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.
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.
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.
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. 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.