Elmira/Corning Regional Airport
Farm Bill, Food Fight
Written By: Tanja Rekhi
ELMIRA (WENY) -- For the next five years the United States will be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. The program was established in the late 1930's to help low income families with healthy and nutritious foods, but sometimes people take advantage of the program with you footing the bill.
"We do see a lot of folks that are parents that still have a hard time making ends meet. We also see a lot of disabled and also have senior citizens that use the benefits," said Donna Truax, Chemung County's Head Social Welfare Examiner.
In Chemung County about 8,000 families rely on the benefits to help them. People like Mary Horton, a mother of two battling Lupus.
"I had to be in and out of group homes and different facilities for multiple years of my life," said Mary.
However, that's not always the face of these benefits. About 5-10% of recipients take advantage of the system.
"There are going to be things in life where we need to provide the helping hand," said Congressman Tom Reed. "We just have to make sure the program doesn't become a situation where it's a way of life and it's subject to waste, fraud and abuse. And there is waste, fraud and abuse in the system."
Some of that waste, fraud and abuse that Congressman Tom Reed referred to happens at grocery stores. People sometimes sell their benefits to other people or they simply can give their pin to a pal since the cards, are pretty similar to a debit card. Grocery stores are not responsible for checking for identification.
"The children by far have to suffer whatever their parents decisions are," said Mary. "I have to make choices when I go to the store and I often say 'We will get a snack or we will have this or that," but I can't say for sure we are going to get ice cream and cookies and the sugary cereal."
Those decisions aren't always the easiest, so many families look to food pantries for that extra help. Some, abuse them and that's putting a pinch on many local pantries.
"In any system that we create, you're always going to have people looking for loopholes to sort of to sort of work it to their best interest," said Natasha Thompson, President and CEO, Food Bank of the Southern Tier. "So then, we have to ask ourselves, do we want to enact all these huge draconian changes to be able to stamp out that 5-10% that's going to take advantage of anything no matter what? I mean it's just human nature."
But it is fraud and those who are caught could face jail time.
"I mean fraud is a lie, and lying and fraud is a theft, and that's burglary," said Mary. "That should be a crime punishable by law. If you can catch them."
And sometimes, that's the hardest part, but the department of Social Services has a Special Investigations unit.
"There's a lot of variables that could be fraud and we look in to every allegation that comes in," said Pamela Morey, Senior Social Welfare Examiner.
Congressman Reed said he's worked hard to stiffen up penalties.
"A lot of times there's a sense that this is a victimless crime, but there is a victim here: that person that needs it is no longer getting access to that money because maybe someone else is taking that money for inappropriate purposes," said Congressman Reed.
So in the meantime, people like Mary do their best to make ends meet. She's found couponing has helped her family out as she works to provide the best future for her kids.
"You only live once and you only have one childhood and like I said, mine wasn't the greatest. I'm sure there are many other viewers out there that have had traumatic issues anytime in there life. I didn't want that for my kids," said Mary.
Mary's worked hard to do a lot with a little, something she says she learned from her late mother. She wants to pass her skills on to other people, and is looking for a place to meet and trade coupons, or teach people how to save on a tight budget-- the legal way.
If you want to join Mary with couponing, you can e-mail reporter Tanja Rekhi at email@example.com and she will put you in touch with Mary. You can use SNAP benefits to buy seeds for crops and at many farmer's markets.