7/20/2010

Low income, poverty and food. Why poor people have bad eating habits.

As wages shrink and unemployment is rampant there is more talk then ever about low income, poverty and food. People asking why poor people seem to have bad eating habits. This kind of talk makes me angry.

Instead of blaming poor people for not eating food that they can't afford we need to be asking a different question. How about, why is quality food so expensive that poor people can't buy it?

I've worked with low income people and those living in poverty for 15 years. I've seen people who are used to affording better food have to make tough choices when suddenly on food stamps. People say that you can eat healthy food when  you're on food stamps. I've just not seen it. 

I have seen grown people cry because they couldn't feed their families without going to a food pantry. I've seen people have to make decisions that others take for granted. 

Is it cheaper to buy paper plates or to buy soap and run up the water bill washing dishes? How do you buy soap, laundry detergent, softener, shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper and toothbrushes when food stamps cover none of these and your unemployment barely covers electric, water and rent.

Why poor people have bad eating habits is obvious to anyone working with the low income and those in poverty. 

I'll never forget a client who came in on a Wednesday afternoon. She was typical but had an infectious smile that made her stand out. She had recently come out of a domestic violence shelter and was determined to do her best. But, her kids were coming home from school shortly and there was no food in the house. 

She was worried about feeding them breakfast and dinner through Friday evening. It would be Saturday before she could get her check cashed at the grocery or check store. In her pocket was $14 in dollars and change. It would do for food and gas for the rest of the week. After gas, she hoped for $10 for groceries. 

Meals would be needed for:

Wednesday night
Thursday morning and night
Friday morning and night
Saturday morning and maybe lunch (depending on when she could get her check cashed.)

Ten dollars for 6-7 meals for 3 people. You can do the math to how much that is per meal. Thankfully the kids were on free lunch. Going to a food pantry would mean time lost time from work and money out of her pocket. She couldn't make most food pantries. 

I'm pretty sure that she decided to get a eggs and a couple of loaves of white bread or about $3.50. (Those are staples among many of our clients.)

Eggs and bread would mean that her family of 3 could eat egg sandwiches, French toast, egg salad or eaten as eggs and toast. Most likely she picked up some mac and cheese and bologna (or hot dogs) for another $2.00 and maybe a half-gallon of milk for another $2.50. That's $8.00 and she's still short meals.

This is why poor people have bad eating habits. It's not because they are lazy or slow. It's because they are broke. The saddest thing about this scenario is that it's repeated week after week among our clients. 

Her job was from 8:30 - 5:00. It's an 8 hour shift but it means that she can't get to a food pantry without taking time off from work. Most are only for working hours during the week. 

Got any answers for her or for the many people who are like her? I don't. Please leave your answers in the comments section below.

Resources:
Associated Content
DocShop
USDA
Article updated 7-24-10 to provide additional links.

3 comments:

  1. I wish I had answers Gayle, but I don't. Why can't pantries open for a few hours in the evening, even if it's only once or twice a week? The working poor are one of the larger populations using food banks today. Their situation becomes more desperate if the only way they can get the food is to take time off work.

    Thank you so much for making people aware of how it really is! I wonder, if more of us knew the truth, would we change things?

    Cheers!
    Kyla Matton

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  2. Great post, sometimes it seems the best we can do is choose the "least bad" option.

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  3. The hardest part for families with low or no income, when it comes to food, is trying to figure out what the healthiest alternative is. Generally, because fresh fruits and vegetables are so expensive, they go for the generic box or frozen varieties, then try to incorporate that into their meals.

    When I was raising my four kids beneath the poverty level I often chose casseroles that would allow me to freeze leftovers and create an entirely new meal from them by adding different ingredients. Not so surprisingly, my kids hated almost everything I made, but I realized that it wasn't so much what they were eating as it was the fact that they were eating "leftovers". When I learned how to disguise the leftovers as new meals, I found they liked the meals more.

    And yes, I hate the stigma attached to people who live at or beneath the poverty level. We are not all stupid. And most of us certainly are not lazy.

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