5 Reasons Poor People Don’t Eat Healthy

I’m sure you can imagine the discussions I see  regarding the topic of  people living on food stamps/ poor people and “Why can’t they just eat right?”. There are a lot of things your average American who has never lived in poverty don’t consider. People largely seem unaware of obstacles that face poor people when it comes to food or..well….anything at all.They’re failing to grasp that just getting enough food period is a challenge , let alone healthy food.  I’ve had to become a very forgiving person when I see certain remarks but it’s become easier since I’ve made this connection that people who say these things are speaking from a place of privilege and  ignorant and really don’t understand the complexities of food scarcity in the US.

Here are 5 reasons good food is hard to find for poor people sometimes.

1. FOOD DESERTS – Imagine you live in a city. There isn’t much in your neighborhood besides a few fast food joints, a  Dollar General & a little convenience store. They have things like milk & eggs but any food beyond that comes in a box or a can & everything they do have healthy is overpriced.  The only time you can get to the nearest real grocery store is when your sister comes and visits because she has a car. There is a Farmer’s Market somewhere in the city but like the grocery store, it’s too hard to get to without a car. With me so far?

There is a community garden you’ve been told you can get involved in to grow your own food but it’s not in your neighborhood and you have to take 2 buses  to get there and anyway, you work Monday -Saturday and by the time you would get there, it’s dark and to get back home, you would have to walk partially with your 2 little kids in tow because buses don’t run in your neighborhood (not a safe neighborhood,by the way)  past a certain time in the evening.Sunday is your only day off and the time you want to spend with your children.

You tried growing some things indoors and on a windowsill but 2 windows in the whole apartment… nothing really grew.

The food pantry run by the church has exactly the same selection as the stores you can shop at – boxed & canned food with lots of preservatives and crap. Nothing fresh.

I should mention now that this is a common thing I hear in emails from people living in food deserts.

A food desert is defined as an area that has no food & grocery sources with fresh foods or if they do have fresh foods, they are disproportionately expensive. People affected the most by food deserts are poor people who do not have access to transportation  and the primary affected are single mother & their children, elderly, and disabled. In an area considered a food desert, the rate of obesity & diabetes is much higher and there have been some causal studies that suggest children that live in food deserts don’t do as well in school.  217 million people receiving food stamps live in urban areas compared to about 62 million in rural areas. Food deserts can happen for those in rural areas,too but it’s far more prevalent in urban areas and affects the largest portion of food stamp recipients overall.

2. The Cheapest Food Is Often Junk 

Depending on where you live in the U.S., this may not be true but for most of the country, the norm is that junk food is cheep and good food is expensive. A common statement I hear is, “There should be laws that prevent people on food stamps  from buying junk food!”. I may have mentioned before that I have about 3,000 words in my drafts folder on JUST that topic. Let me see if I can summarize a piece of  the issue here in a lot less than 3,000 words.

Let’s pretend this isn’t an issue attacking the choices of a specific economic class & trying to create a Nanny State that dictates how poor people live and focus on the money aspect here.

SNAP spending accounts for almost $72 billion dollars and food companies who make junk food want most of that to go in their pockets. They spend millions of dollars every year to lobby AGAINST changes in the food stamp program that would prohibit or limit recipients from buying junk food.  The American Beverage Company, Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, Kellog, Kroger, Walmart, Snack Food Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association ,Mars ,and Cargill have all spent money to not just stop bills from being passed to restrict SNAP expenditures but also to promote their food to poor people as their target market. Debbie Stabenow, the Senate Ag Committee Chairwomen received $1,026,196 from undisclosed lobbyists to prevent restrictions from being introduced in the Farm Bill and also to stop GMOs from being labelled.

People can see the value in preventing people on SNAP from buying certain foods all they want but as long as the money is lining the pockets of people making up the rules, it isn’t going to happen. The cheapest food available is going to continue to be junk food. Of course, if this pisses you off enough ,you could start a campaign to make some phone calls, write letters and make some noise about the issue.

But here’s the thing…

If you restrict junk food then there are contingencies that have to be fought for in place of  the inexpensive source of food for these families. If  you remove junk food from the SNAP program then other things have to be put in place, such as better development of urban and community gardens, access to Farmer’s Markets, and quite simply, better allocation & distribution of food waste from grocery store & the food industry.

CORRECTION!!!  Debbie Stabenow actually received:   $903,008 from Big Ag  $359,090 from energy industry (also affected by the farm bill)  $1,026,196 from undisclosed Lobbyists and Lawyers  Occupy the Farm Bill   www.facebook.com/stabenow  www.facebook.com/occupythefarmbill

3. Education

I worked with children for a long time. There were kids who had never seen a fresh vegetable or fruit in their life. The closest thing to a potato that they knew was a french fry. I want to make it very clear here  – not all these kids came from poor families. In fact, most of them didn’t.  America as a whole needs to learn better nutrition and how to spend their food dollars better. It isn’t just a poor people issue.  It is true that demographically poor people are less educated and also have less access to educational resources but seriously…let’s be honest here – Americans have become a nation of people who make some very poor choices about what goes into their body. Rich or poor.406231_401023336623051_1406311727_n

Let’s also be honest about why there’s a focus on poor people to have better food education. They’re spending “taxpayer money”, so we should be sure they’re spending every dollar wisely. 10 cents a day goes into SNAP…that’s if you make $50,000/ year. Good heavens, yes…we need to make sure this 10 cents a day is being spent on healthy food only and preventing additional healthcare poor people may need on the taxpayer dime. Newsflash: The entire population contributes to the rising cost of health care costs because of their eating habits, regardless of  whether they eat on the dole or not.

Nutrition education is important for the whole country and I’m in favor for better access to nutrition education for everyone. Like I mentioned,  poor people are the least likely to have access to the resources to make this happen so we need to advocate for programs that enable people in poverty to boost their food knowledge.  One of the best ways to educate on the matters of food & nutrition is to implement more programs like Food is Elementary in US schools and school gardens that can be used not just to supply a cafeteria but also serve as a cross-curricular education opportunity.Start them young and it will set them up for a life of good and responsible eating.

4. Ability

A great deal of food stamp recipients are disabled and quite a few of them have limited support people who can cook for them. A can of  Hormel Chili is easy to open and heat in the microwave. Disabled people often encounter the same problems as those in food deserts…inability to travel to a real grocery store  to go shopping. Some areas have great services for disabled people, such as Meals on Wheels but these programs are not available everywhere. Elderly people without support also fall into this category of simply not being able to shop for or prepare food for themselves.

5. 99% of Homes May Have Refrigerators But That Doesn’t Mean They Have Stoves 

Anyone else remember when Fox News tried to dispute that America even had poor people because “99.6% of ‘Poor’ Households Have Refrigerators”. Like, because someone has a refrigerator, it means they open the door and magically, food appears! Or the electric bill was magically paid that month so the refrigerator could work. Same applies to stoves . I’ve known some families who could not use the stove in their house or apartment because it was a gas stove, which meant an additional bill they could not pay. Some are fortunate enough to have electricity and can use a microwave but you know what you can cook easily in a microwave,right?  Not to say you CAN’T cook a decent ,healthy meal in a microwave but it’s a bit more difficult. Most who are stuck with microwave cooking tend to favor frozen meals…lots of preservatives,highly processed & low nutritional value. I actually knew one women who didn’t have a microwave or a stove and still made some great meals for her family using a hot plate and a toaster oven but it took a lot of time. On the days she worked outside the home, she had to stick to convenience foods otherwise no one would have been fed in time for bed.  The day she found a crockpot at a yard sale was a happy day indeed.

To see all posts on my blog related to eating on a SNAP (Food Stamp) budget, go here. As of  August 2013, I will be blogging about food scarcity,poverty and frugality at a new blog here: Poor as Folk
I always welcome comments and suggestions for future topics for future posts , as well as tips to news articles and blogs that relate to food stamps and food justice. If you don’t feel comfortable commenting here on the blog, there are other ways to contact me.  I also welcome those who struggle with food security to write personal stories or viewpoint on a particular topic related to food scarcity  guest piece here. 

31 thoughts on “5 Reasons Poor People Don’t Eat Healthy

  1. I’m teaching my Girl Scout Brownies about this, and I can definitely use these as talking points as to why it can be difficult to eat healthy when you depend on the food bank or similar outfits. We volunteered at the local food bank, and by far the biggest pile of food was the snacks. Chips, popcorn, pretzels, tons of Girl Scout cookies (the irony of us selling unhealthy cookies is not lost on me…I just don’t know how to reconcile that yet). So here’s where I could use a couple of suggestions. For our final project of the year, we’re going to ask grocery stores for healthy donations or food items that diabetics and those with gluten intolerances, etc. could use. We’re then going to use a big chunk of our cookie money to buy some donations ourselves. I know that plain rice would be a decent donation, but can anyone throw out some specific items that would be helpful?

    • A few months ago, Pamela Price at Red,White and Grew was asking people to donate Sun Butter to food pantries because kids with peanut allergies need an alternative to peanut butter.

      I think dried beans would be a good donations,too.

  2. Alternative to microwave that also runs on electricity would be a toasted oven and a crock pot, but both of those fall under the education issue….

  3. Rice and beans together make a complete protein, BUT rice is a starch and very high in carbs, thus not good for diabetics. Honestly, fresh produce (impractical tor food banks because of the limited shelf life) would be the most wanted, if you could get past the education issue.

    Used to take the MIL to the senior brown bag program. Most of what they gave out was day old bread, stale donuts, etc. But we really went for the “rejected produce” and the number of even senior citizen s who did not know what to do with it was scary.

    (As an aside, both crock pots, ricers, and toaster ovens also run on electricity…of course, that comes back to the education issue above)

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  5. Our food bank loves donations of freash produce and, during the growing season, we are starting a gleaning group, in conjunction with our community garden, to go to local residents and farmers and pick up produce that would otherwise go to waste and take it to the food bank. We are setting it up so we will pick up the produce the morning that the food bank is open (Tuesday in our area) so that they don’t have to worry about storing it and it is freash for the consumer.

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  7. Thank you for this article. Our country needs help. And thank you for calling out Debbie Stabenow. (Thanks for looking out for the people, Debbie. Why not remove the age limit on cigarettes, too? You are a disgrace, Stabenow.)

  8. As someone who works with low income folks I am just reading this and nodding along. The only other point that I would add is sometimes people lack actual utensils to cook foods from scratch like decent knives to cut up a chicken or large squash. Then there is also access to decent herbs and spices that make foods tasty, not all stores carry em and they aren’t always affordable. I have this same discussion often with funders and volunteers. Many of things that are taken for granted by the haves don’t exist for the have nots. Excellent post.

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  11. Hi, I teach students who are going to be busiess teachers. Every year, I play them Food Inc, and I hope it’s okay if I use this entry with them in class? They get super angry about poor people and food choices but they don’t really understand the why and the how of it, even after watching the film. I think this would be a great way to follow up on the film.

  12. I’d love to respond to everything on this article, but sadly, I gotta run in a sec here! I just wanted to say that this article is very informative! Thank you! I just shared it on Twitter. Congrats on being on Skinny Scoop as well! I grew up in a “third world” country where a lot of us kids grew up eating canned food. It was hard to get fresh food for an affordable price, so profitable companies from the US shipped food through sea with longer shelf lives to Asian countries, making a lot of people including myself grow up sick and addicted to trans fat.

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  16. I find it disturbing that many people don’t understand the power of poverty, because they have never been poor themselves. Going into a grocery store with $10.00 for the WEEK not for one day but a full week, 7 days! You must feed yourself and how many children you have, and that does means getting those 33 cents ramen noodles packages tossed with a few peas in it, if the frozen bag is on sale, that week. What happens if you have no electricity? You must get 10 canned Chef Boyardee (easy to open top, because you don’t own a can opener) for a dollar each, hopefully they are on sale, and share that for the week. Try eating 1/3 of a can per day. For days, weeks, months…So happy schools are involved and now some offer breakfasts and sometimes snacks.

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