Lucy Rios paused in the produce section of the H-E-B grocery store off Wurzbach Road. She counted the cost of items in her cart: a frozen turkey, ham, canned cream of mushroom soup, and other staples for Thanksgiving.

“25, 15, 10, 2, 5,” Rios said under her breath. She grabbed two frozen turkeys, one slightly larger than the other, in hopes that the larger bird is covered by the coupon she has.

She had $80 to spend that day from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the formal name for what’s commonly known as food stamps.

Rios is one of the 42 million Americans who received an average boost of 27% to their SNAP benefits beginning in October. It’s the largest permanent increase in the history of the safety-net program and part of an overhaul of the Thrifty Food Plan, which sets guidelines that determine the cost of a nutritious diet for low-income families.

On average, food stamp recipients will receive $36 more per month. The total amount is based on income and hours of work a recipient works weekly. A family of three, which is the average household size in San Antonio, can receive a maximum of $658 monthly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Almost 15% of Bexar County households — more than 90,000 — receive SNAP benefits, according to census data. That’s the 15th highest percentage in the U.S. More than 60 percent of those are families with children and almost half have incomes that are below the federal poverty level.

Rios, who works part-time for $8.50 an hour as a health care provider for her disabled partner, saw her monthly food stamp allotment increase from $49 to $52. “Three dollars,” she said, laughing. “I’ll try not to spend it all in one place.”

But she knows she will — and she’s thankful for the small boost.

That $3 will be used at H-E-B, typically on the fifth day of each month when the money is added to her Lone Star Card, a debit card used to access her SNAP benefits. It will further stretch her meal planning amid the rising costs of nearly everything on both her routine and holiday grocery list.

The $80 that she’s spending on this particular trip to H-E-B is the result of a temporary expansion of SNAP benefits in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the additional money will expire at the end of the year.

‘Long overdue’

While most other everyday costs have increased significantly, SNAP benefits adjust only for inflation.

The assistance program, which started in 1975, was never meant to meet all nutritional needs of a household, said Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.

“Supplemental is in the name,” he noted, and it’s given to people who can prove that they are working, with some exceptions.

“I think of food as medicine — I think of food as something our bodies need,” Cooper said. “And I can’t even imagine a doctor giving you a [prescription] that was like, ‘Here’s 50% of what you need.’ … That wouldn’t heal you. In essence, that’s what the SNAP program is saying: ‘Yeah, we know you need this, but we’re not going to get you all the way there.'”

Cooper noted that the average benefit increase of $36 is about 25 cents per meal over a month.

“It’s not enough [and] long overdue,” he said.

As the Food Bank’s leader, Cooper is on the front lines of food insecurity. Pre-pandemic, the Food Bank served 60,000 people a week. That number peaked at about 120,000 last year and seems to be leveling off at 90,000 now, he said.

He’s hoping the boost in SNAP benefits, however small, will drive more eligible families to apply for the benefits.

Some don’t think the benefit is worth it, Cooper said, “because of the stigma, because of the [complicated] application process. They feel like … ‘I’ll do without and I hear you don’t really get that much anyways.”

In order to get the benefit, families have to fill out form H1010 and submit it to the state’s Health and Human Services Department. If information is incorrect or missing on that form, it can delay benefits by months. To remain eligible, recipients have to re-certify their information every six, 12, or 24 months depending on their household circumstances.

The state’s website is intended to help people navigate the system, but it can still be an intimidating process, Cooper said. To overcome the obstacles to applying for assistance, the Food Bank employs more than 30 people solely to help clients use the website and submit form H1010.

“The Food Bank has become the TurboTax of the 1010,” he said.

While food stamps ultimately address a symptom of poverty rather than root causes, adequate food is one of the most important needs to get people on a sustainable path out of poverty, said Mary Garr, president and CEO of Family Service, a nonprofit that provides services for families in need.

“If somebody doesn’t have food on their plates today …. then they’re not going to be thinking about paying rent next month or signing up for job training,” she said. “They’re thinking about, ‘How do I feed my family today?'”

Gigi Carreon shops according to what she knows her family will eat during the month at the H-E-B on Wurzbach Road.
Gigi Carreon, Lucy Rios’ stepsister, shops for groceries according to what she knows her family will eat during the month. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

A rare splurge

For Rios, thoughts about meal planning and budgeting are never far away.

“We go to the food bank when we’re really tight,” she said. “I have no issues in going to a food bank to say, ‘Hey, I need some help.'”

But as she walks through H-E-B with stepsister Gigi Carreon, it’s clear she prefers to do her own shopping. They laugh and tell stories throughout the store.

This year, Carreon is inviting her uncles over for Thanksgiving.

“They’re in their 90s and they love my food,” said Carreon, who is retired and also receives SNAP benefits.

The holidays are often the only time Rios and her family get to splurge on extra food. The rest of the year, she keeps a tight regimen.

“My rent is paid, I got food in my house, my bills are paid,” she said. “I keep [it] to a minimum.”

As they approach the checkout line, she performs the math ceremony again: “5, 20, 2, 15 ….” and predicts her total will be under $70. She’s saving a little just in case.

The larger turkey gets set aside to be returned to the meat department; it’s too big to qualify for the coupon.

As the final item is scanned, the total is revealed: $62.89. Rios swipes her Lone Star Card and smiles at the checkout attendant.

“I’ll be back on the fifth.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...