Audrey Rollins has always loved food.
As the centerpiece of family gatherings, meals were a source of joy and community. And Rollins never imagined that her appreciation for good food would be replaced with a fear for enough food.
After 20 years of employment, Rollins, a qualified home health aide, was injured on the job resulting in a severe disability. As her family began to pay for home repairs and kids’ field trips, Audrey watched as their well-stocked pantry and robust emergency fund slowly shrank.
And then one day, they were both empty.
Rollins' experience mirrors that of 41 million Americans, according to the US Census Bureau. With rising unemployment, inflation, healthcare expenses, and childcare costs, an alarming 12 percent of the US population grapples with poverty and food insecurity. Each year, countless people struggle to feed their family. However, since its inception in 1939, one program has risen to the occasion, providing more meals than all of the food banks, homeless shelters, and canned food drives combined.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government-funded initiative that offers food-purchasing assistance to those in need, is essential to the health of our churches and communities. While some still refer to these benefits as “food stamps” and carry an outdated view of the aid given and the recipients in need, SNAP defies assumptions and stereotypes.
1. Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Of the 42 million Americans who relied on SNAP in 2022, 30% were children, 16% were elderly, and 19% had a disability.
2. SNAP recipients may look different than you think. The majority of SNAP recipients are white (37%), followed by Black (25%), Hispanic (20%), and Asian (8%).
3. The vast majority of SNAP recipients are working. As of 2022, 63% of SNAP recipients are employed, with an additional 9% unable to work due to disability.
4. SNAP is a fiscally responsible investment. SNAP reduces healthcare costs, crime rates, and homelessness, saving taxpayers $1.73 for every $1 that’s put towards SNAP according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In addition to saving money, the Food Research and Action Center found that every $1 from SNAP actually generates $2.50 in economic activity.
For a program that’s often criticized as a hand-out at the taxpayers’ expense, every dollar invested in SNAP yields $4.20 in savings and economic stimulation, creating over 400% return for taxpayers.
The Family Next Door
In a church of 250 people, 30 are likely receiving SNAP benefits based on national averages. This could be the second grade teacher whose husband passed away, the group of foster kids bussed in from down the road, or perhaps the pastor himself.
Hannah Anderson’s husband was making $28,000 a year as the lead pastor at a small church. With three kids under the age of five, Hannah stayed home. It was impossible to feed all five Andersons on her husband’s salary, so the pastor’s family applied for SNAP. But with this aid came unrelenting shame.
“I’m… standing in the checkout line of our local grocery store,” Anderson recounts in a recent article for Christianity Today. “Rhonda, the organist from the church that my husband pastors, has cued up directly behind me. She says hello, and I nod back.
“Normally, I would ask about her grandbabies or garden, but instead, I mumble an excuse about having forgotten bread and navigate my cart out of line toward the aisles stocked with food. But I haven’t forgotten anything. It’s a charade, a charade brought about by the shame I feel because my family is on welfare.”
Anderson’s fear, unfortunately, was well-founded. A 2021 study found that almost half of those surveyed believed that people who receive SNAP are lazy. An additional 38 percent believed that these recipients aren’t trying hard enough to get ahead. And yet, most people who receive SNAP benefits are employed; they simply do not earn enough money to make ends meet.
It’s Not Enough
Though Christians find themselves on both sides of the SNAP debate, many are already investing in anti-hunger initiatives. Neighborhood food banks, church soup kitchens, and backpack programs are hallmarks of evangelical outreach. It’s too easy to believe that such efforts are sufficient for alleviating food insecurity. After all, there are 60,000 church food pantries in the US, and each one annually gives away $10,000 worth of food on average.
But it’s not enough—not even close. If every church in the US, an estimated 380,000, had a food pantry and gave away over $300,000 of food annually, it wouldn’t match SNAP’s contributions. Even the work of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the US, pales in comparison to the aid available from this program. With distribution to over 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, Feeding America dispensed the equivalent of 10.8 billion meals last year. And for every meal that they provided, SNAP provided nine more.
SNAP isn’t a perfect program. While we can, and should, ask questions about its efficacy and implementation, Anderson says that any viable critique must consider the complicated matrix of the US food system. Perhaps this consideration looks like destigmatizing and supporting SNAP even as we insist on reviewing the systemic issues that feed generational poverty.
The current need is greater than we can understand, greater than we can meet without the government's help—and many Christians already accept this, in theory at least. The Public Religion Research Institute found that 73% of white evangelicals believed that the government should do more to help the poor.
So how do we put action behind this belief?
Enter the Farm Bill—a legislative instrument that plays a pivotal role in funding food assistance programs like SNAP and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which impacts investments in the US agricultural economy and the amount of food that gets from America’s farmers to the tables of people that need it via pantries and food banks. Within the Farm Bill, which is currently being reviewed by Congress, some are proposing cuts to vital programs like SNAP.
With another recession looming, those of us who are invested in the health of our communities must fight for SNAP to be protected from changes that would reduce access to or lower the value of benefits because the program is, at the very least, the best immediate solution to a very large, complicated problem.
In supporting the Farm Bill, including food assistance programs, we support fiscal responsibility and human dignity. This is our moment to break bread together as we break the stigmas that divide us. If you’re one of the 73% who support programs that are providing meals for the most vulnerable, you can make a difference today.