A woman swipes her “food stamp” card at a grocery store in this 2008 photo.
Andrew Weckwerth signed up for food stamps earlier this year.
As a volunteer for the service-oriented non-profit Americorps, Weckwerth, 22, only receives a small living stipend, which qualifies him for food-stamp assistance from the government, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“It was a difficult decision for me,” Weckwerth said. “I’m perhaps a touch more libertarian than many of my peers, so it made it difficult.”
Weckwerth volunteered for Americorps following his graduation from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with degrees in biology and political science. Through Americorps, he now works with the Winneshiek Energy District, a Northeast Iowa non-profit that promotes sustainability through environmental education and improving residential energy efficiency.
He doesn’t garner a salary or hourly wages for his work with these groups, so he receives food stamps as a supplement.
“Because our living stipend doesn’t count as income, we can automatically qualify,” he said. “It’s not a program expectation, but it’s one of those things that for most people in the program goes with saying.”
“The amount of SNAP benefits you can get is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan, which is an estimate of how much it costs to buy food to prepare nutritious, low-cost meals for your household,” the website states. “This estimate is changed every year to keep pace with food prices.”
According to data from the 2011 census, a single person under the age of 65 is considered to be below the federal poverty line if his or her annual income is less than $11,702. For each family member beyond that, the number rises by a few thousand dollars. A record 46 million Americans currently receive food stamps, according to USA TODAY’s recent piece on rampant poverty in an Ohio community. Many of those who receive assistance are unable to find work.
However, many young people who volunteer for groups like Americorps also qualify, since they are without formal income, or underemployed. Weckwerth said that most of the Americorps volunteers he knows receive nutrition assistance from the government. Weckwerth also noted that, initially, he was wary of the program.
“There’s a little bit of stigma I suppose,” he said. “… It takes a little bit of getting used to. The first time I came up into the grocery store it was like, I’m going to slide my card over there, and don’t judge me — but people are really fine with it.”
The financial assistance has improved the nutrition Weckwerth receives, since much of his stipend from Americorps goes toward rent and bills. He also puts money away every month for upcoming student loans payments and, eventually, grad school. He said that he thinks that volunteers like him likely use the program differently than larger families.
“The difference is that I can provide all of my food budget from food stamps, and that goes above and beyond what I would otherwise be spending,” he said. “… But say I was a family of four living on I don’t know how much money, that wouldn’t provide all of it. I think that would influence their food choices more, whereas I can use my food stamps to buy a filet of salmon and farmers market micro-greens. If it wasn’t going to cut it, I’d probably be eating ramen or whatever.”
He needs the fuel, too — Weckwerth has been a runner for 13 years, and has continued his training post-grad.
Simply put, Weckwerth emphasized that his participation in the food stamps program has improved the quality of food he can afford, helping him better serve the community through Americorps.
“Looking at my finances I feel way more stable,” he said. “I never felt in poverty, and I think that that would be ludicrous, even though I’m technically under that line. I don’t feel it.”
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