Archive for December, 2010

December 29, 2010

>Oh, SNAP: Do food stamps make you fat?

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I have a confession to make. For the last six months, I have been using food stamps. It’s easy, and I like it. I get $200 added to a little blue card every month, which I use like a debit card at any convenience store, supermarket, health food store, Asian market, or even farmer’s market within the state of Oregon that I please. Basically, I eat for free, so long as I don’t want to go to a restaurant or the hot food bar at the grocery store.  

This might not seem like much of a confession. After all, about 20% of Oregon residents receive food benefits, and along with unemployment checks and the occasional visit to the food bank, it’s how a lot of Americans are scraping by these days. I took an Americorps job in June, and under this government-funded program, participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the title that has replaced the phrase “food stamps” in government-speak) is all but expected. With my initial paperwork, I was given a letter addressed to the local branch of the Department of Human Services, which administers food benefits. To paraphrase, it said “Tuula works for Americorps now. We don’t actually pay her a living wage. Sign her up for food stamps, stat.” Everyone I worked with got the same form, and one-by-one, we trudged down to the DHS office, answered a couple of basic questions about our living expenses, and were handed the magical blue cards.

I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot outside the building, trying to adjust my frame of mind enough to allow myself to go in. Like a lot of people in this country, especially those with immigrant families who lived out some version of the American Dream, I considered accepting any form of federal welfare to be right down there with begging on the street corner. As I sat watching the rain dripping down my windshield, contemplating the course of my life, I started feeling very sorry for myself. Don’t I have a college degree? I wondered. How did I get here? What have I done wrong? Then I remembered: I wanted this. I wanted to do the low-paying, environmental, non-profit, social-service work. It makes me feel good. Besides, the economy is falling apart. I’m lucky to have a job of any kind, and it’s not like I’ll be a welfare bum forever. I pulled my jacket hood over my head, grabbed my letter, and went out into the rain.

That was six months ago. My Americorps term of service up, but I’m still on SNAP as I job search and try to avoid moving in with my parents. As difficult as it was to take the dink to my pride, I’m glad I did it. Not only did having my food bill taken care of allow me to save money while earning less than minimum wage from Americorps (another valuable experience), it also gave me some insights into the economics and geography of how we eat.

Because the SNAP card works exactly like a debit card would, it took me a while to notice any changes in my food buying habits. In fact, using EBT is quite discrete – at the store, they ring up your groceries, you swipe your card, selecting “EBT” instead of “debit/credit”, enter your PIN, take your receipt (which gives you the balance left for that month) and you’re on your way. As someone with a lot of initial guilt and shame surrounding the use of food stamps, I was grateful for this hassle-free process. I didn’t stand out.

That was the grocery store. The farmers market was a different story. After I found out that I could use my EBT card at the Lane County Farmers Market (for some reason, they don’t really advertise this feature), I took the next beautiful Saturday afternoon to stroll downtown with my grocery bag and pick out some fresh, organic veggies. I met my friend Tara, a fellow Americorps member, there. First, we had to visit a little booth, crammed between tables overflowing with produce, where a woman ran $10 off the balance of our cards (they do it in $5 increments) and gave us each ten wooden tokens that she said could be exchanged dollar-for-dollar at any of the farmer’s stands. Unfortunately, she told us, we couldn’t receive change in cash, so if we bought something for 50 cents, we would have to hand over a whole token. We started elbowing our way through the market throngs, and I found some carrots and a basket of strawberries, handed over five tokens, and didn’t get hassled. Tara, on the other hand, just wanted strawberries, and went to a different farmer for them. When she tried to pay, though, the woman behind the table frowned.
“Can you pay with something else?” she asked. “We get charged a fee to exchange those.” In the busy scuffle of the market, Tara didn’t feel like putting up a fight and holding up the line, so we dug through our pockets to produce some change. The woman didn’t seem much happier about the pile of nickles, dimes and quarters she provided, but what did she expect? As Tara pointed out on the walk home, if we had the option to pay some other way, we wouldn’t be on food stamps.

The more I thought about it, the more it irritated me. The whole point of SNAP is to reduce some of the inequity in our food system and give low-income people such as ourselves the option to eat fresh and nutritious food. If farmer’s markets charge their vendors a fee to accept their version of EBT, and farmers are reluctant to sell to individuals using the system, the whole point of the program is lost. I stuck the other five tokens in my purse, where they are still, because the next time I went to the farmers market I forgot to bring them. Clearly, this system needs some work.

But I didn’t shop much at the farmers market this summer anyway. I tried to keep from using my own cash for food and keep my monthly grocery bill within the allotted $200, which was easy as long as I didn’t spring for such items as $3.50 baskets of local strawberries (or meat, which I don’t normally eat anyway). I still bought mostly organic, but local foods were out of my price range. I also found myself cooking a lot more. I couldn’t justify the expense of eating out when I had free food at home, and I also knew that if I spent my food benefits on frozen pizzas and prepared deli items, my account would be empty a lot sooner than if I bought the raw ingredients. Without kids to take care of and clean up after, or a second job to pay a mortgage or whatever, I had the time for this (although, living alone, I got pretty tired spending every evening at home in front of the stove). Of course, if I did have other responsibilities in my life, the quality of what I was eating wouldn’t be nearly as good as it was. Also, I would need more than $200 per person, especially if there were meat-eaters in the family.

So if you’re busy, and you don’t earn much money, participating in the SNAP program makes a lot of sense. Only problem is, most people are much more likely to use food stamps to buy fattening, unhealthy foods that are cheap and easy to prepare. The result? People on SNAP are much more likely to be overweight or obese than those who aren’t, according to some scientists.

Thinking more about grocery transactions recently has also helped me notice where various food outlets are placed. I usually shop at small natural-foods stores, which are concentrated around the center of town where housing and businesses cater to those in the upper income levels. Head toward the outskirts of the city, and you won’t find those cozy shops stuffed with bulk foods, fresh veggies and organic cheese. In fact, even the large grocery chains start dropping off, and for every Albertson’s or Safeway you’ll find three or four Dari-Marts, 7-11s, or Circle-Ks, all variations on the convenience store theme. I notice them because the changeable-letter signs often advertise “We take EBT”. For what, though? Doritos, candy, soft drinks, maybe some milk, eggs or boxed mac-and-cheese. So if you live in one of those neighborhoods, and maybe you don’t have a car, or the ability to bus into town to visit another store, what are your options?

I’m not the first person to notice this phenomenon, and much has been said about the problem of “food deserts” in both rural and urban areas. One proposal that keeps coming up is to not allow the purchase of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods under SNAP. As it currently stands, you can buy pretty much any food item in the grocery or convenience store using your food benefits. The federal SNAP website details what does and does not apply as “food” under the program. Among the things that don’t count: Alcohol, personal care items, vitamins, and live animals (No buying a catfish to fatten up in your living room, sorry). Twinkies, Velveeta and Kool-Aid do count, although most people would probably agree that they have few nutritional differences from toothpaste. The problem is, as SNAP argues in a report, that there would simply be too much administration involved in fine-tuning the definition of “food” to exclude “junk food”. And you know that food processors would find ways around the law if they did, fortifying their products until they met the minimum nutritional requirements.

In the interest of balancing out the junk food eligible for purchase under SNAP, the USDA implemented a program in 2007 that allows farmers markets to accept food stamps. Of course, this doesn’t address the underlying issue of the cost of fresh, locally produced food, so, in some states, other organizations have stepped in to offer subsidies to low-income farmers market shoppers. Still, less than 0.01% of all federal SNAP dollars were spent at farmers markets last year.

Another little-known fact about SNAP is you can also use food benefits to buy seeds for your garden. It’s another nice thought, but one that probably hasn’t been very popular. A lot of the low-income kids I met through the Americorps job this summer hadn’t ever eaten a fresh tomato before. If their parents aren’t buying this kind of stuff, the chances are even lower than they’ll want to grow it themselves.

So SNAP isn’t doing much to improve the health of low-income people in this country, but it probably isn’t the root of the problem, either. Regardless of how you pay for it, cheap, processed, and unhealthy food will always be an option, and more so if you live in a low-income neighborhood. It would be senseless to force stores in these areas to carry fresh produce that would probably just rot in the coolers. There’s an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed: the cycle of poverty and poor diet. If people didn’t grow up eating something, they aren’t usually going to start eating it as adults, and since poverty tends to persists through generations, it also defines the dietary habits of a large segment of the population. So you can make good food affordable, but that doesn’t mean it will replace bad food pound for pound. There’s also the issue of convenience. After working a double shift, your average single mother will probably be more willing to microwave a hot pocket than chop a salad.

Can we ever take fresh, local fruit and vegetables out of the domain of the well-off and align American food values along the lines of apples, not apple pie? Sure. I forgot to mention the steady, free source of local and organic vegetables that I relied on through my summer and fall of being on SNAP: the farm where I worked. When growing food is part of what you do for a living, you’re guaranteed nothing but to eat fairly decently. In fact, for most of human history, people made their living as farmers, and poor folks like me lived off potatoes, greens, fresh eggs, and fruit from the trees. We grew it ourselves. The rich gorged on lard, sugar and beef, got fat, and died of heart disease. Now the tables have turned. Over 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, and I would bet that most of them are currently on or have been on food stamps.

What we need is re-education, and the beginnings of it already exist. The best example I can think of is Farm to School, which takes kids on field trips out of the classroom to farms and also brings fresh food to them in the cafeteria. There’s also the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, similar to SNAP except with much stricter rules about what can be purchased, and it’s only available to mothers with children under five. It also has a fairly decent website with nutrition information and cooking tips, although it gets a bit patronizing (“Did you know that fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories?” No waaay…)

As for me, I look forward to one day having the financial freedom to put my toothpaste, beer and bananas on the same piece of plastic. Maybe the fact that I have successfully used food stamps without packing on a layer of winter fat says something, but I think the average person on SNAP has a lot more hurdles to jump than I on the way to healthy living. Let’s fix our food system first, the one that pushed high-calorie diets on low-income people, and maybe we can all eat a bit fresher.

Find a farmer’s market that accepts SNAP or WIC here.

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