February 5, 2018
Each year, over 40 million limited-income Americans rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help purchase food for themselves and their families. It is the most wide-reaching program in the domestic hunger safety net, helping to keep millions of families from starving. But what about their pets?
Now, a Mississippi man is petitioning the federal government to modify food stamp rules to make it easier for those with limited incomes to feed their dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, snakes, fish—or whatever type of animal is a member of the family.
According to a report in the Denver Post, Edward Johnston Jr. would rather give his dinner to his dog than watch the pooch go hungry. That is why the 59-year-old Mississippi resident is petitioning the Department of Agriculture to let him use food stamps on kibble and pet treats.
And he is not the only one: His food drive has attracted nearly 80,000 signatures on the popular petition site Care2, as well as a number of animal welfare organizations.
Indeed, the need is obvious, based on findings of the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, commissioned by the American Pet Products Association, an industry group: Fully 14% of all pet-owning households make less than $25,000 per year—which, for a family of four, is roughly the federal poverty limit.
Food for each dog and cat averages $235 per year, according to the Pet Products Association. According to the Denver Post, when families don’t have enough money to buy pet food, they frequently do what Johnston does: Share the people food. But it’s not the same, and it can harm pets.
Not only that, but food costs can prompt families trying to get by on limited incomes to surrender or re-home a pet. In a 2015 study by the ASPCA, 30% of low-income people who relinquished their pets said they would have kept them if they had a free or low-cost pet food option.
The problems are real, but food-stamp experts say it’s doubtful that changing SNAP could be part of the solution. SNAP has explicitly excluded pet food since its earliest authorization in 1964.
In lieu of government action, nonprofit organizations such as the ASPCA and Rescue Bank, a national emergency pet-food distributor, say they have stepped up their own efforts. Food pantries also have gotten in on the action.
However, ultimately, advocates say, such organizations cannot provide for all the low-income people struggling to feed dogs and cats. Until they can, people like Johnston face difficult choices.
“Being poor is hard enough,” the Post said he wrote in his petition, “without being expected to give up your companion.”