By Guest Blogger Jessica Shahin, Associate Administrator of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service
Today, I was thinking about the last entry I wrote for Disability.gov’s blog just about a year ago and considering our accomplishments in 2012 and the opportunities that are ahead for 2013.
The need for food assistance remained high in 2012, with an average of 47 million people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) every month. Program participation increased in response to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy in the New England states. However, overall the program grew at a slower rate and even flattened toward the end of the year. SNAP continues to be the cornerstone of the national hunger safety net by helping those in need put healthy food on the table.
SNAP is there for those who need it, including our veterans and their families. And this is a place where we determined in 2012 to do better – serving veterans, especially our wounded warriors, in their time of need. I recently read a post by Wayne Connell, founder and president of the Invisible Disabilities Association. Something he wrote stuck out to me. Connell says, “What is a disability? In general, the term disability is often used to describe a physical or mental challenge. This could be a bump in life that can be managed, or a mountain that creates serious changes and loss. Either way, this term should not be used to describe a person as weaker or lesser than anyone else!”
His definition of disability struck me as an important reminder that being in need is not an indication of status, but is instead a challenge that many Americans, including many returning troops, must meet every day. Whether a bump or a mountain, SNAP is available to all military families and veterans who meet program eligibility criteria for the period of time they are in need.
There are two income tests for applicants – for most households, income must be below both a gross income limit and net income limit, but for households with someone with a disability or a person age 60 or older, only a net income limit must be met. Additionally, there are specific provisions regarding disability and veterans. If a veteran (or a surviving spouse) is receiving disability payments or payments for aid and attendance for a person with a disability, this person is considered “disabled” for SNAP purposes and does not have to meet the gross income limit.
The disabled veteran or surviving spouse will also have a higher resource limit, as do all households with someone over 60 or someone who has a disability. While these are not new policies, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) saw an opportunity to look at how we reach out to those who sacrificed for our freedom and to consider opportunities that might improve how we communicate.
First, FNS developed a website (http://www.fns.usda.gov/outreach/getinvolved/military.htm) to acknowledge the sacrifice and service of our troops and veterans and to assist those who may be newly eligible for programs as they navigate the network of services and resources.
Second, FNS collaborated with the Veterans Affairs Readjustment Counseling Service, placing “How to Get Food Help” – a food assistance brochure – in 300 readjustment centers and 70 mobile veteran centers located throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Guam. This brochure, and others, can be ordered or downloaded.
Third, we are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to cross-promote benefits and resources available to disabled veterans and to identify new areas of collaboration.
While our data is limited on the number of disabled veterans who are eligible for or are receiving SNAP benefits, we do know that in Fiscal Year 2011 (October 2011 to September 2012), less than one percent of SNAP households received veterans benefits. We need to learn more about the needs and barriers to access that this population faces in order to provide education to disabled veterans and their families, so they can make informed decisions about participating in SNAP.
To that end, the USDA Veterans, Reservists and Military Families Task Force is working to identify key data and research gaps that will inform our understanding of the needs of veterans, reservists and military families. FNS will use the work of this task force to inform and improve our efforts to reach disabled veterans and their families.
You might wonder why this is important. It is important for a variety of reasons, including the benefits and services that SNAP can provide to disabled veterans and their families, such as:
- Increases food purchasing power for healthier choices – families can supplement their food purchases with SNAP, increasing access to healthy food choices at more than 240,000 retailers across the country…including farmers’ markets where SNAP participants can select from a variety of fresh and nutritious foods while increasing the customer base for local farmers.
- Provides nutrition education – individuals and families can receive nutrition education to improve the likelihood that they will make healthy food choices within a limited budget based on the MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Information about nutrition can be found at http://snap.nal.usda.gov/resource-library/click-n-go-education-materials
- Offers employment and training services – SNAP households are eligible for employment and training services, including assistance with seeking and retaining employment or attending secondary education courses to start a new vocation/career.
In 2013, we should all pause to think what we can do to thank our veterans, including those whose sacrifice results in a disability, and help them meet whatever challenge is before them. They gave…it is our turn.
For further information about SNAP, please read my blog post from December 2011 at: http://usodep.blogs.govdelivery.com/2011/12/19/a-ripple-effect-the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap/
For More Information:
- To apply for SNAP benefits, please visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/apply.htm
- Find out if you are eligible for SNAP benefits at http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm or by using the online pre-screening tool at http://www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns/
- Get answers to frequently asked questions at http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/contact_info/widget.htm
Jessica Shahin is the senior career official in USDA directly responsible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
Ms. Shahin has nearly 20 years of experience with SNAP at the state and federal levels. She served on the original Texas Electronic Benefit Transfer Team as director of information management for the Department of Human Services, was executive assistant to the deputy commissioner for client self-support programs, and was later named director of interagency policy for the agency’s Office of Government Relations. In this capacity, she developed an expertise for effective integration of various human service programs in both the policy and management arenas. Beginning in January 2004, Ms. Shahin served as acting associate administrator and deputy associate administrator for the Food Stamp Program/SNAP. She became associate administrator for SNAP in January 2009.