Food stamps will buy any type of food, including powdered donuts, Snickers bars, Diet Coke, and organic cucumbers. I get $526—the max—deposited into my food stamp account each month to spend on anything but prepackaged and ready-to-eat meals, the kind of stuff you’d get at Target’s in-store deli or café. Alcohol and cigarettes are verboten too. I’m surprised to learn that seed packets are on the approved food stamp list, but I’ve never bought any. The planting, watering and waiting would take up too much time—an equally precious commodity.
Poverty can’t be recognized in any outward sign, though it has its stereotypical markers: ratty clothes, ratty purse, ratty wallet, ratty kids with food-stained faces running wild at the end of the checkout line.
And obesity. It’s another sign of poverty that initially confounded me. If you’re poor, how can you be fat? Wouldn’t you be skinny because you can’t afford enough to eat?
But shopping proved my logic faulty. I can buy a lot more Mrs. Baird’s powdered donuts at $2 a bag than organic cucumbers at $2.25 apiece. I’ve got a family of three to feed. Organic cucumbers aren’t going to cut it.
Buying “junk food” with food stamps is a paradox that Congress weighed in 2008. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, “Several times in the history of SNAP, Congress had considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits. However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.”
Unless junk food is taken off the list of eligible food items or the cost of healthy fare decreases dramatically, poor people are likely to continue leading heavier, unhealthier lives.
In 2012, Texas was identified as the 10th-fattest state in the country in a study from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sixty-six percent of Texans are carrying around too many pounds: A whopping 30.4 percent are classified as obese, and another 35 percent are overweight.
According to the Texas Comptroller’s office, lack of education and income are directly related to obesity; without education you make less money, which makes you more likely to be poor, which makes you more likely to be fat. Just 22 percent of college graduates are obese, while 37 percent of Texans without a high school diploma fall into the category.
Today, nearly 6 million Texans live in poverty. For a family of four that means an annual household income of less than $22,050 a year. And 23 percent of Texans are impoverished, exceeding the national average of 20 percent. From 2009 to 2010, Texas added another 373,000 poor residents—a population the size of Arlington.
And 38 percent of Texans who earn between $15,000 and $24,000 a year are—you guessed it— obese.