Sergio M. underwent emergency surgery two years ago when his large intestine unexpectedly burst.

For the nine months that followed, the San Ysidro resident was attached to a colonoscopy bag, unable to work. It was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that kept food on the table for his family.

Clare Leschin-Hoar Logo

The controversial SNAP program has tied up the Farm Bill in Congress for months while lawmakers wrangle over just how deep cuts to the program should go. The GOP-led house is looking at nearly $40 billion in cuts, while the Democratic-led Senate has agreed to only $4 billion. Monday night, the Farm Bill is scheduled to expire – though the SNAP program will remain in effect until lawmakers eventually pass a new version of the bill.

Like most SNAP recipients, Sergio, 47, was only on the program for a short time. (VOSD has agreed to identify the SNAP recipients profiled here by their first name, last initial and community where they live, to help protect their privacy.)

Once he recovered from his surgery, he found work as a driver for an airport shuttle service, and no longer collected food stamps. But like many jobs available in the post-recession economy, Sergio was considered an independent contractor at his new job. The hours turned out to be part time and unreliable. Benefits like health insurance or sick days weren’t part of the deal. Sergio said his boss began to cut his hours down. After a month of being out of work again, his small savings quickly dwindled, and money for food, rent and gasoline grew tight, so he applied for CalFresh benefits again.

Sergio has a wife and an 8-year-old son. They share their two-bedroom apartment with his sister-in-law and her two small children.

“I honestly don’t plan on being in this situation for the rest of my life. I’m a strong person and a very proud person. But I’m just a person that needs the help right now,” he said.

In his first month on SNAP (called CalFresh here), Sergio was approved for approximately $400 a month in food assistance. He hopes that will increase to $600 going forward, but he’s not sure it will. His wife is not a legal resident. His sister-in-law works cleaning rental homes, but only brings in a few hundred dollars a week. While he can only claim benefits for his immediate family, they share resources to survive together.

“We’re making it day-by-day right now,” he said. “I’m trying to get a job, but we’re struggling. If it weren’t for CalFresh, we wouldn’t have anything to eat.”

That makes Sergio a vastly different story from Jason Greenslate, the now infamous 28-year-old La Jolla surfer whose Fox News profile went viral after he boasted of using his food stamp dollars to buy lobster and maintain his carefree  lifestyle. Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor touted Greenslate’s story as proof that the SNAP program could be drastically cut.

But hunger advocates say Greenslate’s story simply isn’t representative of most people on the program.

MSNBC echoed that notion in a recent blog post:

Greenslate is one man, and the legislation which passed the House would cause a projected 3.8 million people to lose food stamp eligibility in the first year alone. Greenslate has almost nothing in common with the vast majority of those SNAP recipients …

All Greenslate and Sergio seem to have in common is that they’re both among the 266,845 San Diego County residents who rely on the CalFresh program to keep food on the table – a figure, that as of September, is up 4.4 percent from last year, according to Craig Sturak, a spokesperson for the County Health and Human Services Agency. That figure includes 136,942 children — a slight increase from last year.

Nor does Greenslate have much in common with 65-year old Renee M. of Rancho Bernardo. Renee is still working, but a sputtering economy finally forced her to apply for help three years ago.

“I’m a hairdresser. It’s a business that gets hard-hit when the economy tanks and people cut out luxuries,” she said.

Renee is just one of  more than 14,000 seniors in the county that rely on food stamps – a demographic whose numbers are growing. The number of San Diego County seniors who signed up for the program jumped 17.83 percent from the previous year.

“I get $200 a month, and that’s my entire food budget. I collect Social Security – that’s $800 a month, and that’s my income. I rent a room. Being a hairdresser is hard physical labor. We’re not in perfect control of our lives the way our puny little egos think we are. We think, if you just try harder you can succeed at whatever you want. I don’t care how hard I try, I’m never going to be wealthy.  The middle class is sinking. That really ought to be telling us something.”

There’s no room for lobster in Renee’s budget. She does a remarkable job in making her food stamp dollars stretch. She found a CSA — a weekly produce subscription from a local farm — that will provide $15 worth of organic produce each week. She’s been able to find programs that will double her vouchers at a farmers market so she can add fresh fruit to her meals. She supplements the rest of her diet with beans, and the occasional piece of chopped meat or chicken.

“Believe it or not, I can stay within this budget and feed myself a healthy diet,” she said. “People don’t know how to eat healthy and cheap at the same time. I know how to do that – you must cook at home. You have to be organized. I don’t have health insurance, and I have to maintain a healthy life. That means finding a way to eat healthy food – not cheap food that’s all starches and flour.”

Although Greenslate’s story resonated with those who believe the program is rife with fraud, the USDA’s own surveys show the program is highly efficient. The agency estimates that the program likely has only a 1.3 percent fraud rate. A figure that is far lower than another piece of the massive Farm Bill, the crop insurance program, estimated to have five times the fraud rate of the SNAP program, but one that has strong backing from House Republicans.

It’s the proposed cuts to the SNAP program that worry Christina D., a 22-year old mom who lives in Kearny Mesa and has been relying on the food assistance program since February.

“I’m barely making ends meet,” she said. “I already live check-to-check every month, so when I think about lawmakers trying to take off more every month, that scares me. I really, really need this assistance right now.”

Christina is in school to become a dental assistant. She lives with her mom, her 2-year-old daughter, and her daughter’s father, who is a mechanic. Sometimes she goes to La Jolla or Ocean Beach for free hot meals offered at area churches, or she’ll look for food-distribution programs that help keep food on the table. But it’s the $300 a month she gets from CalFresh that she credits with keeping her in school, where she’s on track to graduate next May.

“It’s helping me to move forward. By May, I won’t need the help anymore, and then I’ll open a spot for someone else who needs it,” she said.

Only about half the Californians who qualify for assistance take it, according to a recent study.

In fact, California is in last place in the nation when it comes to participation rates. Advocates say the funding that’s left on the table means the state is missing out on an economic boost those dollars provide when they’re spent at local grocery stores and markets. Sometimes qualified individuals don’t apply because the application process is too onerous and staff is unfriendly and unhelpful. (An unpleasant experience Renee says she discovered firsthand.) But for thousands of others who desperately need food assistance, many simply don’t qualify for the program.

As Jennifer Gilmore, executive director of Feeding America San Diego told me in June, of the 460,000 San Diegans who are at risk of hunger, two-thirds qualify for federal assistance. The remaining 170,00 aren’t eligible for federal food programs, and rely on charities like hers for nutrition support.

“The solution to hunger is not solely a charitable response,” she said. “We need to make sure those programs [like SNAP] are protected and preserved,” she said.

For those who do qualify, the stigma can be hard to shoulder. Chula Vista resident Jessica S. works seven hours a week with special education students, and spends the rest of her time taking care of her 8-year-old son. She makes $1,100 a month, which doesn’t cover her living expenses. Before this job, she worked at an insurance company that paid slightly more, but she said the hours went too late for her to pick up her son from school, and without a degree, finding a better job proved difficult. Eventually, she’d like to have a career in accounting.

“I didn’t finish school. I didn’t get the education that I should have,” she said. “But even people who did can’t get jobs. I’m still trying to do better. I don’t like to depend on others, but I do need the help.”

Jessica takes in $230 a month in food stamps. She spends the money on items like eggs, cheese, milk and pasta. She shops the discount bins at local markets and stores, and carefully watches for sales. There are times where she’s had to choose between food for her family and gas to get to her job. When the food sometimes runs out, she seeks out churches and food pantries to make it through the month.

“I can’t always meet the time periods when they hand out food,” she said. “It’s tough. I’m trying not to break down, even though it’s hard sometimes. I do believe there are people out there that play with the system, and think everyone should be scrutinized and investigated. When people take advantage, it’s the people like me who really need it that get penalized.

“Food is a necessity. The government isn’t giving a free vacation. This is food.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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