N Street Village AmeriCorps volunteer Sarah Thappa reflects on her experience with SNAP benefits and the program’s impact on the N Street Village Community.
As I stood there, my frustration surmounted and I gave into the tears. Grasping onto my bike helmet, I managed to stammer, “You mean, you want me to bike to the Anacostia food stamp office?” The office staff member just looked at me and nodded yes.
I wanted to scream and tell him how unreasonable that was, how far away that was, and how I couldn’t possibly go there and still make it to work on time. But, I refrained because I knew it wasn’t his fault. That’s the system. That’s our nation’s food stamp system. It’s frustrating, irritating, and demoralizing. At that moment, I began to understand only a bit of what women in need of N Street Village services go through.
It took two weeks and four trips to get my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. I went to the wrong office in Petworth in my first attempt. Two days later, I woke up at 5 a.m. to wait in line outside the H Street location. I triumphantly walked out of H Street location hours later with my approved documentation, but that was just the beginning. You have to go back to pick up your card 24 hours later. I made sure to call before I biked over to the office. They were open and told me to come over. By the time I got there, the computer system had crashed and the staff told me to go to the Anacostia office. At that moment, I was so frustrated and had neither the time nor the will to bike to Anacostia, so I chose to return two days later to finally pick up my card.
During my interview to become an AmeriCorps volunteer, I made sure to ask about the feasibility of living on an AmeriCorps stipend in Washington, D.C. The interviewer assured me that it is doable. Not easy, but definitely doable—especially with food stamps, which I would qualify for as an AmeriCorps volunteer. It took weeks for the food stamps fact to sink into my system. I remember people at the grocery store pulling out stamps and having to put food back when I was younger, and I wasn’t ready for that. But, I decided I had to be okay with it if that’s what it would take to survive on an AmeriCorps’ salary. Today, SNAP benefits are now accessed using a look-a-like debit card, so I can swipe with fewer stigmas. However, I still get irrationally nervous and self-conscious when I use my benefits because I fear that someone is going to pass judgment.
To get SNAP benefits, a person must bring the completed government paperwork, a copy of your license, government identification, proof of address, a bank account statement, and a letter stating your income. That’s a lot of information to collect. For me, I could call home or print another copy if necessary. But, I kept thinking, ‘What about the women I work with at N Street Village?’ I began to internalize N Street Village Executive Director Schroeder Stribling’s words from orientation about always aiming to be in solidarity with the women using the Village’s programs. Going through the benefits application process was a peek into what our city’s most vulnerable go through every day. They fight for access to a system that can be helpful if you have the knowledge and the means to navigate it correctly.
Friday, November 1, 2013, marked the day that 47 million Americans experienced cuts to their monthly SNAP benefits. One of those people was me. While my monthly decrease is only $11, that manifests as a weeks’ worth of yogurt, milk, and carrots in my budget. Many will experience larger benefit cuts. The $39 billion budget cuts to SNAP benefits over the next 10 years seem much more real when I think about the impact it will have on the women I work with every day. Living on $6.30 a day is a challenge for me, but then again, that’s $6.30 more than many of the women at N Street Village have.
Sarah Thappa is a member of AIDS United’s AmeriCorps National team with the Washington AIDS Partnership and serves as the HIV Health Promotion Specialist at N Street Village. She does HIV education, counseling, outreach, and testing in addition to health promotion classes on various topics. Sarah hails from Northern Illinois and graduated from Carleton College ‘13 with a B.A. in Biology.