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What is it like to rely on SNAP food stamps for a week?

This is a true exercise in futility. A single roll of Smarties candy in my hand, I study the chart. I am to imagine I am married with two children, a son, 14, and a daughter, 9. My hypothetical husband and I both work, and now I must make choices...

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This is a true exercise in futility. A single roll of Smarties candy in my hand, I study the chart. I am to imagine I am married with two children, a son, 14, and a daughter, 9. My hypothetical husband and I both work, and now I must make choices about those simple, bare necessities of life: housing, health care, food, transportation, technology access, laundry, shopping and spending money.

What can I give up in order to provide for my family? How will I spend my 15 Smarties?

Round 1: I quickly blow through most of my money by spending three Smarties each to have a house with my own washer/dryer, a car and health insurance coverage for the whole family. We scrimp on food by eating only two meals a day. I figure we can handle that. I throw out the computer but hang onto the cellphone and plain-Jane TV (no cable or Netflix for us).

That's OK. We enjoy reading books. It's livable, so far. But wait, I have three categories left and only two Smarties in my hand. I guess I'll walk to the grocery store with one Smartie and spend the last Smartie to have no money left after I pay the bills. I'm not supposed to cheat, but if I could get away with it, I guess I'd be washing clothes in the tub.

Round 2: I downsize to a three-bedroom apartment and sell my car. I guess hoofing it or the bus will have to do. I also decide to play fair and put one Smartie on the laundromat option. With all I sacrificed, I am able to scrape together $20 for that month's extra spending money. Two of us will get to go to the movies.

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Round 3: Next, I have a colleague try to make ends meet with his 15 Smarties. He would rather have the $50 left for spending money, he says. Hey, who wouldn't, but it's simply not possible. The only premium option he picks is covering the whole family with health insurance. His family is walking everywhere and doing the laundry at Suds 'N Duds. And still, their pockets are empty at the end of the month.

The "Making Choices" exercise was five minutes of frustration for myself and my colleague, but for 4,859 people in Grand Forks County last year, it wasn't just a game. It was everyday reality.

Luellen Hart, program administrator for economic assistance in Grand Forks County, said 2,334 households face these very difficult decisions.

The Herald sat down with Hart recently to learn about some of the myths and facts about what's come to be known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP - more commonly referred to by its old name, food stamps.

She said the most common misconception about the program is who it is designed to help.

"For some reason, society has made a connection that it's somehow connected to unemployment, laziness or lack of motivation, and that's just not true," Hart said. "The point I try to make with this is it's not people who are sitting on the street corners begging for money. We have many individuals who are working full time."

She points to one redacted example on her desk. "This one's got $14 per hour, which is a pretty average salary in Grand Forks. But when you throw in our cost of living and child care, it takes away a lot of your spendable income."

History of program

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The origins of the modern-day SNAP program go back to 1935, when Congress first authorized the secretary of agriculture to use custom receipts to buy food for welfare institutions. The funds were known as Section 32 funds. In 1946, Congress created the Commodity Distribution Program in which surplus foods from the price support program were made available for institutions and welfare programs. In 1961, the Food Stamp Program was created as a pilot project under the Kennedy administration. Three years later, it became law - its purpose to increase the food-buying power of low-income families. (This information on the history of SNAP was provided by a policy manual from the state of North Dakota.)

The defined purpose certainly seems noble, but yet more than 50 years later, the program can't shake its negative stigma. For those with little or no income to buy food, the benefit may provide the only means to properly nourish their family. But for some, it's still a point of embarrassment or shame. It might be telling to know that the Herald tried to reach out to find a family or individual who would want to share what the program has meant to them. We found no takers.

Making a difference

That's not surprising to Hart. There are many people who don't understand the critical difference the benefit can make for those who need it, she said.

And that's exactly the reason she asks her staff to take the "Making Choices" test provided by United Way.

"None of these programs will make you rich or get you out of debt. It just helps you meet your basic needs," Hart said. "Taking the test makes you realize the struggle others experience making these very difficult choices. That's exactly it. It's down to the very basic necessity of caring for yourself and your family."

Hart said for many working families, and elderly or disabled people on a fixed income, SNAP can be the difference between eating, taking medications and seeing the doctor or not.

A one-time single mom herself, Hart said she didn't apply for benefits. And though she received regular child support payments, she certainly still could relate to the struggle.

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"I know if it wasn't on sale in the grocery ads - other than milk, bread and eggs - it didn't come home with me," she said. "There was no other way I could afford to feed my kids. To me, it is that very basic need to provide, to protect, to keep healthy."

Fact or fiction?

Hart shared some common misconceptions about how the SNAP program works as well as some important facts.

Q. Can people who don't work receive SNAP benefits forever?

Today, the program has strict requirements. If you're able to work, you must look for work, take a job offer or go to training. Before welfare reforms went into effect in 1997, the rules were more lax. At that time, Hart said "there were no limits, and the work requirements were really lax. You could stay on forever, really, and make no effort to be self-sufficient." The reforms, however, initiated a policy that said able-bodied adults without dependent children could receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period (with some special exceptions).

Q. If I'm eligible for benefits but choose not to use them, does that mean there's more for others?

No, it doesn't work that way. "Food stamps is not one of those pots of money (programs), like a block grant and when it's out, it's out," Hart said. "If you qualify, you qualify. Not accepting what you qualify for doesn't enable more benefits for someone else." Hart said social workers often hear older people give this reasoning for not accepting benefits. "I'm OK, give it to someone who needs it more."

Q. Aren't Social Security benefits enough to cover nutritional benefits for older people who are retired?

Not really, Hart says. "I know in our current day and age, with Baby Boomers and younger, they know that financial planning and setting money aside really is a requirement for retirement." However, people who already may be older didn't have that benefit of foresight. "When Social Security first came out, they said 'Hey, this will take care of everything. Don't worry.' The money looked good. But you don't think about inflation. They thought the Social Security would be enough to live on. The government promised it would be sufficient. It's not."

Q. How much in SNAP benefits were distributed in Grand Forks County in 2016?

$7,177,207. That's a lot of money, but Hart said a USDA study from some years ago found North Dakota had a very low participation rate, meaning a great number of people who would qualify did not seek benefits.

Q. Can I use my SNAP benefits to buy cigarettes, alcohol or anything sold in the grocery store?

No, you cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol. SNAP benefits are allowed to purchase food, with some exceptions to that. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the program, does not allow you to purchase ready-to-eat hot foods. The thinking behind that rule is those foods involve extra expense to prepare and keep hot, Hart said. SNAP can be used to purchase seeds for edible foods, though, and some farmers markets now are equipped to accept SNAP.

Q. Can I use my SNAP to buy candy, pop and potato chips?

Yes. The USDA does not differentiate or regulate what might be considered "healthy" foods and less healthy foods. Hart says it very well could be impossible to keep up with every new product on the market. "I can't imagine trying to regulate and read every food label to try to determine if it meets certain criteria to be purchased with food stamps," she said. "What if it's a light product? Does it have too much sodium? Well, that's up to the USDA."

Q. What would you say to naysayers of the SNAP program?

"I talk about the economic stimulus. There are two studies five years apart (the last of which says) for every $5 in benefits, it's going to create $9.20 in spending activity in your community. That's a pretty good return on investment."

Q. Can I apply for benefits online?

You may begin to fill out a form that will help determine your possible eligibility, but a formal application must still be reviewed. To use the pre-screening tool, go to ND.gov>Online Services>Apply for Public Assistance Programs>Bridge to Benefits.

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