Thursday, July 1, 2010

Poor Girl on SNAP Part II: Using it & thoughts on what could change

Thanks for checking out the 2nd installment of Poor Girl on SNAP. Here I'll discuss using the aid I received and hop onto my soapbox to share my thoughts on what could/should change so that we can all eat well. And that recipe I promised would be up last night will make it up here today, now that I've finished this piece. :) -Kimberly

Chicken vs. Twinkies

Though it's actually quite easy to use the SNAP benefits on one's card, my first experience using my EBT card was a little rocky. No one really tells you what's covered and what's not, but I figured that obvious things like cleaning supplies, alcohol, etc., wouldn't be included. I was a bit bummed that pet food didn't count as I am a very proud cat mom and will argue that they deserve a decent meal just as much as I do, but I suppose that makes sense. What made no sense to me at all was my failed attempt to purchase one of those pre-cooked rotisserie chickens.

Now, I would have normally bought a regular chicken and cook it myself, but on that day there was a sale on the rotisserie style chickens. Always conscious of prices when I shop for food (or anything, really), I knew that this was a much better deal and that I could make plenty of different meals out of my one chicken. But when I went to pay, I nearly swallowed my tongue at how much my out of pocket bill was. I was counting on spending $4 for the kids' cat food, but was told I actually owed $10! What??? I asked the cashier why the amount was so high and I was told that - get this - the chicken counts as "prepared" food and is not covered by SNAP.


So let me get this straight: one can buy as much candy, Twinkies, Pringles, Hot Pockets, and any other ridiculous, processed, sugar/salt & fat ladened junk food imaginable but a chicken is off limits? A chicken from which I could have made plenty of salads or soups or pasta dishes that would have been more nutritionally balanced than any of the junk food that is covered by SNAP? How is that even remotely okay, especially when a growing number of people are suffering from Type II Diabetes and other issues that stem from poor diet choices?

Unhealthy nation...

We all know that there's an obesity epidemic in the United States. Fortunately some pretty prominent people like First Lady Michelle Obama and Chef Jamie Oliver are trying to draw attention to this problem and help give Americans the tools to change with their Let's Move and Food Revolution programs, respectively. But it's difficult for some people who receive assistance through SNAP or other programs to make the right choices when the wrong stuff is available to them in abundance. Many people receiving SNAP have children, and we all know that kids tend to gravitate towards things like candy, chips, cookies, or anything with fun, colorful packaging that feature their favorite cartoon characters. The food industry makes it easy for anyone to fall into their trap with their clever marketing (yours truly included... I'm a sucker for those Lindt truffle commercials), and when you're hungry and trying to make ends meet for your family, you're going to choose what your family's actually going to eat.

But the health ramifications of these poor diet choices are starting to take their toll on Americans, particularly on American youth. Statistics for things like obesity and diabetes are staggering, with new reports showing that this country is just getting fatter and unhealthier. Granted, this isn't purely diet related, as our country has becoming quite inactive and sedentary (Lord knows I'm having a rough time with the sedentary desk job & perpetual blogging workout plan; hooray for good workout videos & better weather for outdoor exercise so I can get back to normal!). But our nation's obsession with fast food, convenience food and junk food is a huge contributor to many of these health issues. And the correlation between obesity and poverty is now becoming quite apparent. A New York Times article focusing on the obesity-hunger paradox reports that in low-income areas of New York City, particularly the Bronx, individuals who are the hungriest are swiftly becoming the most obese. The lack of stores & restaurants with healthier food alternatives gives those on a very limited income few choices when it comes to feeding their hunger. Many of these folks have or will develop a myriad of conditions ranging from high cholesterol to high blood pressure to heart disease. When these conditions worsen, the result is missed time from work and expensive doctor visits and hospitalizations, creating even bigger financial hassles for those who are already struggling. It's a vicious, vicious cycle that seems to be spinning out of control.

Making better choices...

Now I'm of the opinion that the system could help do its part to reduce this growing problem by eliminating coverage of junk food and other unhealthy foods. Naturally, this becomes a bit of a problem when it comes to fast food joints that will honor SNAP and offer - well, you know - fast food. Some areas of the nation have fewer grocery stores than fast food restaurants, leaving those on restricted incomes little choice for food (though education could help these folks make better choices while at these restaurants, but that's a whole other blog). But for people who are able to access grocery stores who will honor SNAP, it would probably be a lot easier to focus on healthier food options if the "bad stuff" was not an option. I mean, you can't buy alcohol or cleaning products on SNAP (not that this means alcoholism and untidiness are on the decline because of it); so why not ban junk food, too? It's not like junk food is good for you (there's a reason it's called "junk"), and it's not always easy on the wallet, though it may appear that way at first. Sure, a Big Grab bag of Doritos may seem like a good deal at $0.99/bag, but is that even filling, let alone nutritious? Absolutely not. Same goes for all those little pastries and cakes, the sugary cereals, the sodas, etc. Eliminating these as options under the SNAP program would force folks who use it to look to the other aisles in the store for better food choices.

But that's not always easy, Poor Girl!

Yes, I know that! Change is never easy for humans but fortunately, we have the capability to do so. You have all seen me do the shopping and the cooking over the past few years because I did have to change things to stretch my food budget and put better food into my body. There was actually a time when I was living on was the Big Texas Cinnamon Roll from our break room's vending machine because it was cheap and I needed my money for bus & light rail fare over food. At 410 calories of fat & carbs, I had the basics that kept me going for the whole day, albeit sluggishly. My old coworkers were actually worried about me because I was so painfully thin during that time, and I was not feeling well. So I know what it's like to try & eat as cheaply as possible, but I also know that that does not need to mean living off a vending machine! What I eat now is way better for me and has brought out the inner chef in me, and except for the occasional evil dessert, what I post is food that is nourishing and balanced. Of course, I cannot afford all the certified organic stuff out there, or the specialty foods that are said to be more nourishing than "regular store" foods, but I do what I can within my means. It takes careful shopping and some creativity, but thinking outside the box can help stretch your budget quite a bit.

Eating well on a budget is entirely possible and I do it everyday. My short experience on the SNAP program helped me to continue doing this during some of my darkest times, and for that I am eternally grateful. But I do believe that some things could be done to help those on limited incomes to eat better and avoid that vicious bad food/health cycle. Restricting the bad stuff is just one idea, but I believe that educating SNAP users would be even better. Showing folks the foods that they can turn into zillions of different meals so they stretch out their food dollar; giving them recipe ideas that are both tasty and nutritious; educating them about the dangers of fast food and junk food so they realize the importance of healthier choices; all of these things should be part of the SNAP program. Financial assistance is very helpful - I can definitely attest to that. But the knowledge and tools to make healthy choices for life are absolutely priceless.


  1. What a great post! Very informative and insightful. I believe educating children about how to buy, prepare and eat healthy food is critical for the future health of our nation (and species).

  2. When I first got my benefits I included some sliced cantaloupe in my groceries and found it was not covered because the fact that it was sliced made it "prepared." I, like many who have benefits, do not drive and I have children so carrying full melons is realistic or even possible. The sliced melon takes up less space in my grocery cart but oh well they say I can't buy it.

  3. Thank you for your very insightful and informative post. I'm a new subscriber and have been enjoying your posts because they are more than just recipes, but funny and interesting too. Regarding the nutrition education that you mentioned, there should be a group in Sacramento called Network for a Healthy California that provides many of the things you suggested. They are funded by a Federal grant. I used to work for the Los Angeles network and they do some good work but I guess they need to get out more.

  4. You are absolutely correct about the need to limit or completely eliminate junk food from the SNAP system. A family member was recently on SNAP. He would frequently take his son shopping and they would return with BAGS of candy, chips and steak! Not a single vegetable or piece of fruit to be seen. And of course, the boy is extremely overweight.

    I love how organic foods are available to people on SNAP (what do we call ourselves? SNAPers?). Our SNAP budget is far more than our original grocery budget, so I'm looking forward to choosing the organic blueberries over the non-organic.

    I really wish more farmer's markets accepted EBT cards. The closest one to where I live is over 60 miles away! It would be so great it I could show up at a local farmer's market and buy locally-grown food.

    On a similar note, I noticed on the SNAP brochure that we're allowed to buy seeds to grow our own food. Sadly, there is no advice on where to go to purchase such seeds, or how to locate seeds that are organic/nonGMO. I'm not going to Target to buy a pack of Burpee seeds, but there seems to be no alternative.

    There are definitely some holes in the system. I'd choose the chicken over the Twinkies any day!

  5. Thank you for your insights Kimberly. I actually work for the Network for a Healthy California in downtown Sacramento, as Rachel described above. It is always good to hear from actual SNAP users. I work in the publications department and we create materials such as cookbooks, recipe cards, brochures, and other promotional items that educate consumers on healthy food choices. I don’t actually work for the SNAP program (Health and Human Services), I work for the California Department of Public Health and USDA which promotes education around SNAP and we try to provide consumers with healthy eating and active living resources so they make better choices when it comes to spending their SNAP dollars. There are many of us here that completely agree with many of the points you bring up about not being able to purchase “junk food” with your SNAP benefits and let me tell you, it is an uphill battle to make change that will actually result in new rules in SNAP guidelines! =) We are still trying none-the-less. We do have a consumer web site which provide recipes and tips for SNAP recipients . We have so many ideas to enhance our web site and improve our communications to SNAP recipients but are faced with daily obstacles of working with government funds. But, I just wanted to comment and say, “We hear you.”

  6. What you are doing is great! I wanted to do a blog on making healthy thrifty choices. I should check into a few programs such as the YWCA and see what the think about guest speakers. Yummy recipes :)

  7. Funny thing -- I read this at first thinking of the other SNAP program and thought "Jeez, what's Poor Girl go tto say about the spay/neuter assistance program?"

    I'm not sure if limiting your SNAP coverage would help the situation, necessarily. educating the users, absolutely. But the thing is, I know plenty of people who have avoided going on SNAP because they think they won't be able to get "regular" groceries on it. I still have fond memories of "welfare cheese" and other somewhat disturbing taste-free foods consumed during stints of poverty, and that memory alone kept me from utilizing EBT as an adult. It wasn't until recently that I learned just how much you can get and am starting to reconsider going on it.

    I think the bigger problem is that poverty eating is conducive to unhealthy choices anyway -- white bread, white pasta, white rice, corn, potatoes. That was pretty much my menu throughout most of my adolescence and I didn't understand until later n't realize until just recently how much damage that was doing to me (and why I was having so many problems with my GI tract and weight gain). Lots of people are TRYING to eat "healthy" and still don't understand how to do that.

    education is key.

    Also, apologies if the comment is a bit garbled and/or typo-laden. I'm reading from work and the new PGEW layout and my work computer are not very compatible, so I am lagging tremendously :)

    thanks for the insightful blog post (as always), looking forward to more!

  8. I'm not writing about buying healthy food with your SNAP funds...I'm writing about your strength to ask for it. Your posting today has really hit home with me, and couldn't have come at a better time. As a single unemployed middle-aged lady, I have been struggling with the thought of applying for assistance. For all the same reasons as I'm sure you felt, I have been putting it off for weeks. After reading about your experience, I will feel more brave, and less guilty, to see what help I could get. It's hard to overcome that feeling of "taking assistance away from little children who need the help more than us grown-ups". You have put a voice to those single people that need help too, sometimes. Thanks again.

  9. Kinberly, I totally admire you for your attitude, for your savvy shopping, and yummy recipes! (I wish you lived in NH, I'd pay you to come cook for us and yourself! We'd eat better and you'd have access to ingredients, and (since we now eat out) we'd probably save money, too! Want to move??!!)

    (Maybe you should think about being a personal chef for someone out there, though -- seriously!)

    Hang in there (and all other's struggling with The System, too.) I wish I were in a position to help.

    But let me get one thing straight -- you can buy prepared fast food but NOT prepared grocery store food?? Who made up THAT rule (or is it some weird interpretation of a rule, that can be challenged?)

  10. You can buy a rotisserie chicken as long as it is cold. I always look at the hot foods that they have but never could get it until someone informed me of the cold food. So, all of those yummy cold foods behind the big counters at Whole Foods? You can get as much as you want. :-)

  11. I would like to start by saying that I do not agree with limiting access to 'junk' foods for the poor. This, to me, is a classist and humiliating idea. It might sound strange coming from me, since I use 90% of my EBT money at my local food coop, where I am a member. People receiving aid get discounts on membership and everything they buy, it's locally grown, organic, and very reasonably priced. I cook nutritious, delicious meals at home most of the time, and also grow an organic garden at a community plot, in addition to my small apartment garden. I know food, I know health. I make my own yogurt, sauerkraut, you name it. HOWEVER, there are those days when I feel like crap, and the only way to drag myself through another day at my benefit-less, sick-day-less part time jobs is with the aid of a Mountain Dew. I probably buy one or two 16 oz. bottles of soda a month with my EBT funds, for the boost I need or just because I want one. Are you going to deny me that small pleasure because I'm poor? The way to go with this issue is education, not restriction. If everyone else can eat junk, who is to play mama to poor people and say they can't? To me, that is punitive, and being poor is punishment enough. I also feel that the rotisserie chicken special should have been available with EBT funds. There are flaws like this in the system, clearly. But denying poor people small pleasures is draconian, in my view. Some people will abuse that privilege, but such is life. Perhaps they just don't understand what those foods do in the body, and would benefit from education. Perhaps not. JMI.

  12. In addition to CA Nutrition Network University California Davis has SNAP-Ed programs in nearly all CA counties to do just that...educate those recieveing SNAP benefits. The problem is getting those recipients to ATTEND CLASSES!

    WIC limits what type of foods can be purchased with vouchers....but my understanding is politcally it will NEVER happen with SNAP.

    Interestingly enough I did a food cost study looking at the purchasing behaviours of SNAP recipients.....and their food choices couldn't be further from yours! So much Godiva ice cream, individually wrapped potatoes, and chips and soda. It was stomach turning.

    Also, those SNAP recipients that are classified as homeless ARE allowed to purchase ready to eat foods......

  13. How strange! For the longest time I thought I was the only one that felt this wy. I am a single mom going to school and am utilizing SNAP. I decided to do my essay on this very topic! Awesomeness! My thing is that if you aren't willing to get "good" food and it's too troublesome for you, then that will free up the money for those who are looking for "nutrition" and not abusing the system. I use my blender, crockpot, stove, oven and microwave. Nothing is a waste....common sense. If you are really in 'need' then it is not hard to get creative and honestly, I am surprised as a vegan that I eat very well on this program. It's all about the REAL foods.

  14. I work in a 7-11 and most of our profit comes from people using their ebt card to buy candy. So many of them are overweight and I've actually heard them talking about having a hard time putting dinner on the table for the rest of the month.
    To the one person who said its insulting to have the candy removed: why? Its paid for by tax payers dollars, this isn't your own money. Its not classest to say you can't buy candy on the card, they aren't saying you can't buy candy what so ever. Just not with tax payer's dollars. If that bottle of soda makes you happy, good for you. Unfortunately, at least in my area, a good number of card holders abuse the card and do not get real food. One good person against thousands doesn't really help the odds much.
    There is a college in my town that was also telling their students to sign up regardless of if they needed it or not. It all goes to energy drinks, soda, candy and chips. Thats $200 a month on that. There are liquor stores that will also put beer and liquor on the card for them.
    Sorry, there needs to be more regulation.

  15. I am reading this a little on the late side but I totally agree with you. It burns me up to go to the store after SNAP benefits are added to the cards at the begining of the month and see nothing but junk missing from the shelves! 5 years ago I was one of those people who bought easy stuff and junk and I didn't read labels but times are different now and the knowledge is everywhere. You're right if they cand isclude certain things why not junk? Or how about making it like WIC where they dictate what can be bought - whole foods, 100% juice, eggs, milk, etc. There has got to be a way to do it.

    I also wanted to say way to go! It takes a lot to admit that you need help and I just found your site but I am so glad that you did it. Your mom was right. You are a tax paying citizen and you should be able to access those programs when needed!



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