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Thoughts About Food Insecurity (Originally Posted to my Personal Blog)

I recently learned that the average EBT (food stamp) benefit in the US is $21/week per person. That's $1/meal.

I have also recently read several mean-spirited comments on newspaper articles concerning people receiving groceries from food banks and about levels of obesity among the underprivileged. The comments tend to say things like "stop eating at McDonalds and buying sodas with your food stamps" if they are polite. They are frequently not very polite.

In response to my comments about the amount of the average benefit, one person said "Well, I just got in the newspaper. If the person goes to this store, pineapples are $2. If they go to this next store, a box of clementines if $3.99" and so on ... on the assumption that a person has time to go from store to store in between possibly working two jobs and having no automobile.

Today I drove across town to the slightly less expensive grocery (the one near me is more expensive) to buy ingredients for tonight's dinner. While trying to shop solely from store brands and what was on the club card, and still purchase the whole foods needed to make dinner, I spent $23. Yep, more than one person's whole benefit for a week on ingredients to make a vegetarian lasagne and some garlic bread. If I had skipped the bread, I would have spent $21. On ingredients for one meal.

The people who are snarky about folks on benefits being overweight and insisting that they can just make different food choices? They don't seem to get that the least expensive foods, that store for the longest, are things like pasta and rice -- or 12 packages of ramen noodles for $1. They don't get that it's not that easy to shop around if you're on the bus and/or working two jobs. They don't get that when the money is gone, it's gone. Around the end of the month, food banks see an increased need. The EBT budget, which is intended to supplement, doesn't go very far -- especially when you live in a high cost area and that EBT benefit may be your entire grocery budget for the month. No, they just want to tell hyperbolic stories about the "woman in an SUV, talking on her cell phone, taking food from actual needy people" or "this couple was well-dressed; they weren't needy." Because, you know, no one could borrow a cell phone or an automobile from a friend or family member, or have enough pride in themselves that they want to look clean and tidy when they go out, even if they are poor.

I am reading a book called "The Spirit Level" that talks about how monetary inequality in societies tends to cause greater problems at the low end of the spectrum and contributes to thinks like poor education, increased mental illness, violence and a host of other social problems. I haven't gotten far, so I can't speak to the analysis in detail. I can, however, see a whole lot of people sitting in a position of privilege that they don't even recognize, pointing their fingers at the less fortunate in what must be an effort to shore up their own miserable self-esteem.

Me? I'm tremendously disturbed that I spent the equivalent of one person's weekly food budget on ingredients for a lasagne. It just seems wrong to me that people are expected to live on so little in this society -- and to endure the sneers and nastiness of people who have no idea how fortunate they really are.

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No sneers here...

Fortunately I live in a kind community and don't have to endure sneers toward the poor. The people I know volunteer at the Ministerial Alliance soup kitchen, take food to food pantries, and cook at the homeless shelter. I occasionally see a snotty letter in the regional newspaper.

This morning on TV, I heard that poorer men with poorer educations are more likely to have a heart attack than other men. (I might have thought that hard-working, hard-driven men might have more attacks because of stress.) I guess this fact suggests that poor nutrition and perhaps the stress of low or no income makes these men more vulnerable.

I would like to see programs to teach people how to grow their own food on patios, roof tops, and yards. Someone with a city childhood told my daughter how in their low-income neighborhood growing up some decades ago, every available plot of unclaimed land would be planted to produce food. I wish people could do this now. Nothing is more healthy for the human spirit and family table than harvesting food grown by the sweat of one's brow. I was so appreciative of Michelle Obama setting this example at the White House. But their family doesn't need this food. The children in our inner cities do. How can we bring this about?

What do the letters EBT stand for?

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Thank you, Sue!

Hi, Sue, and thank you for your comment.

EBT stands for "electronic benefit transfer." Food stamps are no longer coupons, but are now on debit cards. This is intended to make it less embarrassing for people to use them at the store.

I don't have a good answer to your question about community gardening. I think part of the issue lies in the working poor/underemployment situation that has so many people working two jobs to make ends meet. A community garden is a time commitment that some people cannot make. My husband and I decided that we would attempt a box garden this year, but we know it is a lot of work for a yield down the road. In other words, a garden planted today doesn't put food on the table tomorrow. It's a good long-term solution, absolutely.

We know we're fortunate. We have jobs. We have money for food. We have health insurance. Those things put us in a position of privilege. I help where I am able in the community myself, for exactly that reason. I have been a kid who didn't have much. I know what those sneers feel like.

The comments to which I referred were in my state capitol's newspaper. I read it because it's the best source for political news, but I sometimes have to take a vacation from the hatred of the comments section.

BTW, that article you read about heart attacks fits right in with a number of things I'm reading about in "The Spirit Level." Where there is high income inequality, people at the lower end tend to suffer far greater incidences of mental illness, heart attacks and a whole host of other ailments. It's not just the stress; it's about where you fit in society. There is a great deal of evidence from reputable sources (WHO, the UN, and a host of others) that shows that people at the lower end of the social scale tend to have more problems because they feel isolated and unworthy. I pointed out to those newspaper commenters that these are real human beings dealing with food insecurity, and they didn't care. They just went on mouthing their bumper-sticker slogan "solutions" about how people should just get better jobs, make better choices, or even be put in work camps (I swear to the deity ofr your choice, that was a true suggestion).

I highly recommend "The Spirit Level"; it looks at statistical information from the wealthiest countries in the world (some of which have low income inequality) and every state in the US. I'm about a third of the way into it now and it's fascinating. I'm hoping that, toward the end, there will be some recommendations for how we can help rectify the problem.

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Income Inequality and Food Insecurity

I like your terse phrasing.

Transportation inequality is very much a part of the problem as you pointed out. People without cars or with non-working cars HAVE to shop at expensive stores. It used to break my heart that a single mother with a junky car would seem to be targeted by police for a ticket. The expense of that ticket would ruin their lives.

Without computers, people cannot shop E-Bay where one of my daughters bids low and sometimes gets real bargains. (I'm not smart enough to shop E-Bay.) Without a phone, people have trouble getting a job. With a phone, poor people often have multiple people living with them who run up ridiculous phone bills that keep them off the phone for a long time. I have been very curious about the $19 a year phone tied in with computer that I keep hearing about on TV. I think that phone access--without the danger of running up a large bill--would be enormously helpful to people with income inequality.

People with income challenges should be admired and praised for their coping skills as they struggle to feed their kids and survive under often higher prices and with difficult inconveniences that those of us with good incomes cannot imagine.
(I also know that some poor people cannot imagine how hard people with moderate incomes work to be on that level.)

I am thinking of a young family I know who have constant demands on their adequate income from poorer and less healthy relatives. The higher-income family gardens and cans, eat squirrel and venison to save on food bills, hangs clothes on the line to save electricity, and even when using the drier, directs the heat to warm their home. They insist family members wear clothing more than one day to save laundry costs. They use numerous other thrifty ways in order to be able to help less fortunate family members, who lack their energy level, health, and will to make many of these same tactics work for them.