Goodbye to the Small But Crucial Dignity of Picking Out Your Own Groceries

A woman and her daughter go shopping with their EBT
coupons. Image via
Getty
.

Trump’s budget proposal is here. It’s ill-advised and full of
ways to punish the poor in all the big ways, but also in a way
some may consider small: it suggests cutting $17 billion from
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, instead
proposing a program that mandates a chunk of allotted food come
in the form of pre-selected groceries to qualifying households.

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney
compared
this idea to the offerings of the company Blue
Apron, which sends boxes full of pre-apportioned ingredients
and recipes for things like roast chicken and lamb burgers to
the homes of those who sign up for it. (It has a lot of
competitors, one of which—full disclosure, I suppose?—I
personally subscribe to.) SNAP, which is sometimes called the
food stamp program, is a flawed one, but the main thing it has
going for it is that you can use it to pick out your own
groceries.

How are you supposed to pick
up your box if you were evicted last night?

Critics have pointed out that this “Blue Apron”-y alternative
isn’t a particularly cost-effective solution to the problem of
food insecurity in America. In fact, this proposal has a lot of
problems with it, logistical and otherwise: How are you
supposed to pick up your box if you were evicted last night?
Will there be a delivery window? What if you work three jobs
and can’t be home for the delivery window? What if there’s a
storm? What if there’s a raccoon infestation and your landlord
hasn’t dealt with it? What if your box doesn’t show up? What if
someone steals it? What if you have dietary restrictions? Are
you gonna have to get a doctor’s note to prove you’re allergic
to nuts? What if you don’t have healthcare or regular access to
a doctor? What if you don’t like the food that comes in the
box? What if you don’t want to broadcast to your neighbors that
you’re having trouble paying for food?

Mick Mulvaney will tell us that they’re working on all these
issues. Except those last two, which are the entire point.

You’re supposed to be embarrassed by poverty, and it’s not
supposed to taste good. Poverty’s pain is not enough, and these
boxes are here to remind you of that. (Mulvaney will also tell
us that the whole point here is to help people—don’t believe
him. The plan is to save money by cutting an additional $213
billion in SNAP spending over the next decade.)

deciding what you’d like to
eat or cook is such a basic part of adult life that to strip it
amounts to the removal of a small but crucial dignity.

Walking into the grocery store or bodega and deciding what
you’d like to eat or cook is such a basic part of adult life
that to strip it amounts to the removal of a small but crucial
dignity. To eat an old favorite, to try a new food, to make
healthier or less healthy choices than the box permits, are
things one should be able to do. The box and the people who
came up with this idea do not agree with me. This change says
to poor people: “You cannot be trusted even to choose what to
eat,” which is a sentiment that would not exist without the
underlying belief that to become poor, one must have fucked up
somewhere along the way. It is not inadequate education,
systemic racism, effective segregation, divorce,
medical debt
, student debt, or a lack of support from your
government that made you poor. If you were
responsible, you wouldn’t be poor, so the thinking
goes. The mother who hands her kid a Pepsi she bought with her
EBT card just isn’t responsible for the nutritional
needs of her kid. Or the one who buys chips instead of carrots.
She cannot be trusted.

This is, by the way, a logical breakdown. A central operating
principle behind how American welfare functions is that you’re
expected to work reasonably hard to qualify for help, or show
the government that there’s a good reason why you can’t work.
People like to call this “personal responsibility,” and the
expectation here is that a basic part of adult life is
possessing it. And yet, to have your groceries pre-selected and
sent to your home assumes that you aren’t responsible; that you
might spend that money on junk food—a category of food which,
thanks for corn subsidies and zero limits on marketing to kids,
the entire nation is addicted to.

We should be used to this. Women and other marginalized genders
especially. The logic that says you cannot make the decision to
have an abortion without a transvaginal ultrasound, after all,
is the same logic that says you cannot feed yourself unless it
comes out of this box. The same worldview generated both of
these methods of controlling the bodily autonomy of the
marginalized under the guise of being helpful, and it basically
comes down to: we don’t trust you to make a sound decision
without intervention. The ultrasound supposedly gives a
pregnant woman the information she needs to decide if she wants
to continue being pregnant; the box gives her the canned goods
she needs to eat, if not joyfully, then at least enough to
survive.

The logic that says you
cannot make the decision to have an abortion without a
transvaginal ultrasound, after all, is the same logic that says
you cannot feed yourself unless it comes out of this box.

And yes, sometimes this is information and assistance we want
or need. Surely there will be some people who say “Hey,
actually, I like this new program! I hate shopping. I feel
oppressed by it and I don’t have time for it, since, by the
way, I work all the time.” (After all, this was my rationale
for signing up for the Blue Apron competitor.) If this program
saves time and effort for the people who need to conserve those
most, then I rejoice. But this will hurt some people,
especially women, because it is still mostly women who are
standing, night after night in front of empty fridges—in the
lucky event that we have a fridge at all.

At its heart though, this “Blue Apron” idea exposes Republican
fears that a person who doesn’t have much money might enjoy the
simple pleasure of choosing something for herself, of making an
intimate decision without surveillance, that a poor person
might enjoy anything at all.

It’s also particularly cruel to take away the freedom of food
choice from women because women and other marginalized genders
are a group that is exposed, over our lifetimes, to such a
wealth of complicated messaging about food that I could not
possibly account for all of it here. Food is both a balm and a
threat: it will make us obese, and sick. It’s full of “toxins.”
(Just because the pursuit of “purity” in our food is the
watchword of wealthy white women doesn’t mean poor women and
women of color haven’t heard this, and been told to fear
“toxins,” too.) If we eat too little, we’re sick. If we eat too
much, we’re sick. Women are
disproportionally affected by disordered eating
and I can’t
imagine why. We are told in ways big and small that what we eat
is the key to happiness, success, and wealth.

Indeed, there are many times when I think that we demand too
much of food, sometimes to a laughable degree. When I hear

Goop and her friends
tell rich, already generally healthy
women (most of whom are white) that beets will make us see our
problems as “challenges,” and apple cider vinegar will cure my
acne, I roll my eyes, but I also have—I admit—tried it. More
often than not, the medicalization of food is
bogus, junk science
profiting off our fears. But it’s also
a way of feeling like we deserve care, especially when what we
eat, we are told, can heal what medicine can’t. Thank
god
, thinks the woman who doesn’t have access to a doctor,
or who, for good reason
distrusts medical establishment
, at least there is
something for me.

You’re supposed to be
embarrassed by poverty, and it’s not supposed to taste
good.

The choice to buy apple cider vinegar is no smarter than buying
a Pepsi when what you really need is a handful of almonds, but
we don’t always choose what’s most likely to deliver good
results, when it comes to eating—sometimes we just like what we
like. Little kids love to ask each other “what’s your favorite
food?” The kid who answers “pizza” sees herself as, in some
small way, as different from the kid who answers “ice cream.”
We don’t lose this as adults. To eat your favorite food when
you’re hungry is to say at least there is something
for me. Perhaps your favorite food is included in the
USDA’s list of what is likely to come in the boxes:
“shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut
butter, beans and canned meat, fruits and vegetables.” I’m
guessing that it’s not, because most people’s favorite food is
not “grains.”

This list doesn’t shock me because it includes grains,
though—it shocks me because it amounts to the surveillance of
taste. It’s a peremptory stay on small pleasures. It says “no,
you cannot even have that.” It’s a demand for perfection and a
punishment at the same time.

This country demands perfection from the people who have the
biggest trouble delivering it. Have sex without birth control
because you can’t get a ride to Planned Parenthood? Get
pregnant? Shouldn’t have had sex! Shouldn’t have done this
thing that we all do from time to time to feel good. Want to
wear
makeup in prison
? Too bad, you are poor and you committed a
crime—that’s how you ended up here! You cannot do this thing
that we all do from time to time to feel good. Handing your
daughter a Pepsi when the going gets rough won’t fix much, and
isn’t “good” for her, but we all do this from time to time to
feel good. We know it will fuck with her blood sugar, but
enough. One shouldn’t have to be perfect to have access to a
grocery store.

You’re supposed to be
embarrassed by poverty, and it’s not supposed to taste
good.

Last week I read an analysis in the Los Angeles Times
by Priya Fielding-Singh, a food researcher who has spent years
studying
why people buy and eat
the foods that they do, and I can’t
stop thinking about it. She interviewed 73 families in
California and found that there’s a simple and gutting reason
why poor parents are more likely to say “yes” when their kids
beg them for unhealthy food than wealthy parents are. According
to Fielding-Singh, there is the profound inequity of food
deserts operating here, but there’s also something much more
fundamental to how we live and love in this wicked world: junk
food is “the only indulgence they can afford.”

She wisely remarked that wealthy parents have plenty of
opportunities to say “yes” to their kids. Poor parents may only
have that ability in the grocery store, where the decisions
about our lives and how we live them are small enough that they
can fit in our baskets.

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