As we drove along the gravel drive-though the mobile home park, slowing to squint at the passing house numbers, we saw a woman in an arm sling sitting on her front stoop with a pit bull and small kitten by her side. She raised her uninjured arm to signal we were in the right place.
Megan and I introduced ourselves as the medical students with whom she had spoken to on the phone, and gave a brief recap of our program — which focuses on providing support to under-resourced patients who use the Chatham Hospital Emergency Department. We learned that this woman struggles to make ends meet and due to her shoulder injury, she has not been able to work for the past six months. When she can get a ride from her roommate, she goes to food pantries to re-up on groceries.
As a J. Bradley Wilson Schweitzer Fellow, I have been given an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in rural Chatham County. My project partner and I reach out to patients who have been referred to us by providers and we offer our services. In conducting home visits in Siler City and surrounding underserved areas, we have seen firsthand how home environments and social situations affect health. Food insecurity is the number one concern for every family we have visited.
Under the Trump Administration, there have been several changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps). The most recently approved change imposes stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. According to the Urban Institute (Nov. 2019), 755,000 Americans are expected to lose their benefits this year as a result. This change is meant to encourage people to enter the workforce, but it only adds to their financial hardships and increases reliance on local food pantries.
Other changes to SNAP will also take effect this year. Households receiving other government benefits may lose their eligibility for SNAP benefits. According to the Urban Institute, this would reduce eligible households by 9 percent and cause nearly one million students to lose their automatic eligibility for free meals at school.
Immigrant families are also taking a blow. The Trump Administration has enacted a new rule that makes it more difficult for individuals to be approved for their green card if they are using SNAP or other public services. Because of this, immigrants may be more likely to rely on food pantries than government-funded public service programs.
As the government whittles away at SNAP, it is important to point out that SNAP benefits not only help the recipient, they have a multiplier effect. The money is fed back into the local economy as SNAP households spend money on the goods and services they need. Cutbacks in SNAP increase the burden on those who are no longer eligible for the program and impact local businesses.
All these changes, not to mention the glaring COVID-19 crisis, have resulted in an increase in the use of food pantries. If you are looking for volunteer opportunities or are able to contribute food donations or money, Chatham County food pantries need your help. Take time to call and ask what you can do. Though giving food donations may feel more satisfying than donating money, keep in mind that food pantries often get discounts from local grocery stores so your monetary donations go further and give food pantries an opportunity to shop for what they need. We saw only the tip of the iceberg on our home visits, but there are many more families in need.
Kate is a third-year medical student at UNC, a FIRST (Fully Integrated Readiness for Service Training) Scholar and J. Bradley Wilson Schweitzer Fellow. She will be a family physician and plans to serve patients in rural Chatham County, where she grew up.