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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Food stamps perpetuate myth of consumer choice

Illustration: Emily Johnson

Last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) led the way for a bill prohibiting welfare recipients from using government-issued debit cards to get cash through ATMs at strip clubs, casinos or liquor stores. This is just part of a long history of debate about the “modern welfare state” the United States has supposedly become. One of the most active of these debates is the fundamental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more widely referred to as food stamps.

For millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or facing dire situations, the food stamp programs are vital. Yet, with the rising rates of obesity and hyperawareness about the flaws in our food system, many are criticizing the food stamp program, and calling for more regulation on how, where and on what welfare recipients spend their benefits. That fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and Jack in the Box were added to the list of restaurants food stamp recipients were able to use their benefits at raised a lot of heat last fall.

It should come as no surprise that America is in a unique political climate surrounding food. Now more than ever there are calls for reform in the food system, and demand for local and sustainably grown food is strong and growing. There is much debate in America about individuals’ food choices. It is widely accepted that individuals have the power of the pocket: our consumer power can drive real change. In this way, the larger part of the environmentalist movement and now the food movement is convinced that “we can do our part” if we make conscious, sustainable choices. Yet, in reality, we are still participating in a system that is inherently unsustainable.

The food movement has inherited this consumer-oriented mentality from its sister environmental movement. Media, government agencies and society at large focus on the ethics of the choices of individuals. In this sense, the responsibility of the environment rests on the consumer’s shoulders; if one doesn’t shop for organic produce or go to the local farmers’ market then they are shunned by the “foodie” world. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for supporting local farmers and businesses and believe in the merits of organic farming. But I believe this insistence on consumer responsibility to make the ethical and healthy alternative choice is problematic because it shifts the focus away from the structural problems that lie at the root of the food system.

What needs to change is the industrialized, capitalistic way of producing and distributing food. Such change needs to occur at every level, from monoculture, industrialized production to agribusiness-controlled distribution and a runaway food processing industry bent on stuffing empty calories down the throats of every American. When all the pressure is on the individual to make the ethical choice, we forget that some of the structures are so institutionalized and assisted by government that no consumer “vote” will matter. In the case of food stamps, politicians have focused on and passed judgement on the food choices poor people make; in reality, it is the fundamental economic inequalities that have created an environment where low-income, working class people have neither the time nor the money to make the ethical and healthy choice.

There have been great strides in the food stamp program, including some cities allowing recipients to cash in their credit at local farmers’ markets, attempting to increase their accessibility to fresh, healthy food. Still, many criticize poor people for buying unhealthy, cheap junk food with their SNAP benefits. While it is easy to pass the blame off on the individual for not making the healthy or ethical choice, I argue that there needs to be a refocusing of the spotlight on the system that is creating these cheap, unhealthy and unethical choices. When  we blame welfare recipients’ food choices on their own irresponsibility, rather than on the system of government subsidies that makes unhealthy corn byproducts  ridiculously and artificially cheap, we are left short-sided and blind to the real roots of the problem with our food system.

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  • D

    DrewFeb 27, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Zorro, I appreciate your comment. I do agree that government does have a role to play in restructuring the food system. I do, however, stand by my comment that our role as consumers should be the primary means by which we try to incite change. The government can help, and acting as involved citizens by encouraging legislators to step in and further regulate the food industry, is something we should be doing. But in my experience the government is slow to act, and business slow to respond. I did not mean to imply in my earlier comment that we can only create change by acting as intelligent consumers, just that this is the most effective way to have a significant impact. I may have come off somewhat harsh in my initial statement, but what bothered me about Julia’s article is that I felt it gave the impression that we need to “stop blaming consumers and blame the system”. This is the notion I entirely disagree with. Yes the system is bad, and some businesses are making it worse. But it is not because those businesses are inherently evil, they are providing what people will buy, at the lowest price possible. They seem to show no concern for who gets harmed in the process of making that happened. My point is, they won’t care how they get us the food we want at the price we like, until we care about it. While the government has a role to play, nothing will ever change until the public gets behind it, and relying too strongly on the government or businesses to make that change for us will undermine the public’s propensity to get involved. Especially on this issue we, as informed citizens, must not encourage any notion that may act as an excuse for inaction.

  • J

    juleshuberFeb 24, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Companies do give out samples. They are looking to put their products in potential consumers’ hands. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work one of the place that always worked is “Get Official Samples” search online

  • Z

    ZorroFeb 23, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Drew: We don’t need to choose between consumer responsibility and government action. At no point does Julia say that consumers should cease advocating for healthy foods.

    It seems that you have missed the nuance of her argument: only focusing on consumer choice neglects the possibility that there are actions the government could take towards developing a better and more sustainable food production system.

    You yourself admit that government regulation could kick-start awareness about food quality. This proves Julia’s point: the average consumer does not have the knowledge or agency to begin changing the system. This isn’t a capitalist system as you suggest, it’s an oligarchy where a few large providers control not only what society can eat, but what we want to eat.

    In this system, piling layers of bureaucracy onto families and seniors using food assistance isn’t likely to help consumption habits that are reinforced from happy meal to heart attack. In fact, these regulations even stand to make people less intelligent consumers.

    I spent two years working as a cashier in a state where food assistance programs are highly regulated. I can’t tell you the number of times I sent people back to the produce department because they attempted to buy a non-approved variety of apple. Getting a bag of potato chips? No problem.

    Rather than creating headaches in checkout lines, state governments could tax the most unhealthy products and require labeling that would disadvantage them against healthy food. This might not “fix the system” as you put it, but similar policies have saved thousands of lives through shutting down the tobacco industry. Sure, consumers will play a role, but civic action and smart policies will be the catalyst.

    Beyond regulation, the government could easily expand upon programs such as the Farmer’s Market Promotion Program or Community Food Project Grants included in the 2008 Farm Bill. Again, only consuming products won’t give you the ability to stand up and say that these kinds of programs should take precedence over the maintenance of mega-farms (or a ten-year crusade into Iran for that matter).

    This means that it’s up to active citizens (not just in their role as consumers) to tell the government that access to healthy food and a sustainable agriculture system should be included in the national interest.

  • D

    Drew PFeb 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Julia, I agree with some of the points you make, but over all I find your view very idealistic and your goals unrealistic. You are entirely right in saying that our food system is structurally unsound, from producer to consumer. It is however, entirely unfair to place all the blame on producers. Yes many producers make choices that do not benefit society at large in terms of health and environmental sustainability. But food producers, like industry everywhere, have the primary goal of making profits. I’m not saying its right that they produce food cheaply and in a way that harms the environment, but it is naive of us to expect them to do anything differently. This is a capitalistic society and whether you like that or not, if you want to create change, you must work within the parameters of the system in which we live. So in essence I’m saying, you’re right, the food system is total crap, but it doesn’t do any good to sit around and blame producers, because they are never going to change until we ask them to. Consumers have the power to change how the system works. In order to do that we must first understand the system as a whole, as well as the products we are purchasing. There is a huge knowledge gap in this nation when it comes to food, and just because you by organic doesn’t mean you’re making an informed decision. Organic is often produced in a more sustainable way, but not always, and it can be harmful to both farmers and the environment just like non organic food. Simply buying food in the package that tells you its better is not responsible shopping. We need to make a big change in how we view food in this country, and that is never going to happen until we begin making efforts to understand food. The government cannot save us in this situation. They cannot just come in and “fix” this system, they simply don’t have the power to do that. What they can do, and what I think we should ask them to do, is force companies to divulge what they are actually selling, by requiring more prominent, easier to understand, nutrition information. They should also regulate deceptive advertising, so people can know what choices are truly healthy in order to make them. As far as your comment on the government supporting this system through subsides, such as the ones on corn, you are only partially right. Yes some of the programs should be reexamined, but that will not “fix” the problem. The corn subsidy for example, at this point corn producers receive no federal subsidy for corn production because the price of corn has surpassed the subsidy level. Demand from newer sources like ethanol have caused prices to elevate to a point where they no longer rely on a subsidy. Maybe it was the subsidy that got the market to this point, but that does not matter now. Eliminating it would not solve the problem. So while I completely agree that this is a problem that needs addressing, and soon; I completely disagree that it is not the responsibility of consumers. The only way we can change how the system works, is by changing how we work in the system. We must also do whatever we can to convince others to do the same.

  • T

    taxedFeb 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

    After reading this opinion I don’t feel so bad when I see a 300 pounder waddle out of Wal-Mart with over $200 worth of food that I had to earn for them.