by Latoya Peterson
This is a public service announcement intended for journalists, news outlets, bloggers, folks in charge of creating policy, and people who have been lucky enough to have never relied on government assistance for basic necessities like food.
Just stop. Just stop the madness.
The latest in this ridiculousness? Fast Company weighing in on what people should and should not be eating on food stamps.
The writer is pulling all of these assumptions out of the air, based on what can theoretically be purchased on food stamps and an assumption that silly poor people don’t know that they will need to maximize their monthly allotment. They also seem to ignore that some people do eat well on SNAP – there isn’t much data about what types of food are most commonly purchased using EBT cards, but national studies don’t really show much of a link between eating well or eating poorly and food stamps. It really depends on the person. Which is why lines like this are infuriating:
[I]f you live in cities like New York City and San Francisco, you should revel in your clean tap water, and save your food stamps for other things. [...]
If [the New York soda ban] passed, the ban would prevent people from using food stamps to buy carbonated and non-carbonated beverages that are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or sugar and have more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving. Is this over the top? Quite likely. But it’s an interesting thought experiment: What would happen to obesity and diabetes rates if soda was taken off the food-stamp approval list? [...]
One fancy lobster would suck up a good portion of a monthly food stamp allowance–and if you can afford to do that, you should just use cash. Not that poor people shouldn’t get to enjoy lobster. They just shouldn’t use our tax dollars.
13% of Americans are on SNAP. It’s certainly one of the highest rates of SNAP usage since the program has started but let’s be real here – if every single person on SNAP was completely healthy and fit, we wouldn’t make a dent in America’s problem. (And, in general, when people talk about issues with America’s health, it’s really just a veiled way to say “eew, fat people.” Measuring national health is a set of shifting goal posts, and the solutions to a lot of these problems is ending subsidies on certain products. But its easier to pretend that a growing nation is the result of three hundred million individual failures.)
The SNAP program is also considered one of the most successful government programs there is. Families are hungry – people get food. It’s rather simple. The problem comes in when people try to nickel and dime the SNAP program, like the writer above, in service of…well whatever. Small government, personal responsibility, straight up bigotry, political expediency – the SNAP program takes the hit. It’s a popular program, but thanks to the way we demonize people on any sort of government assistance, it seen as something that we need to regulate, lest the undeserving poor get to live the high life on taxpayer dollars.
And what a high life it is. Let’s look at the numbers.
From the government’s SNAP FAQs:
In 2008, SNAP served 28.4 million people a month at an annual cost of $34.6 billion. In February 2009, SNAP served 32.6 million people, an all-time record. SNAP participation fluctuates with the economy and with the pattern of poverty in America. As the number of persons in poverty rose, SNAP participation grows. When poverty falls, so does reliance on SNAP. Participation for the latest available month can be found on Program Data.
Here’s how broke you have to be to qualify for SNAP:
And here’s what the MAXIMUM allotment is:
(Please note, they may give you less than the maximum.)
For comparison’s sake, here’s one of my favorite financial shows, ‘Til Debt Do Us Part.
When Gail Vaz-Oxlade slashes people’s budgets, she rarely allots less than $100 a week for food – even for a two person household. The government allows for even less than that.
The SNAP program normally works in tandem with programs like Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to serve low income women who are at nutritional risk. WIC is tightly regulated, and one can use this program to see what life would be like if we started putting similar restrictions on food stamps.
Interestingly, one of the best explorations of reversal in fortune and life on public benefits has come from MTV. I love, love, love this episode of True Life, called “I Can No Longer Afford My Lifestyle,” for a host of reasons – it really illuminates a lot of the issues with how quickly a person can go from being financially stable to financially destitute. Three people – Adam, Caitlin, and Aja -were living large right when the bubble burst, and all three start the episode in the same state: broke, jobless, and with grim employment prospects for the future. Aja, a single mother of three, takes a trip to the grocery store to pick up supplies on WIC, starting at 10:35:
For those of you who can’t see the video, Aja hits the grocery store. She has a lot of problems with the WIC restrictions and it takes her a long time to actually make her selections. WIC allows Cheerios but does not allow Honey Nut Cheerios because of the added sugar content. Aja spurns the unflavored Cheerios (and opts for the WIC-approved Frosted Mini Wheats), but still hits a problem at the register, because she selected sharp cheddar cheese and WIC only allows regular cheddar cheese. “I just got cheese checked at Von’s,” she says in disbelief. “What kind of day is this?”
I have a memory, from long ago, where I am sitting in the parking lot of a McDonalds, with my mom, trying to count out 63 pennies from the floor around the car, the change jar, and the pavement around the car in order to purchase two hamburgers from McDonalds for our evening meal. Cheap food exists for a reason. 63 cents doesn’t go far in the grocery store if you want a hot meal, and have no where for food prep. (Something that people also conveniently forget about – a lot of eating well on a budget requires prep with at least a hot plate, running water, and basic utensils. If you don’t have these things, you have to eat ready made food. Needless to say, living out of a car doesn’t provide you with consistent access to these things.) But a whole hamburger meant a lot to a seven-year-old stomach that was going to go hungry. What kind of day is that? These are broke people choices.
I’m sure that if I shared this story on the NYT Health blog, there would be people berating my mother for buying me a hamburger and not, say, an apple or something. Or maybe some dried lentils we could have soaked overnight on the carburetor using a car fluid funnel and woken up to a wonderfully healthy and cheap pinch of beans.
What many folks, in this land of endless theory, tend to forget is that just like there’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, there is also Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs.
There at the bottom is a concept: enough food.
You want to know what getting to enough food looks like? There’s an area, on the DC/Maryland border, that is the home to a lot of immigrant communities. This means a lot targeted grocery stores. I went into one, in search of jicama, and marveled at the retailer who was selling dollar bags of produce. The produce in the bags was actively rotting. I’m not talking about bruising or discoloration, which gets things bounced off grocery store shelves. I’m talking about mold. Rot. Things that most people wouldn’t want to touch, but there is enough demand in that area for affordable produce that it’s bagged up and sold along with the other wares. That’s enough food. Buying the dollar bags of rotting food that you will go home, cut around the gross parts, and put the rest in a pot since your family has to eat.
Or as Erika wrote in the “Unbearable Whiteness of Eating“:
When we make food an issue of choice, there is an underlying understanding that everyone, in fact, has that choice to make. There is an accepted belief, in conversations about choosing to eat healthily, that everyone stands between a produce section and a frozen TV dinner section and, invariably, chooses at their discretion. There’s an underlying acceptance in these conversations that food deserts do not exist. That food deserts don’t exist in inner cities… mostly populated by Black Americans. There is an acceptance that food availability doesn’t need to be discussed, because all the people involved in the conversation have access.
Is that a happenstance? A mere coincidence? I might’ve thought so before, but now? I’m not so sure.
Choice is a strange thing. Americans demand choices, stocking our grocery stores with dozens of options for everything from orange juice to plastic bags. And yet, people seem to have no issue stripping the right of choice from others. Clearly, if you start talking in specifics, these “woulda, shoulda, coulda” arguments start falling to the wayside. Would you personally deny a person a lobster, if they chose to budget for it, on their birthday? Even if the month before they bought canned goods to make sure they could afford that once a year splurge? And where does the policing stop? Soda is bad for you – but many health advocates warn against drinking fruit juice as well, noting that people should eat, rather than drink their calories. Does that mean we ban juice too? What about Sunny D, a favorite of kids which is described as “an orange flavored drink.” Drink. I, and a lot of people I know, grew up on drink, which generally isn’t mentioned by health advocates, since it seems like they cannot conceive of adults and children drinking fruit flavored sugar water. And yet…
Considering the fact that so many kids could realistically answer “what the fuck is juice,” why don’t we just start banning all drinks that aren’t coffee, tea, and water? Oh wait, we banned bottled water (because you know, poor people can’t like sparkling). Because poor people have always been poor, and have never known otherwise, and they’ve never had nice things, like water that bubbles. And poor people don’t need to exercise choices over what food they eat and what food they prefer because poor people aren’t allowed to have preferences. We aren’t allowed to access nice things.
And access is what brings us to what’s wrong with the one “allowance” the author grants.
Instead, Use Stamps At The Farmer’s Market
The generic complaint against farmers’ markets is that the food is too expensive to serve everyone who needs food. But, lo and behold, SNAP recipients are legally allowed use their food stamps to purchase food at farmer’s markets. The practice is only now gaining popularity because paper food-stamp coupons have been replaced by special debit cards, and many farmer’s markets only accept cash. This is the kind of thing we would like to see more of: widespread access to healthy, fresh foods that are reasonably priced (on a good day). It certainly beats bottled water.
Well, gee gosh golly, why haven’t people just thought of strolling on down to the farmer’s market and buying the yummy fresh food there?
Here’s a reason – the quality of your farmer’s market varies by region, location – and what the seller’s think the market can afford. Last summer, I did an investigative piece for the American Prospect into farmer’s markets in the DC area. As a patron of the markets, and someone not currently on food stamps, I wondered exactly how far those double dollars went. I discovered:
One of the major influences on how farmers markets function is a 1999 report called “Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmer’s Markets in Low Income Communities.” In it, Andy Fisher, on behalf of the Community Food Security Coalition, provides concrete steps for both market organizers and policy-makers to consider when trying to serve low-income populations. Some of his suggestions were heeded — the United States Department of Agriculture standardization and WIC cooperation were instituted in 1992 and greatly expanded in 2009. However, some basic steps are still in need of a champion. Fisher made three very important points yet to be addressed: Markets must tailor their offerings to “focus on basic food at affordable prices”; should pay attention to the availability of transportation and the market’s location; and must involve the community to provide a sense of ownership with the market.
Recent visits to markets near the White House and Silver Spring reveal a serious problem: It would be very difficult to put together a full meal for a family of four based on the selections available. Many items were exotic, not staples. Ground bison was running at $6.25 per pound, and ham retailed at $7.95 per pound. Hunting for side dishes was also a problem. Since prices varied by vendor, it took a keen eye and comparison shopping to find the best deals. One vendor charged $4.50 for approximately four asparagus spears, while another stall sold two hefty bundles for $7. A meal for four people consisting of 2 pounds of ham, two containers of baby potatoes, and two baskets of spinach retailed close to $34. Even with double dollars, at $15 it still may prove to be a stretch.
Now, this doesn’t mean all farmer’s markets are terrible or overrpriced. Eastern Market, one of the longest running markets in the area (which is also one of the few places in DC where you can still see butchers and fishmongers) has an amazing selection of tasty, inexpensive fruits and veggies. There is an older woman who comes every summer, selling big bags of produce for $4 (it used to be $3 – the recession continues to harm us all). Last week, I bought vegetables for an entire week, along with a few treats (coconut dates, some fennel, golden beets) – it still only set me back $40. Farmer’s markets, in many cases, can be cheaper than supermarkets – but it really depends on a lot of factors.
However, those type of markets don’t exist everywhere. Markets are scarce in low income areas, and higher priced areas tend to traffic in jams and artisan bread as opposed to basic foodstuffs. Furthermore, your region determines what type of food is at the farmer’s market, and what price that food will be. When I went to California, I was astounded at how cheap vegetables where. At what my friend called a “so-so” market, there were bunches of kale and swiss chard for $2, along with some of the best looking tomatoes and oranges I’ve ever seen in my life. That kind of produce just doesn’t make it all the way to the East Coast in the same shape (and definably not for the same prices.) So access here is vital. This is something easy to overlook if you generally have enough money to buy the food you want to eat most months. But for people on limited budgets, or in areas with limited to no access, expecting farmer’s markets to magically replace a missing food infrastructure is an pipe dream.
Luckily, some bloggers and writers truly get some of the issues with eating well on a restricted budget, in areas of limited access. Erika of A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss has a whole series about eating well on a budget and clean eating on food stamps. Stephanie Quilao of Noshtopia/One Mile, One Meal/Back in Skinny Jeans, started by doing food comparisons to show why Whole Foods wasn’t necessarily more expensive than a trip to the regular grocery store. More recently, she’s started a campaign to eat well at WalMart, to showcase healthy eating options for all budgets and access levels.
Instead of trying to regulate government policy (particularly programs that have never been used by the authors of these pieces, particularly not in situations that were longer than a month long “experiment”), how about we all try to meet people where they are to create a healthier nation?