A heart-tugging issue has surfaced as lawmakers prepare to dig into details of the Farm Bill, a catchall package of items relating to agriculture and food policy in the United States.
Should recipients of food stamps be allowed to purchase food for their hungry pets with the finite federal support they receive through the program?
Edward B. Johnston, Jr., a 59-year-old Mississippian who gets by with the help of food stamps, has initiated a petition on Care2 that has attracted more than 83,000 signatures thus far. It calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow food stamp beneficiaries to buy pet food for their animals if they deem that essential. The food stamp program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), allows recipients to only buy food meant for human consumption.
As Johnston writes in his petition to the USDA, the inability to use food stamps for pet food leaves “poor families with pets in a difficult position.”
“I am one of those Americans,” he writes. “I have only been on SNAP benefits for a few months, but I have been unable to feed my little dog due to government regulations.”
Millions of Americans and their pets live at or below the poverty level, and frequently they live in underserved communities where there is a lack of access to affordable pet resources. This is a major concern of our Pets for Life program. Staff and volunteers for the program, which works in such communities to provide veterinary care, pet food, and other aid to pets and those who care about them, have been consistently moved by the power of the human-animal bond everywhere they turn.
Even as these families struggle to get by, they embrace their responsibilities as caregivers to their pets. The animals are central to their lives and their emotional health. Scarce financial resources do not mean any scarcity of love in their hearts for their animals. People already making tough decisions should not have to deal with even more worry and stress because the government says they cannot feed their animals with the federal assistance they receive.
Some people who cannot find a way to feed their animals may turn them over to a local animal shelter. That not only leaves these people heartbroken, but it means that the local government or nonprofit shelter then must bear the cost of caring for a newly homeless animal.
Using a very limited federal allowance for people in poverty to feed their beloved dogs or cats is not an abuse of the system, nor an affront to taxpayers. It is a matter of survival for animals, and it allows people to have the comfort of knowing that their best friend is not going to have to go hungry.
The government does not allow food stamps for alcohol or cigarettes, and that makes sense. But it makes no sense at all to bar pet food purchases and limit the discretion of food-stamp recipients who are trying to keep their families together, including their beloved pets.
Congress needs to take action now and revise the definition of food in SNAP to include pet food. Lawmakers should understand the power of the human-animal bond, and that it’s alive and well in all communities in our nation, including those where so many struggle to make ends meet.