In an April 9 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, the musical artist Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby, revealed that he and his mother relied on what are now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for most of his formative years. In his op-ed, Moby argued that “Food Stamps Shouldn’t Pay for Junk.”
Moby disguised his argument with health concerns (and the various costs associated with poor health), but I recognized the subtext: If the poor are using public monies like SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps), taxpayers should be able to tell them what they can buy with that money.
Such a mindset fails to consider the many roadblocks low-income individuals face when it comes to securing healthful foods for themselves and their families. The piece cites statistics that SNAP participants are less healthy than people who don’t participate in food assistance programs, but it’s ignorant to suggest we can somehow force people to make better food choices without first acknowledging and addressing the inequalities embedded in our food system.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 31.1 million American households experienced some level of food insecurity in 2016, and 20 percent of children in the U.S. live with food insecurity, according to the Brookings Institution. Food security refers not only to the availability of food but also the relative quality of the food available. This means food insecurity can entail a diet heavy in what Moby labels “junk,” as well as a lack of food overall. Ensuring people do not go hungry must take priority over more heavily policing what SNAP recipients do with their benefits.
Healthy Meals Require Time And Tools
Eighty-five percent of SNAP households with children are headed by at least one working adult, contrary to the popular belief that all benefit recipients are unemployed. However, it’s low-wage work; the pay is poor. A job paid at the federal minimum wage grosses just $15,080 per year before taxes.
And this is only if you have a full-time job working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. You don’t get paid for the time you aren’t present. This means no sick days for yourself or your children. No leaving early to attend a child’s school event. You may even have to work two jobs or take on overtime hours to make ends meet.
“Poor food choices are rooted in the fundamental inequalities that plague our society.”
Time is a luxury that many low-income eaters don’t have, and Moby neglects to consider the amount of time it takes to regularly prepare healthful foods. Many food assistance recipients rely on public transportation (or other people). This means you have to budget your free time differently. In my own experience, not having laundry facilities in my home meant hours at the laundromat; not having a car meant I had to budget an extra 45 minutes or an hour for shopping ― not just for food, but for other basic necessities. If you have no dishwasher, you need to budget time to clean up after each meal.
And in addition to time, healthy food requires space and skill to prepare. The beans that Moby recommends in his WSJ op-ed can take hours to cook, and you need pots and pans, plus a reliable stove or cooking surface. You also need consistent electricity and refrigeration for fruits and vegetables. Not everyone can count on those things.
Geography Plays A Role
Moby wrote in his piece that “what [SNAP] puts on the shelves is not always helpful or healthy.” But this needs clarification, because SNAP doesn’t put anything on shelves. There isn’t a SNAP warehouse somewhere with a fleet of SNAP trucks that take food to a local SNAP store. Individuals take their government-issued electronic benefits transfer cards to the same stores the rest of us go to, and choose the foods they need and want.
In addition, Moby doesn’t address the millions of Americans who live in food deserts, which the American Nutrition Association defines as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods... largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
Determining the impact of living in a food desert is complex, but we know food deserts can occur in both rural and urban areas, and they disproportionately affect communities of color. People who live in urban areas and don’t have a vehicle can only purchase what they can carry home, and individuals in rural areas who don’t have a vehicle will find it more difficult to get to the stores or markets to begin with. All of this affects a person’s food choices.
A Dollar Only Goes So Far
Moby argues that Congress should “fix” SNAP and focus on “cheap, healthy foods like beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains.” But food assistance programs already include these foods, and the SNAP website provides substantial resources on healthy eating, including a full section on food education. The “Eat Right When Money’s Tight” brochure even suggests the same healthful foods on Moby’s list.
That said, healthful food is expensive, and when you’re on a tight budget (which SNAP recipients certainly are), you have to make the money stretch. A loaf of store-brand wheat bread at my local grocery store costs $1.99, but it contains high fructose corn syrup. A loaf of 100 percent whole grain wheat bread costs $3.99, but on a tight budget, that $2 cannot always be spared.
Canned vegetables are much cheaper than fresh, have a longer shelf life and are a better value for your food dollar. Ditto for canned fruit, but it’s unfortunately often packed in juice or syrup. Meat with a higher fat content is cheaper than leaner meat. Organic food and food for special dietary needs are often out of budgetary reach entirely.
Blame The Food Corporations
Yes, most of us can and should be choosing healthier foods. And Moby is correct about one thing: The major food corporations that process these cheaper, less-healthy foods, including that wheat bread made with high fructose corn syrup, do benefit from the system. They put sugary foods on the shelves and sugary drinks in our hands.
But America’s food insecurity and food-related health crises were not inevitable ― they were created. Multibillion-dollar corporations like Walmart count on federal benefits like SNAP to sustain their low-wage workforces (and then profit when employees turn around and spend their benefits in-store). We have become more comfortable telling food assistance recipients what to do with their meager benefits than we are telling major corporations to pay their employees a living wage.
“SNAP doesn’t put anything on shelves. There isn’t a SNAP warehouse somewhere with a fleet of SNAP trucks that take food to a local SNAP store.”
There are of course other points to be made when it comes to food security regarding cultural food practices, racial disparities in wealth distribution, rural poverty invisibility, housing availability, and the gendered nature of food preparation and production, not to mention the people who live with food insecurity but aren’t eligible for SNAP. All of these issues, and the people they affect, are essential to understanding America’s larger food insecurity crisis.
Organizations and individuals are working to solve a problem that Americans have created for ourselves ― one that was entirely preventable and is absolutely solvable. Instead of shaming people for their food choices or advocating for tyrannical food policies, support organizations that are on the ground fighting for food justice. Advocate for higher wages ― not only for people who buy the food, but for the people who pick and process it. Push for an increase in SNAP benefits, so people can afford to make healthier choices if that’s what they want to do.
Poor food choices are rooted in the fundamental inequalities that plague our society. Moby calls on Congress to “fix” SNAP, and it can certainly be improved. But the only real “fix” will come from policies that work toward economic justice. Maybe he should have advocated for those instead.
Julia Hudson-Richards is a food activist and historian who studies the environment, food and the people who produce it. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.