By Nadia Batool Bokhari
Nadiya Ahmady lives in Raleigh with her husband, Waheed, and three children, Yasir, 13, Narjis, 11, and Nasir, just 11 months old. As has happened with many families over the past 19 months, the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to their family finances.
Nadiya lost her job as a preschool teacher, and her husband also saw his work as a pizza delivery person disappear when COVID-19 truly was a novelty.
Since then, Waheed Ahmady has tried to provide for the family as a food delivery worker with the DoorDash app.
Despite those efforts, Nadiya Ahmady sought assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in March 2020. Her youngest child was on the way and Nadiya was looking to help the family put food on the table, she said. She learned about the federal benefit after being enrolled in WIC, another federal special supplemental program for Women, Infants, and Children. Her caseworker told her about the additional benefits.
More than 1.6 million North Carolinians are enrolled in Food and Nutrition Services.
The Biden administration announced an increase to SNAP in mid-August, describing it as the largest in the history of the food stamp program. At the beginning of this month, the average monthly benefits for SNAP increased by 25 percent.
The increase came just in time for the approximately 1.6 million North Carolinians who benefit from the program and who would no longer receive a temporary pandemic-related state subsidy. On Sept. 30, the 15 percent boost that had been funded with Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act aid expired.
Now, the average monthly per-person benefit will be $157, or $36 more per month than it had been since 2006.
Cost of healthy, practical diet
Ahmady says the additional aid has been helpful to her family.
The increase has roots in the 2018 Farm Bill. Congress ordered the federal Department of Agriculture to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan to reflect the cost of a practical, healthy diet while also factoring in how a household with constrained resources might be able to afford them.
This was the first time in at least 45 years that the process for figuring out the per-person supplement was not driven by efforts to maintain “cost neutrality.”
The Farm Bill requires a reevaluation every five years that takes into account food prices at the time, dietary guidance and consumption patterns.
The Economic Research Service for the federal agriculture department estimates that food-at-home prices will increase by at least 3.5 percent, and maybe as much as 4.5 percent in 2021.
By 2022, the research service estimated, food-at-home prices are expected to go up by at least 1.5 percent, and perhaps up to 2.5 percent. Restaurant prices, or food-away-from-home prices, are expected to go up anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5 percent in 2021 and 3 and 4 percent in 2022.
Feeding America, a network of food banks across the country, estimates that more than 1.4 million North Carolinians are facing hunger and of them 419,470 are children.
A range of adverse health outcomes that come with food insecurity includes high blood pressure, diabetes and mental illness. Children, whose brains are developing, are particularly vulnerable to long-term impacts.
“Having enough nutritious food every day is an essential part of health and well-being,” Susan Gale Perry, the Chief Deputy Secretary for Opportunity and Well-Being in the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement announcing the SNAP subsidy increase. “Too many of our fellow North Carolinians suffer from food insecurity. This will help hundreds of thousands of North Carolina families — many with young children — keep nutritious food on the table.”
Trying to eat halal
Ahmady came to the United States from Kabul, Afghanistan in 2003 on a K-1 visa that allowed her, the fiancee of an American citizen, to enter the country.
As a Muslim, Ahmady tries to provide her children with halal food, adhering to Islamic law as defined in the Koran, as often as possible. She uses an app to scan food barcodes to find out whether products such as cookies, cakes, chocolates and other sweets contain vanilla extract or gelatin, which are not halal.
In Raleigh, Ahmady says, there are stores that sell halal meat from animals that have been slaughtered and processed in the Islamic tradition, but that meat can cost several more dollars per pound than non-halal meat.
Ahmady buys fresh fruits and vegetables from ALDI, a grocery store within walking distance from her house, but for other food such as rice, bread and cooking oil she shops at BJ’s Wholesale Club.
Like many households, though, Ahmady said hers has felt the pinch of rising food prices during the pandemic.
“I do food shopping twice a week and every time I spend $90 to $100, which is upsetting for me,” Ahmady said. “I wish I could cook meat every day but I can only afford once or twice a week for my family.”
Cost of eating healthy
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at N.C. State University worked with an economist in 2017 to measure the cost of consuming a MyPlate diet as the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for healthy eating on a SNAP budget.
In an article co-written by Haynes-Maslow and Kranti Mulik, an economist now at the federal Department of Agriculture, the researchers issued the following conclusion: “The monetary amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits may be insufficient to support a healthy diet recommended by federal nutrition guidelines.”
They determined that SNAP “is effective at reducing food insecurity while also improving child and adult health outcomes.”
“Unfortunately, many families receiving SNAP still report signiﬁcant ﬁnancial barriers to purchasing healthy food with their beneﬁts,” the authors wrote in their article that appeared in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
In a recent interview, Haynes-Maslow said it was too soon to know whether the recent monthly funding increases would help SNAP participants routinely put healthier meals on the table, but previous research shows this is a promising strategy.
Nonetheless, she says many families often find themselves being forced to decide whether to stock up on the least expensive foods despite their nutritional value so other bills can be paid.
“Unfortunately, these types of decisions are not uncommon with low-income families,” Haynes-Maslow said. “People often must choose between paying for food or paying other bills, such as rent, utilities, car payments and health care.”