The Reasons Poor People Might Not Eat Healthy

I see  a lot of discussions regarding the topic of people living on food stamps/ poor people and “Why can’t they just eat right?” and talks about not letting people buy “junk food” with SNAP.  There are a lot of things your average American who has never lived in poverty don’t consider. People largely seem unaware of obstacles that face poor people when it comes to food or…well…anything at all. They’re failing to grasp that just getting enough food period is a challenge , let alone healthy food.  I’ve had to become a very forgiving person when I see certain remarks but it’s become easier since I’ve made this connection that people who say these things are speaking from a place of privilege and  ignorance and really don’t understand the complexities of food scarcity in the US.

Here are 5 reasons good food is hard to find for poor people sometimes.

1. FOOD DESERTS – Imagine you live in a city. There isn’t much in your neighborhood besides a few fast food joints, a  Dollar General & a little convenience store. They have things like milk & eggs but any food beyond that comes in a box or a can & everything they do have healthy is overpriced.  The only time you can get to the nearest real grocery store is when your sister comes and visits because she has a car. There is a Farmer’s Market somewhere in the city but like the grocery store, it’s too hard to get to without a car. With me so far?

There is a community garden you’ve been told you can get involved in to grow your own food but it’s not in your neighborhood and you have to take 2 buses  to get there and anyway, you work Monday -Saturday and by the time you would get there, it’s dark and to get back home, you would have to walk partially with your 2 little kids in tow because buses don’t run in your neighborhood (not a safe neighborhood,by the way)  past a certain time in the evening.Sunday is your only day off and the time you want to spend with your children.

You tried growing some things indoors and on a windowsill but 2 windows in the whole apartment… nothing really grew.

The food pantry run by the church has exactly the same selection as the stores you can shop at – boxed & canned food with lots of preservatives and crap. Nothing fresh.

I should mention now that this is a common thing I hear in emails from people living in food deserts.

A food desert is defined as an area that has no food & grocery sources with fresh foods or if they do have fresh foods, they are disproportionately expensive. People affected the most by food deserts are poor people who do not have access to transportation  and the primary affected are single mother & their children, elderly, and disabled. In an area considered a food desert, the rate of obesity & diabetes is much higher and there have been some causal studies that suggest children that live in food deserts don’t do as well in school.  217 million people receiving food stamps live in urban areas compared to about 62 million in rural areas. Food deserts can happen for those in rural areas,too but it’s far more prevalent in urban areas and affects the largest portion of food stamp recipients overall.

2. The Cheapest Food Is Often Junk 

Depending on where you live in the U.S., this may not be true but for most of the country, the norm is that junk food is cheep and good food is expensive. A common statement I hear is, “There should be laws that prevent people on food stamps  from buying junk food!”. I may have mentioned before that I have about 3,000 words in my drafts folder on JUST that topic. Let me see if I can summarize a piece of  the issue here in a lot less than 3,000 words.

Let’s pretend this isn’t an issue attacking the choices of a specific economic class & trying to create a Nanny State that dictates how poor people live and focus on the money aspect here.

SNAP spending accounts for almost $72 billion dollars and food companies who make junk food want most of that to go in their pockets. They spend millions of dollars every year to lobby AGAINST changes in the food stamp program that would prohibit or limit recipients from buying junk food.  The American Beverage Company, Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, Kellog, Kroger, Walmart, Snack Food Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association ,Mars ,and Cargill have all spent money to not just stop bills from being passed to restrict SNAP expenditures but also to promote their food to poor people as their target market. Debbie Stabenow, the Senate Ag Committee Chairwomen received $1,026,196 from undisclosed lobbyists to prevent restrictions from being introduced in the Farm Bill and also to stop GMOs from being labelled.

People can see the value in preventing people on SNAP from buying certain foods all they want but as long as the money is lining the pockets of people making up the rules, it isn’t going to happen. The cheapest food available is going to continue to be junk food. Of course, if this pisses you off enough ,you could start a campaign to make some phone calls, write letters and make some noise about the issue.

But here’s the thing…

If you restrict junk food then there are contingencies that have to be fought for in place of  the inexpensive source of food for these families. If  you remove junk food from the SNAP program then other things have to be put in place, such as better development of urban and community gardens, access to Farmer’s Markets, and quite simply, better allocation & distribution of food waste from grocery store & the food industry.

CORRECTION!!!  Debbie Stabenow actually received:   $903,008 from Big Ag  $359,090 from energy industry (also affected by the farm bill)  $1,026,196 from undisclosed Lobbyists and Lawyers  Occupy the Farm Bill

3. Education

I worked with children for a long time. There were kids who had never seen a fresh vegetable or fruit in their life. The closest thing to a potato that they knew was a french fry. I want to make it very clear here  – not all these kids came from poor families. In fact, most of them didn’t.  America as a whole needs to learn better nutrition and how to spend their food dollars better. It isn’t just a poor people issue.  It is true that demographically poor people are less educated and also have less access to educational resources but seriously…let’s be honest here – Americans have become a nation of people who make some very poor choices about what goes into their body. Rich or poor.406231_401023336623051_1406311727_n


Let’s also be honest about why there’s a focus on poor people to have better food education. They’re spending “taxpayer money”, so we should be sure they’re spending every dollar wisely. 10 cents a day goes into SNAP…that’s if you make $50,000/ year. Good heavens, yes…we need to make sure this 10 cents a day is being spent on healthy food only and preventing additional healthcare poor people may need on the taxpayer dime. Newsflash: The entire population contributes to the rising cost of health care costs because of their eating habits, regardless of  whether they eat on the dole or not.

Nutrition education is important for the whole country and I’m in favor for better access to nutrition education for everyone. Like I mentioned,  poor people are the least likely to have access to the resources to make this happen so we need to advocate for programs that enable people in poverty to boost their food knowledge.  One of the best ways to educate on the matters of food & nutrition is to implement more programs like Food is Elementary in US schools and school gardens that can be used not just to supply a cafeteria but also serve as a cross-curricular education opportunity.Start them young and it will set them up for a life of good and responsible eating.

4. Ability

A great deal of food stamp recipients are disabled and quite a few of them have limited support people who can cook for them. A can of  Hormel Chili is easy to open and heat in the microwave. Disabled people often encounter the same problems as those in food deserts…inability to travel to a real grocery store  to go shopping. Some areas have great services for disabled people, such as Meals on Wheels but these programs are not available everywhere. Elderly people without support also fall into this category of simply not being able to shop for or prepare food for themselves.

5. 99% of Homes May Have Refrigerators But That Doesn’t Mean They Have Stoves 

Anyone else remember when Fox News tried to dispute that America even had poor people because “99.6% of ‘Poor’ Households Have Refrigerators”. Like, because someone has a refrigerator, it means they open the door and magically, food appears! Or the electric bill was magically paid that month so the refrigerator could work. Same applies to stoves . I’ve known some families who could not use the stove in their house or apartment because it was a gas stove, which meant an additional bill they could not pay. Some are fortunate enough to have electricity and can use a microwave but you know what you can cook easily in a microwave,right?  Not to say you CAN’T cook a decent ,healthy meal in a microwave but it’s a bit more difficult. Most who are stuck with microwave cooking tend to favor frozen meals…lots of preservatives,highly processed & low nutritional value. I actually knew one women who didn’t have a microwave or a stove and still made some great meals for her family using a hot plate and a toaster oven but it took a lot of time. On the days she worked outside the home, she had to stick to convenience foods otherwise no one would have been fed in time for bed.  The day she found a crockpot at a yard sale was a happy day indeed.


23 thoughts on “The Reasons Poor People Might Not Eat Healthy

  1. A study in the ’70s showed manditory nutrition training for food stamp recipients only had a lasting impact IF the person doing the training was seem by the recipient as an equal.

    1. That makes a lot of sense to me. I used to teach those types of classes to Head Start families. Occasionally there would be special speakers or guests present on nutrition or other topics related to budgeting and food. The more the presenter talked down to the people attending, the less likely it was that people would stay to the end or look receptive.

  2. When I think of what Detroit is going through now, I wonder if it might take a chance on creating some sort of urban farming initiative to help allay the problem of food deserts. Of course, it’s easy to dream up such ideas, much harder to implement.

    One small quibble with the formatting of the article: an attribution for the comic (or at least a link to its homepage) might be nice; when you strip the title and authors from the picture, it is much the same as plaigarism

    1. Ah, didn’t notice it until now but looks like when I transferred this post here, the formatting was quite messed up. There were 4 other images in this post before.
      I am particular about sourcing,too (I’m also an artist)… sometimes I don’t know the source, but I typically will say that.

  3. This also misses one of the biggest systemic causes, our screwed-up agriculture policies. Good nutrition is expensive because Big Agro has lobbied for a system of farm subsidies that spends lots of money on keeping corn, and it’s derivatives cheep, and nothing on keeping fresh fruit and vegetables affordable. Add to that all the money spent to make sure processed foods can contain adulterants we’d never consider “food” if they were accurately labeled, instead of hiding it behind a fake name.

  4. I live on SNAP. I have $100 a week to feed my family of 5. Yes, i have a car. Yes, I have options near me such as a variety of grocery stores…but I have brought my grocery bill down from $2000 a month to $400 a month and no one is going hungry and I don’t buy junk food. We are on a restricted diet due to allergies: no gluten, no dairy, no corn, no sugar. That leaves only whole foods. It IS possible, but difficult. I think if there was a resource where people without the knowledge or the education could learn how to stretch their dollar the way I do, then it would be better. Not sure how to do that, but it would be a great way to start.

  5. People also don’t always have control over whether they have a stove. It’s not even always about whether they can pay the bill. I worked for a gas company, and they will routinely ‘red-tag’ appliances as unusable if they’re not safe, and they will refuse to connect gas to a residence if there are red-tagged appliances hooked up to the gas line (or easily in place to be so). You’re responsible for fixing, say, the furnace or the stove or the water heater, or you don’t get gas hooked up. This means that if your scummy landlord refuses to fix the water heater with a broken CO detector and won’t even disconnect it for you, you can’t get gas to your house at all.

    (occasionally, some of the longer-time employees of the gas company would disconnect for clients, even though they weren’t supposed to, so they could get the gas turned on)

    1. When I was a child, and the electricity was out-which it was-a lot, we’d use a propane camping stove. A lot of times it was hard scrounging up money to buy the stupid propane. We used Kerosine heaters and lamps. Same problem with Kerosine-money was scarce. I remember mom getting foods from the church pantry that required butter or milk, and she laughed. Where would we keep it? We had coolers. The coolers worked okay when it wasn’t extremely hot, but in the summer, we didn’t even try to keep things cool. I’m now out of poverty, but I remember. When I donate to food pantries, I donate the more expensive chunky soups with veggies. We were lucky if we saw a veggie. Mixed fruit cups-packed in juice, crackers… Stuff that lasts a while, but has some nutritional value. I never donate crap that requires milk, butter, or other refrigerated ingredients. I still cringe at dry milk… Kept me alive, but, yuck!

  6. Education. Too bad grocery stores don’t see educating their buyers on what is good food. And how often to you have nutrition classes in school? Ones that tell you how to do it on a limited budget?
    I am diabetic. I have a car and a decent job. Fresh healthy food is expensive. Plain and simple. Have you seen what the price of salmon is? (a fish frequently photographed to illustrate healthy meal choices?

    1. It’s stupid, but the reason that it’s so expensive is because it’s considered to be “diet” food. The food industry realizes that they can make a lot of money off of people wanting to lose weight, so they price their “health” foods accordingly; so they can make a lot of dough. Greedy, bleepers.

  7. “The Reasons Poor People Might Not Eat Healthy | Poor as Folk” was indeed a pretty pleasant
    post, . Keep writing and I will keep viewing! I appreciate it ,Adeline

  8. Reblogged this on healthyfrenchie and commented:
    This post made me very grateful for the fact that we are able to chose healthy food and I can walk to at least 5 different stores in my area. It also made me very sad that in the US, one of the richest countries on earth, people are still suffering from malnutrition and are not able to get to healthy foods.

  9. Please don’t use the word obesity- that’s a fatshaming term. Also the term “junk food” is problematic bc it puts mortality onto food and that leads to eating disorders.

  10. GMOs are no more dangerous than any other food. To suggest otherwise is pseudoscience. Also talking about “healthcare costs” in America- a country that worships private healthcare and denies treating the poor is silly. Also, people deserve to live no matter what their healthcare costs bc they are human. This post has internalized classism. Poor people don’t need education. We know how to eat healthy its just undoable for most of us. I don’t see the need to inject your anti corporate anti genetic engineering stance bc it certainly does not represent all poor people, I am a skeptic myself.

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