Tough food decisions for insecure families

CLAIRTON, Pa. (AP) — Avoid brand names. Look for sales, daily. For sandwiches, if there’s cheese, just one slice — and careful with the lunch meat. Not too much milk. Make a pot of spaghetti and hope it lasts you a week.

For some families, these might be optional guidelines for saving money. For the Breegle family in Clairton, these rules are a matter of survival.

On the surface, Elizabeth Breegle and her two children, a 12-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, might seem eligible for SNAP benefits since the monthly paycheck is $452 below the gross income limits for food stamps. But the family doesn’t qualify for aid because it doesn’t meet another important qualification: the net income limit, a calculation of the gross income minus eligible deductions like rent and heating costs.

That puts them in a no man’s land: They don’t qualify for SNAP but still are food insecure — lacking reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. The USDA estimates that 12.3 percent of households and 41 million people nationwide, were food insecure as of 2016.

“It’s a choice to pay the utilities or buy food to feed you and your children,” said Breegle, 45, who rents a house in Clairton.

“I would have to decide which month, which utility is getting paid so I can feed the kids,” she said. “It comes to a point sometimes where you only pay the ones that you have a shut-off notice on and let the other ones go for a while.”

Breegle still fits within the eligibility cutoffs to receive some federally funded food pantry resources — but many food insecure people don’t. Nationally, a little more than a quarter of food-insecure individuals are ineligible for federal nutritional assistance