Better Stay Healthy: Food (In)Security

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March 30, 2016 by poverty2professional

Winter break of my senior year had just started and I felt like my stomach was trying to claw its way through my naval. Sorry for the graphic image, but I was hungry. Not like, “I could really go for a snack right now” hungry; we’re talking “I’m fantasizing about eating three of those giant turkey legs you see at the Renaissance Faire” hungry.

I remember the day being cold with dark clouds that held the next rain. California wasn’t hitting an official drought just yet. This was the weather for a steaming, savory bowl of something.

The Pound wasn’t open to residents during the day, so my dad and I drove back to our hometown. Where else was there to go? On the other side, clear across the side of the city from where we used to live, was a small taco stand. On a chilly, damp day, the moisture in the air could capture the smell of cooked food and hold it in place. A mouthwatering fog.

There were better places, but this stand was one of the few places that would take an EBT card (a.k.a. the food stamps debit card). My family was fortunate to be homeless in California. The Golden State is one of only four states (the others being Arizona, Florida, and Michigan) in the US where you can use food stamps to purchase a hot meal. Wait, and food stamps? Sorry, I meant SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). As the Recession set in and more people relied on nutritional assistance there was suddenly rampant concern for how the program was being branded. In California, we got to call ours “Cal Fresh.” When the population of who used the program shifted to encompass more “average” families (i.e. those who did not previously bear the stigma of poverty, but were instead middle-class), the effort to make a change in perception actually took hold.

Of course, this perception change didn’t hold true for everyone. To this day, certain political factions are trying to limit what you may and may not buy. Not to point fingers, but it seems that the side that wants a small government just wants it to be small enough to fit in your shopping cart. God forbid that you consider buying any type of shellfish (regardless that data abundantly shows how few people on food stamps even eat shellfish). You wanna be healthy? From the persuasion of some policymakers, one could get the impression that health is a luxury for the well-off. We’re not even going into gym memberships or track shoes with the neon swooshes on them – just eating decently.

But SNAP benefits only cover so much. In fact, because of the paltry amount SNAP participants receive, the diet options are heavily restricted. See the grocery chart breakdown below:

The impact? Limited dollars translates to limited buying options – kiss the veggies and fresh fruit goodbye. Look how small they are on the graph! This is definitely not a diet where you can afford to be organic. That 20%-30% increase slapped on organic products will murder your budget. Limited buying options means a diet restricted to cheap, unhealthy food (read: Refined Grains, see above) and therefore less nutrition. Less nutrition (from a nutrition assistance program no less) means all the physiological impacts of hunger. Next to being sleep-deprived, being hungry is one of the most distracting issues you can possibly face throughout your day. Similar to being sleep deprived, hungry people are often short-tempered, have shorter attention spans, and are more prone to risk-taking.

In kids, consistent lack of food – and all the nourishing vitamins it provides for full physical and cognitive development – leads to poor eyesight, less developed brain matter, and a potentially lower IQ. Essentially, factors that can determine one’s academic ability are highly vulnerable to the effects of poverty in the early stages of growth. This should be a no-brainer, but somehow we can’t echo this enough.

On a low-income/below-the-poverty-line budget, food will dominate your life…and not in the fun Instagram way. People who tried out the trending “Food Stamp Challenge” found out that they had to not only plan their meals (and, by extension, shopping list) well in advance but also that any deviation from it left them floundering for the rest of the week. Feeling full took priority over being healthy. How is anyone supposed to make a sound decision on an empty stomach? Of course, this impacted their immune system and made them more prone to getting sick in general. It was a no-win situation.

At that taco stand in December 2008, my dad placed an order of two petite tacos in front of me. If you’re familiar with legit street tacos (not the ones in those weird crunchy shells), you know that this is a fairly small serving. I was also a seventeen-year-old girl. I was growing and I wasn’t on my period anymore that month, so my appetite was in full swing. Fortunately, the little bag of radishes you get with the order were free and we could restock from the condiments tray on the stand’s counter.

After I inhaled my portion of the meal, my dad passed me his second taco. That was gone in less than a minute. After the third taco, I wasn’t hungry any more, but I knew I would be again soon. We’d eaten sometime just before noon. I wondered if the Pound would serve dinner just a little earlier with kids on winter break and figured I shouldn’t be too hopeful.

“Count your blessings,” I remember my dad saying. “At least we know we can get a meal later on. Lots of other homeless people can’t.”

Of course not. Because SNAP said that while someone who was homeless could buy beans, starches, and high-sodium canned goods – things that usually take a home setting to prepare or call for a refrigerator – they had limited options for buying a straight meal to feel decent for the day. Over 14% of people living in the US reporting struggling with food insecurity in 2010. Now, both homelessness and hunger have been on the rise. In high-need areas, up to one in six Americans are hungry. Households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 19 % compared to 12%. Of those households with children experiencing food security, they were more likely to be headed by single women (35%) or single men (22%), Black non-Hispanic households (26%), and Hispanic households (22%). In order to anticipate the health needs of these families, some pediatricians are now “screening for poverty.” Treating poverty as an epidemic might just garner more attention. Getting to the root of food insecurity as a point of inequality would be something to really chew on.

It’s recognizing the stigma attached to poverty, after all, that got “food stamps” rebranded. It’s the inability to empathize and the desire to feel better-than that exacerbates the feeble health and ultimately opportunities afforded for upward mobility from a low-income platform. Put another way, it’s why some people say, “You can’t/shouldn’t buy this because I want to have it. I need to feel better about what I’ve earned so you shouldn’t be able to get the same things I get or have as much of it.” So, when you’re poor you get less. Less options, less fruits and veggies (again, probably all pesticides included), and less nutrition. I don’t have an answer for this conundrum. Just one question: Why is it so hard to recognize “the poor” as ourselves? There’s some food for thought.

Writer’s note: P2P is now on Twitter! See our conversations, who we’re following, and all the latest updates on career, education, and escaping poverty. Follow us at @Pov2Profession

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