Before I was poor, seeing a family leaving a McDonald’s made me sad. I felt sorry for the children. Their meal would not only be lacking in what my family calls “growing food,” but what they were eating was actually bad for their health. Those parents must not know any better. Or maybe they don’t care? How awful.
If you had asked me three or four years ago about making soda and snack food off-limits for purchase with food stamps, I would have thought it a great idea. Compassionate, even. Let’s help the families who must not know much about nutrition and healthy eating make better choices. Taxpayers would be happier, too, knowing the money they invested in our country wasn’t being spent on empty calories but might be making a good and healthy difference in someone’s life.
Then, I found out what living with almost nothing was really like. Everything seems different now.
Now, when I consider the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ intention to apply for a waiver from the federal government, so it can refuse to allow people to use food stamps to buy sodas and snack foods, I see it as punitive. The ultimate goal is shaming rather than building healthy living skills.
When I first started using my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, I didn’t use them to pay for any junk food I bought. I always used cash for the junk. It didn’t seem right to me that our tax dollars (mine, included) should pay for me to get a bag of cool ranch Doritos and a pint of ice cream just because my PMS was raging, and if I didn’t get some serious crap into my system I was going to lose my mind. I used my food stamps for staples and fresh food.
Pretty quickly, though, I realized that what I needed was help. I didn’t need one more voice of accusation screaming at me that I wasn’t doing enough. By setting aside that junk food, I was saying, “This is something I shouldn’t do.” But buying chips and ice cream now and then was something that helped me. I separated out the junk food because I felt ashamed. That shame was just one more weight to carry around as I struggled to get by. Now, I use my SNAP card benefits for my groceries, whether they are healthy or not. I need the help.
Until I had lived it — found myself with less than $10 and weeks before any money was expected — I didn’t realize how many balls are constantly in the air for people living in poverty. Everything feels complicated. The time required to breathe and make mindful choices doesn’t exist. A simple doctor’s appointment can require several phone calls, waiting on hold, finding a time that works, which also means having an accurate calendar. Tasks that were manageable when we had enough money, even when I was tired from parenting young children, became overwhelming when I didn’t have enough.
The number of times I took my daughters through the McDonald’s drive-through when things were at their worst was humbling. I certainly no longer judge harshly families who eat McDonald’s. When everything seems like just too much to bear — selecting food my children will be most likely to eat, taking the time to prepare it and cleaning dirty dishes afterward, all while my children are hungry now — making the healthy choice isn’t always the best choice. If the choice is that quick fix or ending up yelling at my children and breaking down in tears in front of them, I’m going for the fast food. The same goes for frozen pizza, microwavable macaroni and cheese or any prepared foods I can heat and get on the table fast.
If Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS really want those of us receiving SNAP benefits to eat healthy food — or, if they are concerned the taxpayers should only pay for healthy food — I suggest following the lead of the farmers’ markets who give SNAP users a 50 percent discount. Instead of limiting what we are allowed to buy, make whole and fresh foods even more affordable and convenient.
Even people who might not typically buy a lot of fresh vegetables might be more likely to if they knew they were getting a great deal. It’s a marketing tool businesses have used for ages: People like a good deal. I want to get more bang for my buck, even when it’s a buck given to me because I need some extra help these days.
Apply the discount idea to foods beyond the gorgeous food available at the farmers’ markets. Include foods like string cheese, whole-grain crackers, unsweetened peanut butter, unsweetened applesauce in those not-environmentally-friendly-but-very-convenient little containers. We should make healthy living more appealing and, most important for those of us who are receiving SNAP benefits, make things as convenient as possible. It’s an investment in our long-term future. Real help now can lead to stronger foundations in the future. Punishing and shaming people already under too much stress doesn’t help any of us in the long run.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at email@example.com.