Friday, November 15, 2013

It's not a SNAP, but we could eliminate food injustice

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about the reduction in SNAP (aka ‘food stamp’) benefits, which were the result of the end of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Although I’ve never received SNAP benefits — in fact, as a foreigner there’d be a five year waiting period, and after that, as an able-bodied adult without dependents I could only collect benefits for three months in any three-year period — I did work in the grocery business for a year while researching my book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s. I’ve got plenty of experience with the SNAP program from the other side of the cash register.

At the Ward Parkway Trader Joe’s store in Kansas City we served a very diverse community because the location was essentially astride two very different neighborhoods. The area west of our store, in Johnson County, Kansas, was upscale and predominantly white; the sort of well-off Republican voters who tend to sympathize with old Mitt Romney’s characterization of people receiving benefits as ‘takers’. The area immediately east of our store was also predominantly white but not as well off — the arty/liberal enclave of Waldo. 

Troost Avenue was about a mile east of our store. Anyone who knows Kansas City knows that Troost has long been the border of the predominantly African-American community. Much of the landscape beyond Troost is pretty grim; it features drugs, gangs, and a school system so bad that the state of Missouri wrested control of it from school board.

While researching Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s I handled hundreds (probably thousands, but I wasn’t counting) of SNAP transactions, serving people of all ages and ethnicities. Some looked ‘poor’ although our store was not really that easy to get to, if customers didn’t at least have access to a car. Most looked like many other ‘cash’ customers, which is consistent with the observation that most families that receive SNAP benefits are headed by adults who have jobs, albeit low-paying ones. I did EBT transactions for a few Trader Joe’s crew members, which tells you something; even though the store paid far better-than-average wages in the retail sector, most employees still qualified.

(As an aside, the well-off white customers from Johnson County often displayed the gulf of understanding between the 1% (or maybe the 10%) and the working poor in the service sector. I remember one guy about my age, obviously pretty well off, who commented that my job seemed a lot more fun and social than his job as an accountant. He told me, “I wish I could work here.” I told him that he’d have to be ready to take a pay cut. “Yeah, I guess I couldn’t afford it,” he said, adding “What do you guys make? Like, $20 an hour?” I just smiled and shrugged it off, but I thought, Is that really what you think?)

I can tell you from experience that most people who bought food with EBT cards weren’t buying booze as well (even though we sold plenty of beer and wine to people paying conventionally.) I saw one clear-cut case of something many people would’ve called ‘abuse’ of the SNAP program: a woman buying about 10 cans of tuna told me, “They won’t let you buy pet food with food stamps, so I feed my cats tuna.”

By and large, the nutritional choices made by EBT customers were no worse than the choices made by the other customers. I often saw EBT customers make conspicuously good choices, which is to say their carts arrived full of ingredients, not prepared foods. 

Ironically, poverty in America is marked by obesity, not starvation. The issue is clearly not that many people will starve because SNAP benefits have been cut, or would starve if they were eliminated altogether.

Anyone with a nuanced understanding of the American food industry knows that the system is stacked against a healthy population, from corn subsidies on down. This has resulted in a situation where Americans spend a very small percentage of their income on food, but 10 times as much as other developed nations on health care.

I’m not going to solve this problem in a single blog post, but I’ll tell you this: Some of the SNAP recipients who live east of Troost in Kansas City managed to get to Trader Joe’s. But many of the people who need SNAP benefits live in neighborhoods that are food deserts. Those people have no choice but to use their SNAP funds to buy expensive, unhealthy prepared foods in bodegas, convenience stores and gas stations.

Rich white people who are obsessed with ‘food stamp fraud’ would eliminate far more waste— and save far, far more on future health costs — by spending their time and effort figuring out ways to make healthy food available in poor neighborhoods.

The reduction in SNAP payments is a tiny part of a much larger food injustice issue. Let me tell you this: if the U.S. really set out to solve the problem of food injustice in its inner cities — if the country really made it a priority and, step by step, did whatever it took to ensure that the country’s urban poor understood and had access to proper nutrition — in the process of solving those problems, all the other problems of the inner city including crime, gangs & drugs; the collapse of public education in the inner city; the whole fucking poverty cycle... You’d wake up one morning and realize that you’d solved all of those along the way.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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