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 the 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?
An 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 to become 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 a 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. The 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 every day. My short experience in 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.