Punishing the Poor in the Name of Helping Them
Citing the obesity epidemic, some food activists want “junk food” banned from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP — the food stamp program). As of 2011, about 46 million people nationwide are in the program. Clearly this would be a major hit for the “junk food” manufacturers, which include name-brand Big Food companies. Coca-Cola, Kraft, and trade associations such as the Corn Refiners of America, representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), successfully fought the efforts of Florida to impose such a ban on its SNAP enrollees.
I am not generally one to side with the big corporations, but this time I do. Not because I care about their profits. They could and should all go to perdition as far as I am concerned. But as a poor person on the SNAP program in California, I do not want my freedom to engage in otherwise lawful behavior to be controlled by the government.
There have always been efforts to get the poor to change their behavior through public and private programs that assume people are poor because they are somehow inferior; that they have lower intelligence, bad habits or bad morals and they need to be restrained by their betters. A particularly egregious example of this attitude reared its ugly head whenever a social worker would barge into the home of a woman on welfare in search of evidence that she was living with a man who could be supporting her. The attempts to restrict purchases made with food stamps just extend the long history of degrading “supervision” of the poor.
My husband and I have been on SNAP for a year. As is typical of Federal programs, SNAP works best for people who make an even amount of income throughout the year. Unfortunately, that’s not our situation. David’s work is heavily seasonal and our allotment was cut heading into the winter months because he showed an increase in income in the fall, even though he provided proof that his hours would be severely slashed in the winter. We would prefer not to have to rely on this program, which requires us to report quarterly (soon to be semiannually) every jot and tittle of our finances in return for the whopping sum of $285-367 dollars a month. (Is the Pentagon or Homeland Security so tightly monitored for their appropriations?) But as long as David’s hours are restricted to part-time by city budget constraints and pay for journalism keeps being hit or miss (and always low) for me, we do what we have to do.
We are definitely eating better since we abandoned food banks to join SNAP. We take advantage of the fact that our local farmers’ market takes our SNAP card. We generally avoid HFCS and chemicals we can’t pronounce. But there are times we buy sodas, chips and candy bars with SNAP without guilt. We should not have to give up simple choices our more financially fortunate neighbors have available.
You may think I am crazy to trumpet the opportunity to eat candy bars and chips as some sort of sacred choice, but the issue here is one of equality and freedom, and those are sacred. All Americans should have the same freedom to make decisions about their own lives, even if others would not agree with those decisions. One’s degree of freedom and self determination should not depend on the amount of money one has nor whether the source of one’s income is family wealth, a paycheck or a government benefit.
Rather than further restricting what people can buy, SNAP should expand to include energy drinks, which are currently banned from the program because they are considered “supplements,” in other words, because they have vitamins and minerals added. So the irony is that someone on SNAP can buy a soda such as Coca-Cola, which is merely fizzy water with color and sugar (or HFCS), but cannot buy a “Monster” energy drink or a “Vitamin Water” because they have supplemental vitamins and minerals. There has been a lot of criticism of such drinks of late: Too much caffeine, too much sugar, etc , etc. But you have to admit that at least there are vitamins and minerals added to these drinks that are not present in traditional sodas, so they should be somewhat better for you than sodas. Why aren’t they part of the program? Perhaps certain legislators don’t want the poor taking too many vitamins?
The food stamp program has always banned “hot foods ready to eat”. This was done because when the program was first proposed, opponents raised the specter of poor people going to fine dining restaurants on the taxpayers’ dime. It was another version of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen. This ban has resulted in such anomalies as the fact that I can go to the farmers’ market and buy a frozen package of Donna’s Tamales to cook at home, but I cannot buy a hot Donna’s Tamale to eat at the market — exactly same product. But there you have it: Stupidity in the name of controlling the (supposed) behavior of the poor. The notion that poor people should not eat out is ridiculous. Like everyone else, we go out and sometimes get hungry while we are out. Given the predations of capitalism so rife in the US (and the world) today, most people are becoming us. So don’t be so judgmental of our activities.
There are much better ways to improve the nutrition of the growing number of America’s poor than limiting their freedom of choice. The first step is to halt the subsidies that make “junk food” a better buy in terms of calories per dollar than “real food”. The second step is to make fresh food more easily available in poor neighborhoods that have plenty of expensive corner convenience stores offering highly processed food, but a dearth of genuine grocery stores. Nutritional education, from teaching through gardens on public school grounds, to free or low cost cooking classes in grocery stores and adult education centers, will go a long way toward improving the eating habits of the poor.
But we really should focus on improving everyone’s nutrition, rather than controlling the poor. We would all benefit by examining the price differential between vegan or vegetarian alternatives to meat. I went to my local Whole Foods Market recently to buy the ingredients for vegetarian tacos. A 12 oz. package of veggie protein meat substitute was $3.99 ON SALE. (It’s usually $4.69) A one-pound package of 80/20 ground beef at my local Trader Joe’s is $2.69 everyday. If you are of limited means, whether or not you are on SNAP, which item would be the economically rational one to buy?
Red meat has a bad health rep, aside from scandals such as “pink slime” and “downer” cows in the feed lots. Shall legislatures ban SNAP enrollees from buying hamburger meat? How about chicken? Poultry is allegedly healthier fare than red meat. But the Food and Drug Administration—FDA—allows growers to add ARSENIC to feed for chickens, turkeys and hogs. (Pork, the other white meat!)
Arsenic is commonly added to poultry feed for the FDA-approved purposes of inducing faster weight gain on less feed, and creating the perceived appearance of a healthy color in meat from chickens, turkeys and hogs. Yet new studies increasingly link these practices to serious human health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the CDC—arsenic is known to be a human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Shall the poor be forbidden poultry and pork as unhealthy?
What about mercury in fish? In December 2012, the Huffington Post carried an article about reports by the Bodiversity Research Institute and an international coalition of environmental groups called the Zero Mercury Working Group that said mercury contamination of seafood was on the rise globally and that smaller amounts are more harmful than previously thought.
Those reports did not consider the radiation in the Pacific from Fukushima or the damage to seafood in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The number of news reports about E. coli in vegetables, and salmonella in eggs, is growing.
Although the general quality and cost of our food is a societal concern, the ultimate decision of what to eat must rest with individuals. There are fewer decisions more personal than food. Even if the US cleans up its food act (ha!) people, including the poor, will still want comfort food now and then. A carrot stick or an apple will never surpass a candy bar or ice cream, both of which can be organic, too, as comfort food. If the government, by way of a social program, is willing to deprive a person of a simple choice because that person is poor and dependent on government help, then it is showing a genuine lack of concern for the quality of life of some of the neediest Americans. Food choices are part of our freedom; perhaps the SNAP restrictions are something we should not stomach.
Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in Oakland, CA. Kellia is an advocate of demonetization and the gift economy, and is active on an international email discussion list of those subjects. She can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org