When my son was just born and my daughter was around 4 years old, I had WIC. I am a second generation New York City WIC recipient. In the interview, I happily declined the offer of baby formula, because I was breastfeeding successfully. What I did get was the opportunity to exchange checks for a variety of groceries. What I didn’t get was a choice in exactly what groceries those were.
I learned a lot about benefit programs during that time. It was abundantly clear that there are other entities, powerful and wealthy ones, that also benefit from my benefit. To name a few, Post, General Mills and Kellogg’s, because I was allowed to get their cereals and theirs alone, as well as the Dairy Farmers of America, who no doubt were able to sell millions of gallons of milk and pounds of cheese through WIC. The problem? While I was able to get copious amounts of these items, I was only given $6 a week towards fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. That was my only opportunity to buy anything that wasn’t a product or byproduct of GMO corn and soy, and the only time I could buy anything organic. A pound of organic strawberries was $5.99.
Then there was the time that I figured out that I could get organic peanut butter. See, they hadn’t gotten around to striking deals with guys like Jif yet, I guess, so they only specified what size of peanut butter you could get. Because there were no other restrictions, I strode happily into PathMark with my WIC checks in my purse and grabbed the organic peanut butter in the correct size off the shelf. The cashier looked puzzled, asked a manager, and in the end I got it because there was no notation on the check forbidding it. Clearly, big brother was watching, because the next set of checks I got had (no organic) printed next to peanut butter on every one. Wow. So because I was poor, I had to eat the poisons and feed them to my child as well. Is it possible that the chemical companies also have a stake in the WIC program?
Thankfully there are no such restrictions on what is now known as SNAP. You can buy anything edible with that benefit, but for me, it wasn’t about backing cupboards with calories, it was about getting the best possible quality of food I could afford. The problem was not about the benefit in this case, it was about access. Until my son was 2, the only supermarket in walking distance from my home was Western Beef. Here are there stats:
Organic Produce: 0
Organic Baby Cereal: 0
Organic Anything: 0
So at first I would take a 40 minute bus ride to a nicer neighborhood (read less people of color, more white people, no housing projects or even apartment buildings, most fellow shoppers drove there in their own vehicle) to shop at ShopRite. I would spend $5.00 round trip getting there, then another $5.00 organizing to have the groceries delivered to my home later that day. Still, the organic produce selection at the time was minimal, but I was able to get the organic baby cereal and a lot of other organic foods in the aisles. No organic or grass-fed meats were available there (I wasn’t vegan yet).
Soon, KeyFood opened, but to my chagrin, I discovered that their organic selection was only slightly better than at “The Beef”. Then I figured out that I could get to WholeFoods in TriBeCa without spending money on transportation. I mapped it once, it’s a 14 mile trip. It involved a 10 minute walk from my home to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, hopefully arriving in time to walk right on a ferry that is boarding, then on arrival in Manhattan, boarding a free Downtown Manhattan loop bus that would drop me right outside the supermarket. It could take anywhere from 1- 1 1/2 hours one way, depending on the ferry schedule, bus stop waiting and traffic. (“Wrote a poem about it, like to hear it? Here it go!”)
The downside: they could not deliver my groceries, so I had to make frequent trips and carry heavy loads, sometimes with both children in tow. I continued to do it, even after I got off of the benefit programs, because it was worth it to me to really nourish myself and my family, which soon grew again by one when my dad came to live with me for a time.
One day it dawned on me: if I lived closer to this supermarket, that would be so nice. If only I could afford a swank apartment in shiny Battery Park City… but indeed I could not. The edible caste system at work, ladies and gentlemen: those who have plenty get more nutrients closer to home, and those who don’t either have to make long journeys to the wealthier neighborhoods and look for in season organics and sales in at a high quality, high priced grocer, or just stay malnourished.
The good news is that prayers have been answered and change is upon us. The edible caste system is about to be shattered, and food deserts are about to be flooded with better food. How, you ask? Be sure to read part two when I post it…
In the meantime, please share your food desert confessions in the comments section. I would love to know how fellow parents are handling this problem and getting cleaner, more nourishing food for the families in spite of financial and geographic obstacles.
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
3 John 1:2 NIV