Shopping's not a snap with food stamps

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)logo.


TESS VIGELAND: It's hard for most of us to imagine not having enough money for food. But the number of people qualifying for food stamps is up 20 percent over this time last year.

These days they're not actually stamps. The government benefit comes in the form of a plastic debit card. And it goes by the peppy acronym of SNAP, for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." More retailers, including Costco, are working toward accepting the cards. So to see just how far food assistance goes.

We sent Marketplace's Jeff Tyler shopping with one recipient in Southern California.

Jeff Tyler: Buying groceries isn't one-stop shopping for Maribel Diaz. She crisscrosses town to get the most bang for her benefit bucks -- starting here at the farmers' market in Pasadena.

Diaz: Hi.

Vendor: Good morning.

Diaz: How have you been?


Diaz: I want to use my EBT card so I can buy some vouchers.

Diaz hands the woman her EBT card. EBT stands for "Electronic Benefit Transfer." The old paper food stamps are out, plastic is in. It looks and works like a debit card.

Diaz: On a monthly basis, they put a certain amount, depending on my income, on my card.

The amount also depends on the size of the family. Diaz is a single mom with three boys.

Diaz: So this month, I got $400. Let's go shopping.

She moves from one stall to the next.

Diaz: Could I get a cabbage?

Vendor: With or without leaves?

Diaz: Oh, with leaves.

Among other things, she buys spinach, beets, oranges and strawberries. Altogether, she spends $28. Then, Diaz loads up her car and drives to East Los Angeles, where she'll do more bargain hunting at a supermarket called Superior Warehouse.

She's been receiving food assistance for about eight years.

Diaz: I was out of state and then I came back. Ever since then, it's been kind of hard to get on my feet, because basically I got here with nothing. Plus, I have three kids. Going to school and not having someone to pick them up, I could basically like only deal with part-time jobs.

She has two part-time jobs -- one with a non-profit called Hunger Action and another at a convention center. The number of hours varies. Because she never knows exactly how much she'll make, Diaz has learned to be a savvy shopper.

She walks into the store and immediately picks up the in-house flier to see what's on sale. She fills her grocery cart with peanut butter, eggs, cereal and yogurt. But she'll wait to buy tomato sauce at the next store.

Diaz: There are some deals that are better here and then some at Food For Less. That's why I shop around at both stores.

Tyler: Now are there any things that you would normally shop for that aren't covered by food stamps?

Diaz: The only thing that I do get that it's not covered is like the detergent. You know, stuff like to go wash. Toilet paper. Napkins.

Cigarettes and liquor aren't covered either. Same goes for pet food.

At the check-out register, anything not covered by the SNAP program gets tallied separately. But all her groceries qualify. Diaz swipes her card.

Even though it looks like a debit card, she says first-timers can feel self-conscious.

Diaz: If you're neighbor sees you at the store, you kind of get embarrassed.

Over time, she says people adjust.

Diaz: Because if you really stop and think about it, it's not only you. It's other people out there using it. But you think that, maybe it's only me.

In fact, 32 million people get help through the SNAP program. And a good number of them have beaten us to the next stop, a few blocks away at the Food For Less.

Diaz can't find the frozen broccoli she's after. The shelves in the frozen section have been picked clean.

Diaz: From the first to the tenth, everybody gets their food stamps. So the markets are run out of a lot of produce. So, normally I know they stock every Wednesday, because I've asked the manager before. So, if I do really need it, I'll be back like Thursday morning.

Most of the food she buys is nutritious, with a few exceptions.

Diaz: I know it's bad, but I have to get some bacon. It was on sale. And I'm going to have some company this weekend. So might as well.

She stocks up on a variety of stuff, including a big jar of tomato sauce. So, how much did she spend at the three markets?

Diaz: Altogether, it adds up to like $230 out of $400.

Tyler: Do you normally spend more than half on the first day?

Diaz: Yeah. It's normal for me to spend $230 to $300. That's what I normally spend on the first day.

And she's not finished. Diaz will stop at two more stores to get cut-price meat and fish. She'll go shopping again in a week or so and use what's left of her monthly assistance.

Diaz: If I run out, I have to go to food banks and get like canned stuff. And there's some churches that you go to and they give you fresh produce.

How often does that happen?

Diaz: This past year, I've gone for six months straight to food banks and to churches because my food stamps were not enough.

Perhaps the acronym SNAP is a better name than food stamps. For many families, the assistance money goes just like...

[Sound of snapping fingers]

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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You can personalize the EBT card so it doesn’t have to look like a food stamps card to protect your privacy. I think its called food stamps skin or you can check out this website. http://www.foodstampscovers.com

I get $94 a month for my food stamps in illinois and it's not nearly enough money for food. I have searched all over the internet and there is not a single place where I can lodge my complaint about being hungry. All I have seen are people complaining that people are getting "too much" money for food, and that we should starve people out even worse than we're doing now. You people saying these things are evil. The $94 per month I get for food lasts about 2 weeks and then I have nothing to eat the rest of the month. I have done research and found that according to experts it costs a minimum of $200 per month to buy healthy food for a proper diet in America.

joan. She is yt hero, my icon. She sacrificed herself and her well=being to give mw the best chance at life. I have no living
love my mother

Here in oregon, I know many people who run out of food stamps before the end of the month. Most of them do not shop very carefully or really check out the deals. I also know serveral families who have plenty of "money" including myself without all family members qualifying. Those of us who buy carefully often have enough left over at the end of the month to buy some of the "splurge items" when they go on sale. My husband and I only receive food stamps for one person because I do not qualify as a full time college student. I have recently purchased duck, salmon, and few other fun foods and still have some left over because of the way I shop and refuse to pay "regular" prices for most things.

You mean that Ms Diaz didn't buy caviar and lobster with her "generous" food-stamps? (Or so many people posting on various political forums seem to think.)

As a single 60 yo man on Social Security Disability, Food Stamps help. But living in NYC, they are not adjusted properly to long-& short-term rises in food prices. Trying to get healthy & enough nutrition to cope with my medications is harder & harder. Since there won't be a COLA for SSD next year, the problem will only increase.

Still saving 50% on groceries, detergents and HABA after 20 yrs., Grocery Outlet stores.Oregon,Idaho, Washington.Corporate at Berkeley, California.Twenty years shop bread outlets...OroWheat and Franz.Return breads. I put many foodstuffs in freezer after buying. Rarely inferior purchases, always returns OK. New Goodwill stores, Oregon makes saving without coupons cinch.WalMart Superstore nearby, 24 hrs. Factory Outlet Shops across town, designer markdowns. Great Depression and WWII rationing lessons on stretching things, not throwing anything away. Out of the box thinking, not advertised, works.

I am not on food stamps, but I needed to make my food money go farther to stay within my budget. The biggest help for me was learning how to coupon with the help of a few websites. I have been able to bring my monthly spending for myself, my husband, and two small children down to about $200-$250/month.

Food stamps are a gods-send - my husband is on disability and we have 4 kids to feed. I don't expect the stamps to last the whole month, but they do help.

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