Glimpsing the future of America

This morning, I woke up late after a night of pumpkin beer (fall is my favorite beer season of the year!). As with yesterday, I figured every little bit of running helps, so I tucked my credit card into my pocket, ran a quick loop up and then back down the beautiful Hudson River, and then finished at the grocery store near my apartment. 1.5 miles in 12:39… I will just pretend like I am purposely doing short distances for “speedwork.”

I have several grocery stores in my neighborhood, but opted to go to the “cheap” one since I just needed a few items. This particular grocery store is always extremely cramped and crowded – not like the sparkling clean new grocery store that recently opened in the nearby Trump Towers – and the quality of the packaged goods is fairly low. You won’t find any jarred roasted red peppers, fancy olives, cage-free organic eggs, or gluten-free pasta (hmm, apparently I am craving spaghetti carbonara) at this grocery store! But, as I said, the prices are generally much lower than anywhere else, and the quality of the produce/meats are fine, which is all I usually shop for anyway.

Like many neighborhoods in New York, there is a low-income housing development in my area. The people who live in the projects tend to go to that cheap grocery store I described above, and I’d say about 50% of the time I go shopping there, the person in front of me is paying with food stamps. I often get a bit bothered by what I see the person buying with their food stamps, but today really took the cake.

Because food stamps only cover certain things, the guy in front of me needed to split what he wanted into two separate purchases: one to pay for with foodstamps, and one to pay for with money. The two purchases? He bought cheap toilet paper with his own money, and then he used food stamps to purchase two cans of Pringles and three packs of gum. I was flabbergasted to see this. I couldn’t believe that toilet paper was not covered, but crappy junk food was. Now, I realize that toilet paper is not food, but I certainly consider it much more of a necessity than chips and gum.

This is why I support programs like Jamie Oliver’s now-defunct Food Revolution. Our country is getting obese at alarming rates, and I would argue that in addition to portion size, a large part of it is all the tasty yummy junk food that people indulge in. What happened to chips as a treat that you sometimes indulged in, instead of the regular TV-watching fare? What happened to gum as something to chew when you have unexpectedly bad breath, instead of something to smack on all day long? These, to me, are not necessities in anyone’s diet.

It’s a very fine line between letting people make their own food decisions and not allowing them to use food stamps for things like gum and chips. Somehow the idea that the government would not pay for toilet paper but would provide junk food really bothered me. But then, who am I to tell people what to buy? Marion Nestle recently wrote a very thought-provoking post about the ethical dilemma of what to give homeless people when they ask you for food/money. Should you give them a coupon for a McDonald’s hamburger if you wouldn’t eat a McDonald’s hamburger yourself? If you give them money, do you have the right to dictate what they spend it on?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to this problem, but I hope we continue to refine our systems and encourage people to make the right choices.

Comments

  1. Great post. I live in a very rural community and witness the same sort of stuff all the time. I also work at the corporate office for a local grocery chain and it is UNREAL the amount of money that comes in via WIC and food stamps.

  2. Great post. I live in a very rural community and witness the same sort of stuff all the time. I also work at the corporate office for a local grocery chain and it is UNREAL the amount of money that comes in via WIC and food stamps.

  3. I see this kind of thing all the time in Arizona. I’ve also seen a family buy a weeks worth of food using food stamps that includes no fruits or veggies. It makes me want to puke. This is no way to be feeding our children.

  4. Not sure if you heard about this program during Food Bank for New York City orientation meeting for the New York Wine & Food Festival, but I think it might be of interest to you.

    http://www.foodbanknyc.org/our-programs/nutrition-and-health-education/cookshop

    Turn your frustration into action.

  5. Oh… excellent topic, and one that my students were debating at the end of last semester. They wanted me to tell them what was “right” but (as you so much more eloquently write) the issue is a complicated one.

  6. We don’t have a food-stamp system in the UK, so I’m not too familiar with the ins and outs of the system. I think, though, that there’s a difficulty in drawing the line when it comes to controlling what people eat.

    I think one idea (I’m not sure if it would work, but it’s an idea) would be to give food-stamps that are broken into food types – so you get $x of fruit/veg stamps, $x of dairy and meat stamps, and then a small amount of stamps for junk food. I think it’s probably too complicated to implement, though.

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