

    ROWEBut if it doesn't make a lot of sense, if you sacrifice at this time and not have the kind of health and nutrition that you need, so that when the opportunities come before you, you're able to move into them.

  • 12:12:50

    NNAMDISomebody might be listening now and thinking, well, I'm hurting, but there are a lot of folks worse off. And I don't want to take benefits away from them. Is that the case?

  • 12:13:00

    ROWENo, no. Anyone who is eligible for this program is entitled to receive those benefits. And so if you're hurting, and I hear that as I travel around the country, particularly from elderly individuals. I can try and make ends meet.

  • 12:13:18

    ROWEThe program was designed to be responsive to needs when you have economic hardships, to provide, as I said, that temporary support to you, and to -- and it gives you a pathway into other programs which may be available, such as job training opportunities and other work opportunities if you're trying to meet the basic needs of your family. If you're elderly, it may get you into some other benefits.

  • 12:13:48

    ROWEAnd we'll inform you of other benefits that you may be eligible for. So people who are really questioning, should I, shouldn't I? Is this a program I need to participate in? Know that the program is there for you. It was designed to meet and to be responsive during economic -- times of economic difficulty. And individuals can call the 1-800-221-5689. Find out what is required for their participation. It's in Spanish and English. It has a pre-screening tool.

  • ROWESo there are things that you can do that, at least, let you know if you're eligible. And I would encourage people to do that 'cause it's really very important that we utilize the resources that we have available while the economy is getting better and things are improving. In some parts of the country, the big issue has been as a result of disaster relief, all the hurricanes and flooding.

  • 12:14:44

    NNAMDISure. On to the telephones. Here is Jennifer in Frederick, Md. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:51

    JENNIFEROh, great. Thank you so much, Kojo. And I actually have applied for benefits, and -- but I wanted to find out if they are considering having vitamins as part of the program because since it's so hard to get the good nutrition, whether some people don't have, you know, fruits -- fresh fruits and vegetables...

  • 12:15:13

    NNAMDIThey live in food deserts, yes.

  • 12:15:15

    JENNIFERYeah, and vitamins -- it's so critical. And, I mean, I know it sound so obvious. But, from my understanding, I don't think it is part of it, and I just -- I would really like to see that added.

  • 12:15:25

    NNAMDIAudrey Rowe, what's the policy? And what's the thinking on that?

  • 12:15:27

    ROWEWell, as it's -- the policy said it would not be available. But, certainly, foods enriched with vitamins would be available for an individual. But the other program that we have is the Woman, Infants and Children's program, the WIC program, where individuals can go and find -- a pregnant women for prenatal care, postnatal, post -- prenatal care, postnatal care, as well as care for their infants and young children.

  • 12:15:56

    ROWEAnd there, they would be eligible to find out about the various nutritional meals and packages that we have. And they can also get into various programs where vitamins are available. But people...

  • 12:16:11

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 12:16:12

    ROWE...need to look at (unintelligible).

  • 12:16:13

    NNAMDIJennifer, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think there's a still a stigma attached with SNAP despite efforts to diminish that stigma? 800-433-8850.

  • 12:16:27

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Maryann, (sp?) who says, "My elderly mother in Pennsylvania qualifies for food stamps. But she physically cannot shop for herself, so her children buy groceries for her. I don't know if my mother should apply for food stamps because I don't know if one of her children can use them at a grocery store on my mother's behalf." Audrey Rowe.

  • 12:16:47

    ROWEI think her mother should apply. And, in Pennsylvania, they can make arrangements so that either the children and/or someone that the mother designates to be able to purchase food. In some states, they even allow for -- they're experimenting with some -- for the elderly, online purchases, being able to -- with another -- with a grocer, being able to do online purchasing and have your groceries delivered.

  • 12:17:17

    ROWESo there are ways in Pennsylvania. I am sure that individuals through the area Agency on Aging, the AAAs and others, that her mom can get access to benefits and should apply.

  • 12:17:32

    NNAMDII keep using the term food stamps. But a few decades ago, using food stamps meant that you had actual stamps that were color-coded and stuck out like a sore thumb in the checkout lane. Today, SNAP benefits are loaded onto a debit card. But is part of this still about stigma, Audrey?

  • 12:17:50

    ROWEI think part of it is about stigma, that -- some of it is stigma, that people who want to perpetuate an image of a program have chosen to continue to do that. And it's done a disservice because there are individuals right now who can benefit from this program, who are not participating because they are concerned that they will be -- they will have that stigma hung around their necks.

  • 12:18:18

    ROWEBut if you think about an elderly person who has worked all of his or her life, they now have run into some difficulty, or a family who has worked and lost their job. They're searching for work. They need help. That's what these programs are all about. They're not about what people want to keep perpetuating, which is the stigma of who are the -- a profile of the individuals who are in the program.

  • 12:18:45

    NNAMDISNAP benefits apparently don't just help the people using them. There seems to be a benefit for communities, too. How do benefits help local economies overall?

  • 12:18:56

    ROWEWell, that's one of the -- you know, again, it's a program that helps individuals. But within the economy, for every $5 spent in the local economy, it generates $9 in total community spending. So, you know, when I talk to grocers and retailers, they talk about the benefits of the SNAP program. It allows them to hire additional people. It benefits that -- the stores. It benefits the truckers who bring the food to the stores.

  • 12:19:29

    ROWEAnd it benefits the processors, and it benefits the farmers. So there is a benefit for the expenditures that individuals make in this program. And, again, that's why it's so critical because of its economic benefits and its meeting of basic needs.

  • 12:19:47

    NNAMDIHere is James in Washington, D.C. James, your turn.

  • 12:19:51

    JAMESGood morning. Hi. This information is appearing to be very helpful. But, right now, I just wanted to know the age, for the District of Columbia, what is considered elderly? And also, this 1-800 number that you provided to, you know, help us to use as a resource, does it address anything about housing, you know, for the elderly parent? Because I don't -- my mom, she doesn't really fall into that category, you know, in my mindset, elderly.

  • 12:20:21

    ROWEMm hmm. Mm hmm. Well, again, the -- for the District of Columbia, you would need to ask them or get from them their criteria for elderly. And I -- the 1-800 number can give them that. But the other thing that you can also receive is referral to what may be other, more appropriate programs for your grandmother. It may be -- or for your mother. It may be Meals on Wheels.

  • 12:20:50

    ROWEIt may be some of the other aging assistance programs that, again, have different age criteria, but allow individuals to be able to get the support that they need.

  • 12:21:03

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, James. We move on to Deborah in Ellicott City, Md. Deborah, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 12:21:11

    DEBORAHYes. I wanted to thank you for this program. As a permanent resident in this country and also as an (word?) looking for a job applicant, on nearly all of these applications, specifically the application for citizenship, has the question of, have you ever benefited or applied for any of the government programs, any government programs?

  • 12:21:35

    DEBORAHAnd that always precludes -- I think that would preclude the candidate from being considered as a citizen of this country. And I wonder whether a permanent resident who is considering citizenship should even consider applying for this program, for this assistance program.

  • 12:21:54

    NNAMDIYou asked a number of questions...

  • 12:21:55

    DEBORAHWell, thank you.

  • 12:21:56 the same question, Deborah. First, Audrey Rowe, is someone who is not a citizen of the United States eligible for SNAP benefits? And, two, Deborah's question, would that count against them when that person does apply for citizenship? I think not. That's what my own experience says to me.

  • 12:22:12

    ROWEAs I, would think not. And any -- you know, again, citizens are -- individuals who are in the country illegally are not eligible. If a citizen is in the country legally, then, again, they need to go on the line, call the number and determine what other requirements, or if there are other requirements, that their state in which they're residing may have.

  • 12:22:41

    ROWEBut individuals who are -- it would not -- if you participated in the program, they're not going to hold it against you as you go through your citizenship.

  • 12:22:50

    NNAMDIDeborah, thank you very much for your call. Finally, here is Bob in Fairfax, Va. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:22:58

    BOBHey, what's going on? I've got a question. Do food stamps cover pet foods? No?

  • 12:23:04

    NNAMDINo. I don't think they cover food for your pet, Bob. But thank you very much for your call. People may be reluctant to participate if they think that it would mean restrictions on what they can buy. Obviously, pet food doesn't qualify. But, Audrey Rowe, what can and what can people not buy with their benefits?

  • 12:23:22

    ROWEWell, clearly, you can't buy alcohol. You can't buy those products. You can buy any, you know, fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, anything that would make -- help you to have a healthy diet. But you can't buy alcohol. And there are a couple of other things that, again, state by state, that you cannot purchase.

  • 12:23:46

    NNAMDIAudrey Rowe, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:23:49

    ROWEThank you. Enjoyed it.

  • 12:23:50

    NNAMDIGood to talk to you again. Audrey Rowe is the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, in Washington, D.C. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, grocery shopping, shopping for home insurance, looking for a roofing contractor, looking for dry cleaners. Well, Washington's Consumers' Checkbook can give you advice on all of that after this.

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