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Poor people can't get anywhere if we keep judging them for 'luxuries'

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

Telling poor people to use food stamps online is about as tone-deaf as it gets

When I moved into our apartment in low-income housing two years ago, I couldn't ignore that it was located a block away from the arguably most expensive grocery store in town. While it was the most convenient store for me, just the act of stepping foot in the entryway felt like I'd already spent 20 bucks. The store is all organic, with a large bulk section and deli. It has apples at triple the cost of those at the regular grocery stores and kale chips for every occasion. As someone whose diet had been molded to what we could afford on our meager amount of food stamps, my tight budget didn't allow me these types of items no matter how healthy they were.

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There were plenty of times that I'd looked through options for healthy food to purchase online through Amazon and even Walmart. It would have made a world of difference to shop online at night, carefully selecting food in a well-thought-out way instead of in a mad scramble to get as many calories as I could afford between work and school and caring for my daughter. But I couldn't use food stamps to order anything online, and I never saw that as being possible.

Thrive Market wants to change that. A new program at just 3 years old, it's based around the model of purchasing a membership for $60 a year to have access to organic food at a lower cost. For each membership sold, another is given to a low income family. Thrive Market recently raised $111 million to further their social mission of providing healthy food for all. A valiant effort, and a needed one, but there's the catch: Food stamps are not available to use online.

So they've started a petition, which currently has about 6,000 signatures, to make food stamps — or what is called SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — available to use online. Currently SNAP users have a debit-type card that is refilled every month. Even though they can use this card at an ATM if they are recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or cash assistance (most often thought of as welfare), most purchases can only be made at stores that sell SNAP-approved food items.

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There's really no question of this being a good idea, and I applaud Thrive Market for its efforts. A recent study has shown what people are calling a health food gap between the upper and lower classes. Even though the higher classes are eating better, the lower class is not. The USDA speculates this is because many low-income families don't have access to stores that carry healthy food choices, such as those living in food deserts, where the only neighborhood grocery store doubles as a gas station or convenience store. So shopping online would be a welcome option for many.

But there's another catch: How will low-income people access this service if it is made available? Through the internet, through a computer and possibly through a smartphone? Perhaps, but smartphones are, again and again, pointed to as a blatant luxury item for people in poverty.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation released a report in 2011 denying poverty existed and put every mention of the word in quotations. He spoke of people living in "poverty" in pure denial, saying the houses contained "other household conveniences," like "a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone and a coffeemaker." So since people in poverty are not living in Third World conditions, they are not poor? If a coffeemaker is considered a luxury item, how would people in low-income households have an acceptable form of access to the internet to order groceries with their SNAP benefits?

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Before we get too excited about any program like the one Thrive Market proposes, we need to accept that internet access through home computers or smartphones is needed just as much as a phone line. Smartphones should not be seen as a luxury item for people in poverty but as a vital resource for getting the information and access to resources — like healthy food — that they need.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Telling poor people to use food stamps online is about as tone-deaf as it gets
Image: FrancescoCorticchia/Getty Images
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