Quantity versus quality: the effect of poverty on nutrition

A recent NPR story details a possibly unexpected consequence of poverty, underscored by the economic downturn. It’s not that some of those affected (particularly the children) aren’t getting enough to eat; it’s that the limited amount of food stamp benefits make healthy choices much more difficult. This story is brought to light in the tale of the Williamsons, who receive $600 in food stamp benefits for a family of five: Connie, her husband, two teenage girls, and an 8-year-old boy.

This quote from the end of the story captures most of its essence:

[Elaine] Livas, of the local food pantry, says a good diet is especially important for the poor, as a first step toward addressing their other problems, with things like work, health care and education. She says it’s hard to make good decisions when you’re hungry.

Livas says there’s something else to consider. As the nation becomes more health conscious, she’s noticing less healthy food coming to her pantry. She’s getting more sugar-coated cereals, for example, than the high-fiber ones she used to receive.

“We can’t really complain that the poor are heavier, when what we’re donating is our kind of castaways,” she says.

I’ll relay a personal experience here, one that I’m not particularly proud of but one which is definitely relevant to the topic at hand. I’ve been on food stamps before–twice, in fact. The first time in 2003, it was $139 per month; the second time around (2007 or so) it was nominally higher, I think $150. These are strictly from memory so I could be off a bit. On our first shopping trip in 2003, I was surprised that things like name-brand sodas qualified for food stamp benefits, as well as a plethora of items worthy of the label “junk food.”

I was shocked to learn that today, the food stamp program (now called SNAP) offers a maximum of $200 per month according to the state-run website estimator. (The numbers put in reflected a fictitious but realistic, near-worst-case scenario with no income; I put in a slightly more optimistic scenario and got an estimate of $143 in benefits.)

Now, here is my challenge to my readers, particularly those in Texas. Try to buy a month’s worth of truly healthy food for just yourself for that $200 (that’s about $50 per week). Eligible items normally assessed sales tax are not taxed when paid for with food stamps, so you may omit sales tax in your calculations; the other major rule is hot prepared food items may not be paid for with food stamps.

Chances are, you will wind up with two to three weeks’ worth of healthy offerings, and have to scrape up spare change for ramen noodles or similar low-cost items to keep your stomach full the rest of the month (a relevant story also worth reading). It will likely be difficult if not impossible to make it through the entire month without making some sacrifice, somewhere.

Am I suggesting the benefit amount needs to be raised? Not particularly; I’d like to think the Williamsons are an exception to the rule (without knowing the details, it is hard to say for sure, but the $600 for a family of five might be a bit on the low side.)

What would be of benefit to us all, however, is affordable healthy food. This affects all of us. From elsewhere in the NPR story (quoting Elaine Livas again):

“A gallon of milk is $3-something. A bottle of orange soda is 89 cents… Do the math.”

Of course a family’s grocery shopper is likely to know milk is better for the kids than orange soda. When it costs almost three times as much, though, the orange soda all of a sudden starts to look like a much better option to make sure ends meet for the month. And not always just to those on food stamps or near the poverty line.