The economy has hit everyone hard, and those least able to defend themselves, such as dogs and cats, sometimes pay with their lives. When owners can no longer afford pet food, the animals are often taken to overcrowded animal shelters where many die because of lack of homes.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP (often called food stamps), will pay for items such as soda and energy drinks, but not for dog or cat food. As of April 2013, according to the USDA more than 47.5 million people were receiving SNAP benefits each month.
In February, the program Pet Food Stamps was launched. In three hours, it went viral. The site received so much traffic that it crashed. Within days, the programs founder, Marc Okon found himself being interviewed by media outlets from major networks to the Wall Street Journal. A mere three months later almost 200,000 applications have been submitted for over half a million pets nationwide. More than a ton of food has already been distributed and the program is still in its infancy. The pet food stamp program is not run by the state or federal government, but is funded entirely by donations from individuals and corporations.
Okon believes that pets should not have to suffer because their humans have fallen on hard times. When one television interviewer confronted him with the question “If a family can’t afford food for their kids, shouldn’t they give up their pets?”, Okon responded “If a mother of father looses their job should they have to surrender their children?” Okon said what millions of pet lover around the world were thinking. Most people consider their pets more like a family member than a possession, and children suffer emotionally when they are forced to give up a beloved pet.
Even though the program is based in New York State, people around the country are eligible for the services. Sacramento City Shelter director Gina Knepp told Fox40 News “I think it’s rather exciting and ingenious. There is definitely a need in our country to help people who have pets to prevent them from surrendering them because they can’t afford to feed them.”
The program also provides pet food for guardians of service dogs, such as hearings dogs or guide dogs for the blind, even if they do not receive SNAP benefits. Okon estimates that between 30% and 40% of the initial food shipments went to feed service dogs. Holocaust survivors are also entitled to free pet food through the program. Because the application for SNAP can take some time, people who have applied but not yet qualified through the government may be able to qualify under the Pet Food Stamps program as long as they are at or below the federal poverty line.
With Pet Food Stamps, you don’t get stamps or a card, you get an actual delivery of pet food to your home. This eliminates the need to drive or take public transportation to buy the food, something that can be a challenge for lower income folks. Partnering with the online company Pet Flow, after the qualifying process, the program will determine a set dollar amount for each animal for a six month supply of food. The recipient gets to choose what brand of food they want to feed their pet. The choices include foods for animals that are on special diets. Pet Food Stamps volunteers also try to educate people to the fact that feeding the “bargain brand” foods that are often found in supermarkets may actually cost more per serving than a high quality food. Okon said one of the most popular foods currently is Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance. This is a higher quality food that contains only USDA approved “human grade” meats and ingredients, which is not true of all pet food brands.
Currently Okon is running the program with 12 volunteers in a space donated by the Hi-Tor Animal Center in Rockland County, New York. They have been promised the space for at least six months. Hi-Tor believes that with the assistance of the free pet food, less people will be bringing their pets to shelters such as theirs, creating a winning partnership.
The web site will be expanded shortly and people will be able to make donations to specific animals and follow their stories. Advertising will be sold for $15 a month to dog walkers, pet sitters and animal trainers. This income will offset the administrative costs of the program so all of the donations can go toward purchasing food. Okon is looking to expand the services offered, including starting a program for senior citizens who could not afford the cost of care of an animal, to be able to adopt a shelter pet.
After spending years in the dog-eat-dog business world of Manhattan, Okon decided he wanted to do something that truly made a difference in the world. As the owner of a cat, two turtles and an iguana he knows the cost of caring for a pet. This program may not make him financially wealthy but he has already reaped emotional riches from implementing the program. “It really is an honor to be able to do work like this,” Okon said in a phone interview, long after normal business hours.
If you would like to donate to the program or have a need for its services, check out the web site at www.petfoodstamps.org.