SNAP, Food Insecurity, and Really Angry Commenters

SNAP,Last week, Yahoo Food ran a Refinery 29 piece entitled “What It’s Like to Feed a Family For Less Than $20 a Day”. It was widely read, and if the 3,510 commenters are any indication, it was also widely misunderstood.

In a lot of ways, I blame Refinery 29 and Yahoo. Their sexy headline was nothing more than clickbait and troll fodder. The actual essence of the article was about the flawed Farm Bill and the fact that the current government assistance programs make it much easier to track down sugar-laden processed foods than fresh, let alone organic, produce. It was intended to be about the power and the voice that young people have to demand healthier options with their votes and with their dollars. Instead, it became a soapbox from which people could declare their moral, financial, and nutritional superiority while espousing judgments at their best, xenophobia at their worst.

So how exactly did thousands of commenters miss the mark?

It’s Not About Competiton

So many people wanted to compete with Olivia. The competition unfolded in myriad ways. Some commenters had experienced things much worse. Others would never accept government assistance. The vast majority of commenters, though, were quick to point out that not only could they eat better than Olivia and her family, but they could also do it for a lot less money.

I get it. There are times when I think about my $200 grocery budget and my chest swells with pride. I work hard to make sure Mr. P and I eat well at a very frugal pricepoint. There is a time and a place to brag about your budget, but the comments section of that article probably isn’t it.

If you want to educate people like Olivia, start a blog, offer to speak at churches and shelters, or get involved with schools. But to slam someone’s misfortune in the comments section of a Yahoo article because you dealt with difficulty more successfully than she did doesn’t teach Olivia a lesson. It makes you look like an asshat.

That’s the thing about overcoming adversity. It’s a personal struggle, a silent struggle in many ways. There is no confetti drop, no pomp and circumstance, not even a gold star. Instead, you’re rewarded with perseverance, grit, and humility. If you’ve ever been down on your luck, guilty of a bad decision, or the victim of circumstance and you had the fortitude to come out on top, share your story with the intent of helping others. It’s not a contest. There is no prize, and we should want everyone to pull through.

It Is About the Kids

Most of the commenters on Yahoo were parents, many of whom were single parents. I am not divorced, nor am I a parent, but there are seventy-four brilliant minds and loving hearts in my care for 8, 10, and sometimes 12 hours a day. And all I could think about while I read Olivia’s story were my students with whom I am fortunate to spend my days. As I scrolled through comment after comment, I was stunned that no one was talking about how hungry her children were.

Sure, they emphasized the fact that she had children as a means to bemoan the fact that she should be grateful for their tax dollars. They pounced on the fact that they would never not feed their children fruits and vegetables. But seldom did anyone mention the true tragedy of all of these stories: her kids were going hungry.

After spending the better part of a decade in public education, I can tell you one thing and one thing only with absolute certainty. When kids are hungry, they can’t learn. It isn’t that they don’t want to. They simply can’t. Hungry kids are fidgety and irritable, lethargic and unfocused. They are sad. They are embarrassed. Because one of their most basic needs is going unfulfilled, it is virtually impossible for them to focus on anything else.

That is the real tragedy. Of course, there are exceptions. There are success stories. Some students do defy the odds. But those who do not are stuck in a vicious cycle. Study after study, statistic after statistic proves that these students are less likely to perform well or even graduate. And when they start families of their own, the cycle often resumes.

Those readers who scoffed at Olivia’s ignorance — who doesn’t know that fiber is more filling than rice? — are assuming that Olivia received some sort of health education. Not only are physical fitness and health education optional in some states, those programs are categorically underfunded and understaffed. Should the same person who teaches badminton and square dancing teach swimming and driver’s education and nutrition and wellness? Probably not. Yet in schools where there are health programs, that is typically how those programs are staffed. While it might be easy to point the finger at Olivia’s ignorance, it would probably serve society well to figure out how a mother of three seems to have made it through life without that kind of education and to ask ourselves if any kind of explanation could ever be sufficient.

I Hope You’re Angry

I hope you’re reading this post and you’re angry. I hope you read the original article and you start to seethe. More than anything, though, I hope you’re infuriated with the real problem. Olivia isn’t the problem. Olivia is a consequence. She is an effect. And there are thousands upon thousands of people like her.

Be mad at our education system. Begrudge your congressman or congresswoman who consistently supports legislation that emphasizes things like standardized tests and timed writings, while simultaneously cutting away at consumer education and health and wellness programs. Write letters, speak up, go vote. 

Be mad at free lunch programs. You’re absolutely right. Free and reduced lunch programs are easy to exploit. More than that, they are hollow succor to kids who are truly hungry. A paltry hamburger on a mushy bun with a side of tater tots and baby carrots is exactly what everyone railed against in Olivia’s fridge — overprocessed, saturated with sugar and sodium and god knows what else, with no real nutritional value — yet that is exactly what many free lunch programs serve. The more healthful options like salads and fresh sandwiches are more expensive, so they are excluded from the free lunch program. Ask your locals schools what they are serving and why.

Be mad at yourself. If you had the fortitude to overcome adversity, if you have the wherewithal to feed your family delicious, healthful meals on a budget, if you have a skill set that so many people clearly lack, don’t keep it to yourself. Find a medium to share your talents. Offer support. Find compassion and never forget the perseverance, grit, and humility you learned from your own struggles.

So Tell Me…What do you think of Olivia’s story? Is there anything else that makes you mad? 

SNAP, Food Insecurity, and Really Angry Commenters

23 thoughts on “SNAP, Food Insecurity, and Really Angry Commenters

  1. One thing that I think goes under-recognized in the world of frugal prep is how much easier it is to prep good quality foods when you have a good quality kitchen. A nice knife, a decent amount of counter space, and good pots and pans really help with food prep.

    I’ve heard of a few help centers that offer “freezer cooking” instead of food pantry help. The centers have tons of ovens, crockpots, etc, and they offer a few hours of childcare while people can make freezer meals. I volunteered on a semi-regular basis at one in Minneapolis and it was super-chaotic, but at least it was helpful (I think).

    1. I love this so much, Hannah. It took me a while to get the hang of freezer meals and batch cooking…and I had the benefit of Pinterest, the Internet, and family and friends. It’s easy to fault people for what they don’t know, but I don’t think that really solves anything.

  2. School lunch was seriously gross when I was growing up. With that being said, I was extremely surprised at the high quality of lunches at my daughter’s school. There are some gross items for sure, but they have tons of fresh fruits and veggies.

    1. That’s great to hear. Kudos to your school district! I’d be curious to know what the free & reduced lunch students can select. Our district offers great meals – fresh salads, make-your-own sub sandwiches, sushi even! But those are all a la carte options. Free & reduced kiddos can only pick from one or two options every day.

  3. Our food system is so messed up. Our most commonly consumed and grown veggies are potatoes, tomatoes (because Ketchup), and iceberg lettuce. Mass produced crap is dirt cheap compared to more nutritious food. We worry more about child obesity than we do child hunger (although the two are not mutually exclusive.)

    It’s an awful system that needs to be addressed, and needs policy solutions beyond trying to take bad food out of schools (often without replacing it with options that are appealing as well as nutritious) or punishing food stamp recipients with restrictive rules on what they can and cannot buy. Too bad the commenters over at Yahoo were too busy focusing on the wrong things to take up the writer’s concerns.

  4. Oh geez, I didn’t see this article, but I can certainly believe it. Man, people can be mean. (Funnily enough, I just published a post today on how comments are GOOD — and I do believe that — but I actually sort of forgot when I was writing it that there is also a very, very unhelpful and poisonous version of comments.)

    Have you seen Good and Cheap? It’s a free e-cookbook (and I think also hard-copy cookbook) by Leanne Brown that is meant as a resource for families living on SNAP benefits and trying to feed their families healthy food. Here’s her website:

    The whole catalyst for my becoming financially conscious was actually a blog post by Beth at Budget Bytes on the SNAP Challenge…I think this is such an important issue to raise awareness about, and I’m glad you’re writing about it here.

      1. It’s a great resource. I think there may also be ways to get hard copies for free or cheap — a friend of mine who works in early intervention said that her office was handing them out to clients last year. I’m not exactly sure how that worked or who was covering the cost (or if they just printed the pdf out?), but it seems like something people should be able have access to.

        1. I am so all over this! It’s really complicated because the district I’m in now is a really affluent community overall. But we have a free & reduced population of almost 30% and a dozen or so kids who are homeless. So lots of people in the community look at us like we have three heads when we offer classes and resources. They assume since they don’t need it, no one else would either.

  5. Oh these stories always make me furious. Everyone wants to solve education without solving the larger socioeconomic issues. It will never be fair when kids are hungry. Same with health. They’ve found that having a doctor go into a home and prescribing things like fresh fruits and heating bills and helping pay for them can be cost effective. We need to start thinking outside our standard boxes. No one deserves to have anyone derail anyone’s journey. We need to start thinking about what we can DO rather than what we can CRITICIZE.

    1. Plus, it’s so easy to spot the missteps after they’ve happened. Hindsight and all that. We’ve got to stop being so reactionary and see out ways to be proactive.

  6. That article makes me sad. I don’t think that anyone should be ashamed at using a food pantry. They meet a need. The fact that the government can’t/won’t improve the school lunch program and SNAP is really crappy. The article does point out that SNAP was never meant to be all of your food dollars. The first word IS Supplemental.
    Once we’re retired, one of my ambitions is to grow a ridiculously large garden and have lots of egg laying chickens to donate to the food pantry. There’s a homeless shelter/pantry in Memphis that takes eggs from a farmer each week and provides a meal using them. It’s a great program.

    I couldn’t agree more with feeling sorry for the kids. There’s nothing worse than being hungry (from the one time my privileged self has been hungry) and I imagine it’s devastating to learning and classroom behavior.

  7. School lunches were so good when I was a kid in the 70’s. When I saw what they served in my son’s school in the 90’s, I about gagged. It was all processed, packaged crap, and not much of it. We had cooked meals that were yummy and plentiful and hard to finish. I don’t know how things got so screwed up along the way. It’s like the world’s just getting stupider and stupider. (smh) Thanks for listening … You may continue your justifiable rant, Penny! I did read that article and sometimes I think comment sections should just be closed down.

    1. What’s really sad to me is all the supposed reforms that have passed in recent years regarding school lunches. They have improved dramatically, but the majority of the improvements are for students who can pay for the more expensive items. The saddest part is most of my low-income students don’t even complain about the quality of food – they complain about the small portions.

      Actually, they don’t usually complain ever. But you know what I mean 🙂

    2. Back in the “olden days” “lunch ladies” were relatively low-skilled low wage workers but they knew how to cook. Food was often made from scratch and while nutrition was considered, the guidelines weren’t all that strict. Then wages, even for low-wage help, skyrocketed and nutrition guidelines got much stricter. It became cheaper to buy pre-prepared food from commerical vendors than to make real food in the cafeteria. Then when the guidelines got so strict, the pre-prepared food was even better, because it came with a label, unlike the soup made from scratch (that probably tasted better and was better for you).

  8. What other people forget is that the people on benefits have to get to the program. They may literally not have the money for the gas to the center, or even bus money to get there.

    And yes, it’s easier and cheaper to get processed stuff — especially if you can’t afford to live somewhere with a wide grocery selection.

    And you’re right: This is about feeding kids, who are innocent in all this. But I also think a lot of those people who are so high and mighty about government assistance have never needed it. If they were looking at not being able to feed their children, most of them would quickly sign up for food stamps.

    1. Yes! Out in Midwestern suburbia, public transportation basically does not exist. We have a pretty high mobility rate at our school, and we get a lot of families moving in from Chicago throughout the year. They are used to being able to take public transportation to take care of basic needs, and it’s just not a viable option out here. Our school works with local social workers to offer families gas gift cards to get to the food pantry. I would LOVE to offer a backpack service, so students could discreetly pick up items here. We are kicking around the idea and testing out the logistics.

  9. I actually haven’t heard of the story yet, so I’ll have to track it down. I really REALLY try not to read comments on sites like Yahoo. I don’t find it a productive exercise, but I do vibe with the points you’ve made. Angry commenting just stays with me in a way I’d like to avoid. 🙂

    I will track down the article though. Thanks for the heads up.

  10. I’m not surprised by the commentators – it’s so much easier to just rail against something on the internet than to actually stand up and help. Most people in the comment section of large blogs are generally asshats.

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