Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Throw money at him and you feed him for a month.  Is that how the saying goes?

Every year, the United States spends about $80 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as Food Stamps.

In 2013, SNAP assisted 20 percent of Americans.  In other words, the government paid one in five Americans taxpayer dollars to help them buy food.  This number seems especially high, considering only 15.1 percent of Americans live below the poverty line.

Intrigued, I wanted to learn more about SNAP, to figure out how reasonable it is for SNAP to assist so many, how hard it is to live on food stamps and whether the government should really be spending $80 billion on SNAP annually.  So, my family decided to go on food stamps.

We did extensive research beforehand: we found the amount of money a family of three receives from SNAP, we brainstormed cheap meals and we compared prices at grocery stores to find the best deals. We pledged to eat only from our food stamps budget; we could not eat out.  We could use the spices we already owned, but otherwise we had to start fresh.  This meant buying flour, salt, sugar and all other necessities in addition to our regular meals.

We were all pleasantly surprised by the quality of our meals.  We ate spaghetti, roast chicken, fried rice, turkey dinner and more.  In actuality, our meals on food stamps were better than they had been before.

The biggest challenge of going on food stamps was not being able to eat out, but by the end of the month, I was accustomed to eating before hanging out with friends.

We had $25 left over at the end of the month, which wasn’t even a fair reflection of our excess money; toward the end of the month, we had such a surplus that we were buying more expensive food for more extravagant meals, and we had food left over.

Although our experiment gave us a good sense of life on food stamps, it wasn’t perfect.  We did it in February, the shortest month of the year. However, this was offset by the necessity to purchase all of the basic ingredients, like flour, that most families would be able to replenish over time and often do not need to buy all at once.

Another flaw was that we had many cooking instruments that poorer families most likely would not be able to afford.  Finally, all the meals we ate required preparation, and a family on SNAP would most likely be working long hours, therefore without adequate time to prepare meals.

SNAP also has other flaws.  According to Haley Parker, a former cashier at Food Source in Sacramento, a store for lower income families, people frequently cheat the system and rip off SNAP.

“People were ripping off the food stamps program by selling their food stamps for half price, in exchange for cash,” Parker said. “They would sell $40 of food stamps for $20 cash.”

Selling food stamps is not only illegal, but also a felony in most states.  Regardless, Parker saw these transactions occur often and never saw anyone try to stop them.

“I am not aware of the store or SNAP ever doing anything to stop [the illegal sale of food stamps],” Parker said.  “The store I worked at wanted people’s money and did not care how or from whom they were getting it.”

According to Parker, people sometimes seemed to have very large amounts of money on their SNAP cards.

“I noticed that the amount of money some people were getting was outrageous,” Parker said.  “It was sometimes thousands of dollars a month for groceries.”

People should not be able to swindle a federally-funded program like SNAP.  The ease and frequency with which people seem to do so indicates that, although it has good intentions, SNAP is a poorly implemented program.

Incentivising managers not to allow the illegal sale of food stamps and to report SNAP balances that seem unusually high could prevent people from continuing to cheat the system.

After experiencing the amount and quality of food that SNAP provides and learning about the other flaws in the program, I have concluded that the government places an extraneous amount of money on SNAP; some of the $80 billion currently used could be spent in a much more efficient way.

We need to educate families on nutrition, teach them cheap and simple recipes and instill in them a better sense of budgeting their money.  Additionally, we need to better enforce the integrity of the program, because every time an individual cheats SNAP,  he or she takes money straight from taxpayers’ pockets.

Instead of channeling billions of taxpayers’ dollars into SNAP, the government could instead streamline the program.

By making it more efficient and making sure people do not cheat the system, the government could drastically reduce the $80 billion dollars it spends on SNAP each year and could spend the extra money elsewhere.

Educating people about nutrition, easy meals to cook and budgeting, as well as incentivising managers to prevent people from cheating the system could greatly improve SNAP.  $80 billion is no modest fee and the government should take a serious interest in making sure that SNAP is running to its fullest potential.

The fact that the government continues to stream money into such a flawed system without making real efforts to improve it is worrisome and arouses a troubling question: if the government is unnecessarily wasting money in SNAP, where else is it throwing away taxpayers’ money?

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