Checking out at grocery store

When I was a kid, food stamps were these oddly colored dollar bills that select people used in stores “making groceries”, as we say in New Orleans. I recall being intrigued by the brown, orange, and other colored money cause I wanted pretty colored money, not the dull green bills most people had. But that changed soon as I recognized that the refusal to engage in polite conversation was almost always accompanied by embarrassment on their faces – parents and children alike. So I grew up believing it was a mark of shame to use, have, but especially to need Food Stamps.

These people should work harder or sacrifice more so they didn’t have to use the pretty multi-colored dollar bills. These were those shiftless and lazy people I would hear about on the news shows my mother would watch. The very dregs of society right there in the grocery trying to get food to eat (Editor’s note: without being judged).

It wasn’t until I got older, started working and living on my own that I became jealous of people who had those multi-colored dollar bills. Pride or not, food is expensive! Especially if you want to eat “healthy” – almost $2 for a red pepper; $5 for an 8oz plastic container of spring greens; over $10 per pound, for meat that purportedly won’t kill me, because it is grass fed or free range, and hasn’t been injected with hormones, to counteract the deplorable conditions where livestock is kept, that promotes widespread disease.

But how do you even get food stamps? Do you have to be a lazy, unemployed, leach on the system to get assistance? Ummm, no. The bar is actually pretty low.

More often than not, you just have to be working poor. You know, a part of the group of working folk who simply aren’t paid enough to clothe, house, and feed themselves – which is a percentage of the population startlingly more than you probably would imagine. Just don’t think, if you happen not to be one of the working poor, that they are fiction.

I have seen them completely exhausted from taking care of children and the elderly. I have supervised them doing back breaking work in local hotels. I have served them in food lines at the local mission. I have been them returning to school as a single mom of 2 kids. So here are a few facts to give you a clearer picture.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) reports based on 2015 numbers that 12.7% of American households are food insecure. That means that roughly 15.8 million households in these United States did not have “access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members”. Moreover, 7.7% (about 9.5 million) had very low food security. That means that they didn’t have enough food throughout the year “to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies” (read: eating less or going hungry altogether) without getting emergency or even ongoing assistance. Ultimately, 5% (approximately 6.3 million) households didn’t have normal eating patterns because there wasn’t enough money or other resources for food. That means, even if they did get some assistance, it wasn’t enough to keep food in the house on a regular basis.

Yet the unasked questions loom: so; what difference does it make; aren’t these the same folk who are “gaming the system”? Ummm, no … the numbers are renown and we aren’t going to unpack all of that here. But recognize that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – what used to be food stamps – recipients are rolled into the numbers reflecting use of welfare programs. Also recognize that these likely are folk who find themselves in difficult situations and just need a hand to get through it without starving.

Huffington Post ran an article a while back that reported nearly 1/3 of Americans stopped receiving benefits in a year; 56% stopped in 36 months; and 43% lingered between three and four years. So that is pretty far from being a multi-generational leach on tax dollars. Additionally these numbers are often directly correlative to market trends, recession, inflation, the housing bubble burst, decreases in mental health services, and increasing incarceration rates, to name a few.

Oh, but did you read that article also from the NY Times that talked about how SNAP recipients had baskets overflowing with crap food and sugary soda? Yeah, well, here is the thing:  that article was based on a report from the USDA that went into detail of the spending habits and categories of SNAP benefits and said, I do quote, “Across all households, more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item. SNAP households spent somewhat more on soft drinks than non-SNAP households (5 versus 4 percent).” Yep … One. Whole. Percent. More.

So realistically, there is not much difference. More specifically, “Summary category data show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households focused their spending in a relatively small number of similar food item categories, reflecting similar food choices.“  That’s probably because food – choices, purchase, and consumption thereof – is cultural, but we will get to that another day. Bottom line is that there should be no surprise that the food choices are pretty much the same between folk who receive SNAP and those who don’t.

But even if SNAP recipients were choosing, as the article suggests, a disproportionate amount of salty snacks, sugary sodas, and fatty foods, which could well be the conditioned result of living in food deserts, why is it acceptable to let them not eat at all simply because you would not have made the same choices? Sounds very much like it’s OK to let them eat, but not cake because that’s not good for them.