Welfare recipients eating their way to long-term health issues

By Erica Motter in Opinions

October 6, 2011

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Photo courtesy of Google Images

This past week, I read an article entitled “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” in the New York Times that gave me the urge to step up onto my little soapbox and say some things about our nation’s welfare system, and in particular, its handling of food stamps.

First, I’d like to say that I wholeheartedly support the idea of welfare for those who need it. But I don’t think the system is anywhere near perfect; in my opinion, it doesn’t address the causes of poverty and lacks sufficient local regulation that could ensure it goes to the right people.

I work as a manager in a grocery store, and at my job I interact with recipients of food stamps (or, since they come on Access cards now, EBT) on a daily basis. I don’t judge the shoppers by their character, or question whether they actually need the money or anything petty like that—they’re people, and I don’t know their struggles. Some EBT customers are nice, some are rude, but that’s no different than it is with non-EBT customers.

But there is one thing that I admit I judge them on… and that would be the food they buy.

Now, I’m not the healthiest eater in the world, but growing up I was always discouraged from drinking a lot of soda, my parents always served vegetables which we didn’t have “the option” of eating or not, we always had wheat bread, and even now we rarely order out or go out to eat, unless it’s for a special occasion.

I’m not saying we didn’t have chips or junk food. The fact that I was a fat little kid proves that. Of course, even little kids who are educated in nutrition still want to eat the unhealthy stuff because they like the way it tastes.

But when I see grown adults coming through the line with a cart full of sodas, chips, frozen dinners, and Easy Mac, without a single piece of fresh produce or canned vegetable and no fresh meat besides the occasional ground beef… I definitely judge them, and the EBT system.

In case you haven’t noticed, we have an obesity epidemic in this country. Actually, it’s an obesity epidemic that’s worldwide. Australia just surpassed the US in 2008 to become the fattest country in the world, and lots of the other first-world nations aren’t too far behind in obesity levels.

Nowadays, being fat doesn’t mean you’re rich. Actually, it often means the opposite. For some reason, we still imagine impoverished people as being skinny little starving waifs, but with lower-income people spending all their money on junk food, obesity is highly common among the lower classes.

I don’t know if people are actually aware of how dangerous obesity, poor eating habits, and a sedentary lifestyle can be to their health. Obviously, it can lead to things like diabetes and heart disease, but oftentimes people who primarily consume junk food also aren’t getting nutrients that their bodies need, leading to all sorts of things like lowered immunities and just generally feeling sluggish and sick.

So, you’re poor. You don’t eat healthy food, so you gain weight and develop health issues. You can’t afford to go to the doctor. Your finances become more strained. To me, it just seems like you’re going to end up stuck in a bad cycle as a result of your food-buying habits.

The argument that I’ve come up against when I make these assertions is that junk food and fast food are cheaper and easier to prepare (which can be important if you’re working two jobs or odd hours), so lower-income people choose to buy and consume it instead of healthier foods.

But as the New York Times article points out (and as I already know from seeing prices in my store every day), buying nothing but junk food often will cost you more in the long run, in both in an economic and health sense.

The fact is, people struggling to support a family are often tired and don’t want to cook. Additionally, fast food and processed food is literally addicting, since it activates the pleasure center in your brain and releases dopamine. For a lot of lower income people, the instant gratification of these foods, combined with lots of sugar and saturated fat becomes an experience that they are compelled to opt for every day.

And, like a drug addiction, more of the food is required to get the same (seriously) high that you got before. So not only are you buying more and spending more money, you’re getting fatter!

I mean, it’s not like I can’t see how these things happen. And it’s hard to convince people who are weary with life and may never have been educated about healthy food to start eating better.

But I do think this is a big flaw in our culture and welfare system. Not that I’m saying only people who are lower-income eat poorly, but I think that the results of their bad habits end up hurting them more than those who can afford better education and have more free time to exercise.

It’s nice to see that the argument of “lower-income people buy unhealthy food because it’s cheaper” challenged, especially in such a well-read publication as the New York Times. Perhaps this issue will be more widely discussed, and solutions may be offered to improve the situation.

In general, I think that EBT recipients should probably receive some sort of education about healthy foods, quick and inexpensive healthy recipes, and some sort of incentive to use their EBT stamps to buy healthier foods. Not that the bag of chips or bottle of soda ought to be forbidden, but perhaps discouraged?

Basically, I feel like we spend too much time treating the symptoms of poverty and obesity than the causes. Welfare ought to be a more involved institution than it is right now. Not only would it put those people who say “Those damn welfare queens just milk the system!” a little more at ease, but it would actually be more effective in helping people get back to a place where they can earn an independent income and pursue a better life.

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