Why I’m Okay with People Who Use Food Stamps at Whole Foods

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Several months ago, I read a very interesting article on Salon.com about “Hipsters” who were using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards, otherwise known as “food stamps”, to purchase groceries at expensive markets like Whole Foods. The article, authored by Jennifer Bleyer in March 2010, was about young, broke, single and often college educated people who qualify for food stamps because of the economic downturn. For the most part, these people have never needed nor qualified for government assistance before, but suddenly found themselves eligible after the economy tanked and rules determining who qualifies for government assistance changed.

I was fascinated by Bleyer’s article because I could relate to it on many levels. I have never been on any kind of government assistance, but I have been a young, broke student. I do enjoy good food. And, as someone with master’s degrees in public health and social work, I know a few things about the food stamp program. Historically, it’s been intended for use by poor people with families. But single people can qualify for food stamps too, and it seems that more and more of them are using them to help make ends meet.

Bleyer’s article explains how several young people with foodie sensibilities applied for and were granted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards with varying amounts of benefits. These young people then proceeded to use government assistance to purchase expensive organic foods at trendy, upscale supermarkets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Instead of heading for the local Wal-Mart or Food Lion to buy canned goods, ramen noodles, and cheap ground beef, they’ve been buying products like raw honey, wild salmon, gourmet ice cream, and fresh, organic vegetables.

I was interested to know how some of my peers would react to Bleyer’s revelation about single people using food stamps to buy organic foods, so I posted a link to the article on Facebook. I wasn’t surprised when several friends expressed disgust and anger that these people were purchasing food at Whole Foods using food stamps. At first, I couldn’t blame my friends for their reaction. Government assistance programs are paid for by taxes and many people would rather not see an able-bodied, educated, single adult benefiting from a program paid for by tax dollars. Instead, they would prefer to see those people paying their own way.

But then it occurred to me that I’d rather see people who need government assistance to buy food use it on food that will promote their health. What’s a healthier food option, boxed macaroni and cheese and potted meat or an organic fish filet paired with fresh vegetables? Eating a better diet will have a better effect on a person’s health. While it’s true that someone who uses food stamps will get a lot more for the money at a mainstream or discount supermarket, it’s also true that discount supermarkets don’t tend to stock locally farmed meat and produce.

One can certainly buy less expensive fruits and vegetables and lean meats and fish at the local supermarket, but chances are good that they have been trucked in from a location far away from the store. And modern farming methods tend to focus on mass production, which often means using chemicals, hormones, and inhumane treatment of animals to produce the most product for the least amount of money. The jury is still out as to what long term effects some of those chemicals, pesticides, and hormones will ultimately have on a person’s health. While many people are fine with the risks, I don’t have a problem with people who question the risks and prefer to spend more money on higher quality food, even if that money comes from a government assistance program. After all, poor people who use government assistance programs to buy food may also be using government assistance programs for their healthcare.

Poor nutrition promotes poor health. Studies show a direct correlation between poverty and obesity in the United States. Indeed, we don”t have a problem with a lack of food in this country. We have a problem with a lack of good food that is affordable and accessible. Whole Foods markets don’t tend to be located in poor neighborhoods, but even if they were, most poor people wouldn’t shop there because the food Whole Foods sells is often very expensive. I guess that’s why so many of my friends of Facebook have such an issue with newly poor people with expensive culinary palates shopping at Whole Foods with their SNAP cards. But aside from having a problem with young single people who use food stamps to buy organic food, many Americans also have issues with obese people, even though so many Americans are, in fact, obese. And it’s a known fact that obesity contributes to chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many types of cancer. Personally, I would rather my tax dollars go toward promoting and protecting good health through eating high quality whole foods rather than paying for treating chronic diseases that might have been preventable through eating a better diet.

Aside from the practical reasons why I think it should be okay for people on government assistance to use food stamps to buy organic foods, I also appreciate the way a good meal can boost morale. A person who is struggling to find gainful work, especially in a very tough economy, may be having a hard enough time getting up in the morning and getting on with the business of living. While some people may argue that having to eat a cheap, unsatisfying diet using food stamps might be excellent motivation to find a good job, I would submit that having to eat a poor diet is a recipe for depression and despair. And being depressed makes finding gainful employment much harder and less likely.

For me, what it comes down to is this– I would much rather see young, healthy, able-bodied, but temporarily underemployed people use whatever means they can to stay healthy and productive. While I know that poor families are not likely able to use their food stamps at expensive markets like Whole Foods, I don’t have a problem with people doing whatever they can to get by. As long as those people who need government assistance are using it to purchase food, I don’t care where they do their shopping or what kind of food they buy. In fact, I think using government assistance to purchase better food may be one of the best ways to stay out of long-term poverty. When it comes down to it, you really are what you eat.

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