Food stamps, stereotypes and feeding the community

Twenty-five percent of Pinellas County’s underage population, 18 and younger, and 17 percent of its adult population has no idea where their next meal will come from.



ST. PETERSBURG – Roy Henry never felt stigmatized as a senior citizen using food stamps, but nearly 50 years earlier, being a kid whose family was enrolled in the program generated a much different experience. He can still feel the embarrassment that heated his cheeks when his aunt would hold up the line at the grocery store counting out food stamp coupons.

Worse than grocery store hang-ups, Henry remembers the other kids that would tease and taunt those less fortunate.

“The kids would go around teasing people about “oh y’all on food stamps” recalled Henry. “If their parents weren’t on food stamps and everyone else was on food stamps, we’d be picked at.”

Henry, a semi-retired senior citizen, works part time as a cashier for Annie’s Beauty Supply on the Deuces and at 64 years old is the oldest student in his Master Barber program at St. Petersburg Barber School, which he attends every day from 5-9 p.m.

He tries to inspire people to keep growing no matter their past or their age. Henry admits life hasn’t been easy; he’s experienced what many families continue to experience in Pinellas County every day, hunger.

Twenty-five percent of Pinellas County’s underage population, 18 and younger, and 17 percent of its adult population have no idea where their next meal will come from. Even though healthy food is freely distributed throughout the city at numerous food pantries, outreach programs and federally funded food supplemental programs exist, hunger persists.

Our culture as Americans is one of pride and individualism. We are proud to live on our own, move out of our parent’s home and pay our own bills, but why still associate with our families, friends and neighbors if we can’t ask for help when we are in need?

“There are some people out there that need food stamps, some have low-income jobs while others have no jobs at all, if there’s no way of getting food in the house and your family don’t wanna help you, why not get assistance in food stamps,” questioned Henry.

What seems like an easy question isn’t always so easy to answer for some.

“Poor people are stigmatized… it’s not just food or food stamps,” believes Carole Alexander, executive director at The Next Stepp Life Center, which aims to empower women and men to make life and lifestyle choices that promote their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

“There’s judgment no matter what government program is used, if it costs taxpayers money, people are automatically judged,” concludes Allison Kuhlman after eight years as assistant executive director at Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead agency for child welfare in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Henry sees a lot of kids and senior citizens going hungry in Midtown. Even though he believes there’s adequate information out there to apply for food assistance, some people are afraid they will get turned away and so they don’t apply.

“Some of them don’t have any income at all, some of them have never applied for it before and some listen to what other people have to say and that’s why a lot of people don’t make the attempt to go down there and get it,” Henry explained. “People tell each other things that aren’t true because they’re misinformed and that’s where part of the stigma comes from.”

Henry admits he’s heard people tell each other, “You’s a felon,” or “They’re not going to give it [SNAP] to you because you don’t have a job.” He’s seen this information discourage potential beneficiaries from finding out whether or not they qualify.

Research has shown that the terms used in local media publications for those who utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women Infant and Children (WIC) program are the weakest of our communities. They are of the poorest and they are needy.

“We’ve got this language, particularly when you look at organizations that try to get grants, or trying to get whatever they’re trying to get, they use the most negative because they think it’ll work and it does,” explained Alexander. “If you’re writing a grant and you say “we’re trying to help people live better”… It doesn’t sound as good as “they’re poor and they need” or “they’re weak and they need,” unfortunately that’s just what we’ve fallen into.”

In reality, those who qualify for food assistance are the working hungry and are in need of assistance, but they are not needy.

“To describe a person in negative terms because they’re poor is the wrong thing to do,” said Alexander. “It has nothing to do with their value or their worth, or what kind of people they are, they just need assistance.”

Destiny Cameron, an 18-year-old Midtown resident, received her first SNAP payment July 21, one month after her 18th birthday. She’s never known anyone to feel stigmatized for using SNAP, but thinks that some people might not use the benefit because they think it’s for poor people and they don’t consider themselves poor.

There is a sense of embarrassment when help is needed, but this isn’t a unique or individual problem and it isn’t a self-committed fallacy. This embarrassment for needing help has been influenced by the media and encouraged by politicians.

SNAP and WIC nutrition programs are used interchangeably with the word welfare, which causes confusion and misunderstanding for those who might qualify for the programs but never apply because of a perceived stigma and inaccurate information.

There is a distinct difference between welfare and food assistance. Welfare is a cash assistance program, while SNAP, WIC, and food pantries are specifically designed to help supplement food needs for families and individuals.

Cameron was quick to explain that she wasn’t a welfare recipient and that she was looking for a job. She expressed her concern that her benefits would be reduced once she did find a job though, since the amount of assistance is primarily based off of income.

In Midtown, 23 businesses accept SNAP/EBT benefits. Out of those 23 vendors, the Walmart Neighborhood Market on the corner of 22nd Street South and 17th Avenue South is the only full service grocery store. South City Market, WAWA, Walgreens and 7-Eleven do offer limited fruits, vegetables and protein sources that tend to be more expensive than grocery stores.

This makes choosing and following healthy eating patterns inconvenient and difficult.

With over 40 percent of households living under the poverty level, (a family of four that makes less than $24,300 would be considered beneath the poverty level), in Pinellas County it is normal for families to wonder where their next meal will come from let alone where a nutritious meal.

In the meantime, participation in SNAP has dropped by more than a million people since October 2014. October 2015 marked the fifth straight monthly decline. Even as more people are applying for benefits, about 20 percent of eligible applicants will not receive them, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Why the decline?

Beth Houghton, the executive director of St. Petersburg Free Clinic, said awareness is the biggest problem.

“Many families don’t know they qualify for food assistance like SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps,” said Houghton. “Many families are unaware of the qualifications they need to benefit from this federal program. Education about available programs and resources is key.”

Every individual and family interested in using SNAP or WIC can find out if they are eligible through online prescreening tools, which save time, but are not always the final decision. Each applicant should still contact his or her state or county office for verification.

Requirements for SNAP include limited countable resources, such as a bank account, a gross monthly income less than the limit established by the program for household size and employment stipulations, with additional rules for the elderly or disabled.

A household can apply for SNAP benefits at the local, state or county office or by visiting the state agency’s website and completing an online application at

The WIC targeted population is low-income, nutritionally at risk pregnant women, breastfeeding women, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants up to their first birthdays and children up to their fifth birthday.

WIC eligibility requirements state that applicants must live in the state in which they apply and have an income at or below an income level or standard set by the state agency. The individual must also be at nutritional risk, meaning they have medical-based or dietary-based conditions, such as those that come from having a poor diet.

Contact the WIC state or local agency to schedule an appointment, (727) 824-6913 or (727) 824-6914.

Food pantries are another local resource for providing food. In south Pinellas County, there are 11 pantries. Many of these pantries provide food without documentation although some may require proof of residency, proof of income and a valid photo ID.

The amount of food given out at a pantry depends on that agency’s resources and choices, and is designed to be supplemental. Most locations provide three to five days of food based on household size. Those interested in using a local pantry should check pantry schedules and times to avoid wasted time and inconvenient travel.

Feeding America is an additional resource that distributes more than three billion meals each year through food pantries and meal programs; their website provides a food pantry locator at

When most people think about poverty and hunger they rarely picture their child’s friend from school or the kid living next door, yet they should, according to Shelba Waldron, former Juvenile Welfare Board senior program consultant. “Hunger is silent.”

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