The Record-Breaking Great Recession: Food Stamps Edition

By Julianne Hing Aug 25, 2009

Click detail to see full image. We all know the job cuts and housing losses in this recession keep reaching new and scarier heights. But check out the numbers of people receiving food stamps these days, via a new graphic from the folks at Good. There are also new reports to contend with these days, like the latest that links food stamp usage with obesity, and it’s making me extra angry. These sorts of conversations inevitably ignite vile and racialized "personal responsibility" attacks on poor people’s bad decisions and lazy lifestyles. But the real issue is about access and availability. The affordable food that fills the belly very often isn’t the food that can keep the body healthy.For low-income communities of color, a very serious and well-documented "grocery gap" of food deserts exists. According to the USDA, 26 million people who live in low-income urban neighborhoods do not have a single supermarket within walking distance of their homes. Which brings me to my one quibble with the infographic above. Beautiful as it is, I felt like it was a little idealistic in its representation of food and health for the very poorest who depend on public assistance. If only the food stamp bounty in real life included gallons of milk, stacks of turkey legs, miles of bananas, yogurt cups (okay who knows what they are but that’s what I’m seeing) and dozens of apples! In truth it’s very often made up of what you can get at the corner store, where you’ll find more varieties of whiskey and potato chips than you will fruits and vegetables. Sure you can buy a gallon of milk at the liquor store, but there, fresh food is priced at a premium. It’s not always a matter of choice when the milk costs over $4 a jug. My auntie used to get castoffs from a neighbor who received surplus commodities from the government. Big aluminum tubs labeled "BEEF," blocks of processed cheese, jars of peanut butter and mountains of powdered milk. None of that food was healthy. All of it would most certainly have contributed to obesity and health problems. My auntie’s neighbor, a Chinese immigrant, had no idea what to do with jars of peanut butter and couldn’t have even digested the cheese–lactose intolerance, you know–if she could have found a way to work it into her family’s diet. Her family was poor. They needed food, but they couldn’t use what the government gave away. There are of course exceptions. Boston’s testing a new program called Boston’s Bounty Bucks that lets food stamp recipients double their food stamps value (up to $20) when shopping at one of Boston’s farmer markets. But good, healthful food is still too often expensive food. As the ranks of the jobless and homeless swell it’s important that we see people’s needs clearly, with honest social contextualization.