Continuing our series on the 23rd Class of Emerson Hunger Fellows and their field work, we turn our attention to Illinois, where Fellows Anne Marie Buron and Margot Nitschke spent the fall. Read on to hear their insights on barriers to food security for certain groups of SNAP recipients, harm-reduction and housing-first methodologies, and other takeaways from their time working in Chicago.
Anne Marie Buron
During my field placement, I was fortunate to engage in policy and advocacy work for the first time through the Illinois Hunger Coalition (IHC), a statewide anti-hunger organization. IHC works to end hunger and to address the underlying causes by offering direct services, through a hunger hotline, as well as by advocating for progressive public policies and community organizing. IHC is transforming the anti-poverty community in Illinois by fostering relationships between the local Department of Human Services, which administers the public benefits programs; social service providers; foundations; and legislators through community meetings held in local offices across the Chicagoland area and southern Illinois. For me, the meetings were invaluable spaces to learn how national public benefits programs are implemented and function at the local level.
My work at IHC focused on access to SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, for a subset of SNAP recipients called able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). In 1996, welfare reform created a time-limit rule that ABAWDs must work at least 20 hours a week or more, or they will only qualify for SNAP benefits for three months within a three-year period. The rule operates on the idea that SNAP benefits encourage dependence instead of work. However, data shows that most SNAP recipients that can work do work, and that SNAP participation increases and decreases with fluctuations in the economy and availability of jobs. The rule has been called a harsh time-limit by advocates because it is not realistic to gain employment during that time-frame, particularly for ABAWDs with limited educational backgrounds and low attachment to the job market.
One option for ABAWDs under the time-limit rule is to participate in a program called the SNAP Employment & Training (E&T). Currently, Illinois only offers a small number of E&T slots, approximately 5,000, in comparison to the nearly 300,000 estimated ABAWDs in the State. In order to support IHC’s advocacy work, I researched SNAP E&T program best practices across the U.S. and the current E&T program in Illinois, as well as began coalition building with other concerned advocates and social service providers. Because clear information was not readily available about this issue at the local level, I created several short documents communicating information specific to Illinois.
My research and experience at community meetings demonstrated that there are a lot of misunderstandings about the ABAWD population. ABAWDs are not all individuals that could easily work, nor are they avoiding work. In fact, the ABAWD population is quite diverse, including young people aging out of the foster care system, homeless individuals, and returning citizens—all groups that face complex and unique barriers to employment, housing, and education. ABAWDs with a felony offense in Illinois, for example, face approximately 500 statutory barriers to employment, and an even greater number for accessing other essentials such as an ID or housing. Although each state chooses to implement their ABAWD policy and SNAP E&T programs in different ways, many states have reported losing over half of their ABAWD population off SNAP benefits after their waiver to the time-limit rule ends.
Many ABAWDs receive SNAP benefits as their sole government assistance. Losing SNAP benefits can be devastating, particularly because it not only means decreased access to food, a critical support, but can also threaten an individual’s housing and participation in other programs. As I learned these unsettling facts, it was clear to me that struggling and marginalized individuals are positioned to lose the most when policy does not function well. It is pertinent that policymakers seek to understand and include impacted individuals in the policy-making process as well as to understand the outcomes and consequences of policy on a local and individual level.
At my current policy placement with the USDA: Federal Nutrition Service (FNS), Child Nutrition Programs (CNP), I am excited to bring my experience and observations from the local level to the national scope. I am already discovering the challenges that FNS staff face as they offer technical assistance and support to diverse regions and school districts. By the end of the fellowship, I hope to gain a well-rounded understanding of the policy process, particularly the connection between stated policy goals and the resulting implementation and outcomes of these policies. I am grateful for the incredible learning opportunity and excited to use these important lessons and perspectives in my future work.
I am now a few months into my policy placement at the Alliance to End Hunger. Every day I am learning about the intersections of policy and advocacy. Part of my role at the Alliance to End Hunger is to examine the impact of hunger and hunger related policies on historically marginalized communities. This research has naturally left me reflecting on the individuals I worked with in my field placement whose lives are impacted daily by anti-hunger policies. The grassroots knowledge I built while working at La Casa Norte has helped me to understand the need for empathetic policy that is responsive to individual and community needs.
For the field portion of this fellowship I worked at La Casa Norte, a homeless service agency in Chicago. La Casa Norte provides permanent, transitional, and emergency housing to youth and families in the Chicago area. By using a “Housing First” model and “Harm Reduction” philosophy of care, La Casa Norte centers their work around the needs of their clients.
The philosophies of Housing First and Harm Reduction are closely linked. Housing First asserts that individuals will be most effective in working toward individual goals once they have the stability of housing. Harm reduction emphasizes that any positive change toward improved health and safety is an appropriate step. No predetermined change is established for all clients for them to receive services. Both welcome individuals into a space where they can work toward greater stability and safety. These guiding principles have shaped my understanding of how policy can be empathetic.
I had the opportunity to practice harm reduction while developing and implementing a nutrition workshop series for La Casa Norte’s youth clients. Many youth experiencing homelessness have faced barriers of trauma, poverty, and loss which have affected their ability to develop and maintain healthy nutrition habits. A traditional nutrition curriculum may not have felt relevant to some clients, considering their other obstacles. By using a harm reduction lens, the nutrition workshops can meet clients where they are, but also highlight and inform the choices in their lives.
To develop the curriculum, I spent time asking clients and staff about clients’ barriers to healthy food. Each workshop was based around a client-identified barrier. One client had the goal of losing weight but struggled with this while receiving most meals from a soup kitchen, and therefore pre-portioned and chosen by someone else. Another client expressed that they felt better when eating a fruit- and vegetable-heavy diet, but generally still choose to eat fast food because of its cost effectiveness and the warmth and safety provided by a restaurant setting. The goal of each workshop was to present clients with appropriate levels of change they could incorporate into their own lives. Each level would move a client toward a lifestyle of less harm, which made the workshops adaptable and approachable.
Some of the barriers to food that clients faced seemed insurmountable. I remember wandering a 7/11 convenience store trying to find an inexpensive food that was also high in protein and fiber and had low amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. I struggled with this despite having the time, energy and resources needed to make an informed decision. Adapting the workshops to clients’ specific needs was a way of validating their experiences. I feel grateful for the experience to work at La Casa Norte. Working on this project has helped me to imagine the possibilities for embedding the same amount of trust and empathy into national level policy.