The food stamp problem parents don’t talk about
I only recently stopped buying foods for my 8-year-old daughter that list ingredients I don’t recognize. For half of her life, when I went shopping, I gravitated to the foods I knew for certain she’d gobble up.
As a health-minded mother, I thinly sliced kale to add to her pasta and found fresh fruits to go into her yogurt and oatmeal in the beginning. But by the time she was 3, her food preferences had changed. She asked for food to be “plain” and refused bowls with fruits and vegetables I’d tried to sneak in. At about the same time, I’d begun working full-time for a housecleaning company but still depended on food stamps for purchasing groceries. I didn’t have much money for food otherwise.
My response then to her picky eating wasn’t to go out and purchase a variety of foods to continue introducing them the eight to 15 times most kids need before developing their palate. I couldn’t afford to purchase food that wasn’t meant to go on her plate. I ate mainly peanut butter sandwiches and ramen mixed with hard-boiled eggs and cabbage. The rest of the food money went to her.
I still tried to buy the best quality I could afford. I’d spent the last decade following Michael Pollan and documentaries like Food, Inc., and I knew the dangers of consuming food laden with chemicals. I made sacrifices on crackers, pastas and sauces but tried to keep the milk organic and whole.
When I was in my last semesters of college, legislation in my state changed so that any adult, full-time student receiving food stamps also had to meet a work requirement of 20 hours a week. When that cut went into effect, I couldn’t fulfill the work requirement, and my daughter’s diet dropped to the point where it consisted of packaged crackers with some kind of cheese sandwiched between them, pancakes and mac ‘n’ cheese. We received some juice and cheese sticks from our Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, coupons, and I bought fruit like apples and oranges at the beginning of the month.
It was a real “so it has come to this” time in my parenting. I remained thankful that she ate what I put in front of her. I couldn’t afford waste. My stress over her not finishing her food only perpetuated her pickiness. She didn’t want to try new things for fear she wouldn’t like it and it would go to waste.
When I was in the thick of food insecurity, I didn’t care what she ate so long as she had calories going into her body. After I graduated college and started making money as a freelance writer, we moved next to a ritzy hippie store. I could afford the better-quality food and stopped bringing home the chemical-laden filled boxes. The change wasn’t sudden and took about a year before she’d eat whole-wheat bread and pancakes without turning up her nose. I still haven’t gotten her back to eating vegetables, but I enjoy lazy mornings when breakfast lasts for a little while and I can set out a plate of fruit, then bacon and pancakes made from local flour.
These things were unattainable to us just a year ago and something I’d even roll my eyes at. Local food was for rich people. We’re not rich, but having just that much more to spend and living a block away from a store that sells high-quality food completely changed our eating habits. We eat more slowly and less. The food is dense and nutrient rich. I’ve noticed my daughter’s shape filling out a bit, and she doesn’t get sick as often. And we’re really not spending that much more after the initial hump of adjusting to eating less. I started buying more meat and learned how to cook better for myself.
With just a little more money for our food budget and access to a quality store, the amount we consume is less, and we are healthier.
Food security is not just about filling bellies with just enough calories to stave off hunger; it needs to be about the ability to afford and have access to not just any food, but good food.
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