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Attacking people in poverty for buying birthday cakes and other treats with food stamps

"To be honest, race plays a part."

DNPFOODSTAMPS18.ShopRite is a retailer in a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program to let SNAP beneficiaries buy groceries online.
DNPFOODSTAMPS18.ShopRite is a retailer in a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program to let SNAP beneficiaries buy groceries online.Read moreJLL

Buying a birthday cake for her son in a Northeast Philadelphia supermarket three years ago, Tianna Gaines-Turner was singed by judgy looks from the cashier when she paid with food stamps.

It wasn't the first time.

"You always get scrutiny for using food-stamp benefits when you buy a treat for your kids," said Gaines-Turner, 39, a married mother of three who works for Eddie's House, a West Philadelphia nonprofit that helps young people who age out of foster care. "We live in a day and time of people judging people without knowing your story.

"And, to be honest, race plays a part."

For years, recipients of food stamps (now called SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have reported getting disapproving glances or worse in supermarkets from other shoppers and store employees who peer into their shopping carts and tut-tut if they see any M&M's or Dr Pepper.

"A senior at my church had someone tell him in a supermarket, 'Oh, I see my tax money is paying for your Coca Cola,'" Pastor Juan Marrero of Christ Centered Church in Fairhill recalled. "That's slander. Why is that person so concerned?"

Meanwhile, advocates for people in poverty report hearing constant complaints that low-income Americans are buying steaks and lobsters with their benefits. "It's a myth, like the Cadillac-driving welfare queen," said Ann Sanders, public-policy advocate at Just Harvest, an antihunger nonprofit in Pittsburgh.

Marrero, whose church sits in the poorest community in Philadelphia, said he always wanted to know, "Where are the supermarkets up here that sell lobster?"

What's behind it all, say advocates and other experts, is a demonizing of the habits and choices of people in poverty by others who believe that, because they pay federal taxes that fund SNAP, they have a say in what low-income people should eat.

And even some politicians are joining the fray, trying to impose restrictions on purchases of sugary foods and drinks by SNAP recipients. They say it's a health concern, but critics counter that it's all a ploy to ultimately cut the SNAP program, which both President Trump and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have said they want to do.

Emerging as a major proponent of restricting SNAP food, Maine Gov. Paul LePage has tried twice in the last two years to prevent food-stamp recipients from being able to buy sugary drinks and candy. He wants to require photos of SNAP recipients on benefits cards.

Meanwhile, New York state Sen. Patty Ritchie introduced legislation to prevent people from buying lobster or energy drinks with SNAP cards "to restrict abuse of the program."

>> READ MORE: Why do people in poverty have satellite dishes?

Lost in the arguments is the fact that most of us make bad food choices, and that few of our shopping carts could pass muster were the food police to shine a light on them, said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

"This drives me crazy," she said. "People on SNAP are us. We are all the same. We buy the same things."

Offering a contrary view, a newly released Tufts University study found SNAP participants ate worse diets than low-income people not on SNAP.

But a widely cited report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, concluded:

"There were no major differences in the [food] expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households."

Still, Sanders said people think "'somehow, poor people should know how to eat better than the rest of us,' which is a double standard."

And it always seems to come back to birthday cakes, she said. Often, middle-class people tell her that low-income people should bake their own birthday cakes rather than buy them with SNAP benefits. "It is," she said, "just ridiculous."

Stink eye

People paying for groceries with a SNAP card (much like a debit card) often get the stink eye, said sociologist Sarah Bowen, a food and inequality expert at North Carolina State University who shopped with a group of low-income and working-class women in North Carolina for a study.

Despite being shamed and stigmatized for what they put in their shopping carts, "the women in our study consumed the same amount of empty calories as other women," Bowen said.

They often couldn't afford to buy expensive, healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.

>> READ MORE: Childhood hunger in North Philadelphia more than triples

Negative attitudes toward people in poverty and their relationship with food are palpable, said Bowen, who referenced a series of studies in 2016 in which more than 1,300 Americans were asked to judge people's morality based on the groceries they purchased.

When well-off shoppers bought so-called ethical products, such as more expensive organic foods, they were seen as virtuous.

But when people with SNAP benefits bought the same items, they were described as "immoral" for taking advantage of public generosity by selecting pricey commodities.

Bowen concluded, "People buying with food stamps can't win."

Another example: People in poverty are excoriated for purchasing sugary drinks from their local stores. Yet "moms are at Whole Foods buying juices and feeling better about it because it's organic," said Ithaca College sociologist Joslyn Brenton, an expert on food and health. "And there is a ton of sugar in those juices."

CEOs eating sugar

There is a long history of both Democrats and Republicans supporting restrictions on what low-income people can purchase, said Craig Gundersen, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois and a SNAP expert. He was referring to numerous public health officials as well as politicians in various states who have tried to get the USDA to eliminate sugary drinks from the SNAP diet.

In response, he pointed out that while farmers receive federal subsidies and corporations get tax breaks, Americans don't tell growers and CEOs that they shouldn't eat sugar.

People in poverty have also entered the debate about the Philadelphia soda tax, whose opponents have said it unfairly impacts low-income residents.

Opposed to the tax, Gundersen said, "I really don't like it when people think of the poor as different than you or I, and are condescended to. I think it's awful."

The economist rejects the argument that people can criticize SNAP recipients because their tax dollars buy SNAP food.

Most SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled. The majority of the rest have jobs or recently lost them, Gundersen said. "That means SNAP is paid for with their tax money, too," he said.

And, other experts have explained, about 80 percent of SNAP recipients shop with cash along with their benefits, making it impossible for others to know just what foods they're buying with federal dollars.

Attempts to get the government to restrict SNAP foods are met with resistance from supermarkets, which would find enforcing purchase controls on hundreds of thousands of products onerous and expensive.

"Besides," said Hannah Walker, a director of the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C., "we don't want our 17-year-old associates in supermarkets to become food police telling a mother she bought the wrong juice or bread."

Also, the USDA said, establishing a clear food-health standard is tougher than it seems. Some brands of granola bars might make for a healthy snack, while others can pack in a lot of fat and sugar.

Ultimately, advocates say, many people in poverty are too preoccupied trying to survive to worry about nutrition. And if a parent buys a child a candy bar, they say, it's a cheap way to treat someone who isn't going to go on vacation or have a bountiful Christmas.

Former Just Harvest blogger Josh Berman wrote that maybe blame is placed on the wrong people.

"If retailers do not offer healthy choices, it is unreasonable to expect people to make them," he wrote. Instead of attacking low-income eaters in a continuing "war on the poor," Berman wrote, why not ask soda manufacturers why there are 65 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle?

In the end, said Gary Robbins, a North Philadelphia advocate, "if you're looking at the underdogs and saying you're not spending food stamps right, you're forgetting they're human beings."

And if a child is having a birthday and needs a cake, Robbins said, "Remember this: To pay for it, the parent who buys that cake will be skipping a meal or two later in the month."