This article was written with the support of a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy fellowship.
Coretta Dudley’s monthly grocery shopping strategy is as finely calibrated as a combat plan. Armed with $868 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (the fancy new name for food stamps), she stops first at FoodMaxx, a discount supermarket in East Oakland, where she stocks up on four weeks’ worth of nonperishables: cases of noodles, cans of vegetables and boxes of the sugary cereals her kids like. She also buys fresh fruit—apples and pears and bananas and grapes—but those will be gone in a week. Then she swings by Wal-Mart for bread, eggs and milk. Later, she’ll hit the family-owned meat market, where she chooses hamburger and cube steaks. Other than $100 she sets aside to replenish the milk, eggs and cheese later in the month, that first multipronged attack will last her and her six children, ages 4 to 16, the whole month. That’s the idea, anyway.
“At the end of the month, we’ll still need something,” she says. “It never fails.”
Almost 500 miles away, in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, Tsehay Gebere has developed her own shopping plan at the Saturday farmers’ market. The lines are long, and the ten-pound sacks of oranges, plentiful at 9 am, will have disappeared by noon. But Gebere, a weekly fixture at the market, has the inside track. She persuades farmer Bernardino Loera to sock away four bags in his van. Forty-five minutes later, she gets back to Loera’s stall and collects her hoarded prize.
Like Dudley, Gebere receives food stamp benefits, for herself and her four children. Like Dudley, Gebere shops at discount supermarkets like Food 4 Less for most of her groceries. But while Dudley buys four bags of fruit every month, Gebere buys at least four bags every week—made possible by the free money she gets at the farmers’ market.
Yes, free money—though the technical name is “double voucher.” The market matches a certain amount of money from a customer’s federal food assistance benefits, essentially doubling the customer’s purchasing power. City Heights was one of the first double voucher markets in the country; there are now more than 160 participating farmers’ markets in twenty states. They reach just a tiny fraction of the more than 43 million Americans receiving food stamps. But their very existence raises questions about SNAP’s identity: is it a welfare program or, as its recent name change suggests, a nutrition program? These questions are the subject of lively debate in USDA offices and advocacy circles, where the idea of giving extra money for fruits and veggies, innocuous as it may seem, is exposing fault lines between traditional advocates for the poor and a new coalition of healthy-food activists.
The underlying premise of the modern food stamp program, shaped in the Kennedy/Johnson years, was that the American poor were starving and in need of calories, any calories at all. But there is now a well-documented overlap between the country’s staggering rate of “food insecurity” (the term used by the USDA in lieu of “hunger”) and its escalating obesity rates. In 2009, 43 percent of households below the federal poverty line experienced food insecurity. And if you’re poor, you’re more likely to be obese. Nine of the ten states with the highest poverty levels also rank in the top ten of obesity rates.
That one can be simultaneously food insecure and obese seems like a paradox. But consider that many low-income neighborhoods have few full-service supermarkets. Grocery shopping in the neighborhood likely means buying at corner stores with limited options for healthy choices. Even if those options do exist, they are not necessarily the rational economic choice for someone on a tight budget. The cost per calorie for foods containing fats and oils, sugars and refined grains are extremely low, but these are precisely the foods linked to high obesity rates. Healthy choices like fruits and vegetables are as much as several thousand times more expensive per calorie.