People on food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), receive their benefits on a card that can be read like a credit card. Crucial to allowing recipients to use food stamps at farmers markets are card readers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture just canceled its contract with the company that makes the card readers. As a result, food stamp recipients will likely lose the ability to use food stamps at farmers markets.
I was all set to write about this terrible mix-up. But then I realized it’s not the part I really care about.
Of course, food stamp recipients should be able to shop at farmers markets. But it’s a tiny part of a much bigger issue.
The diets of food stamp recipients lie at the intersection of two issues: our food system and economic inequality.
On one hand, you have a system of food that uses industrial methods to produce a cheap and abundant but often unhealthy food supply. Healthier foods tend to cost more, whereas junk food is cheap. And low-income neighborhoods often lack outlets that sell healthy food in the first place.
The answer to this isn’t to pay farmers less. Farmers are struggling — and if anything, higher prices paid to farmers for food and fiber would benefit rural communities in much needed ways.
The other way to help the diets of low-income people is to reduce poverty and inequality. Ideally, this will require large scale social change.
For example, schools in Detroit are so bad that students are suing the state because they weren’t taught to read. How is a kid who graduates from a school like that, even the smartest and most motivated kid, able to keep up with one who graduated from school that actually teaches its students?
In my perfect world, we’d find a way to ensure all Americans have an excellent education, affordable health care (including mental health care), affordable housing, and safe cities in which they don’t have to fear that calling the police will result in their own victimization. Workers will be able to organize to defend their rights as well.
In that world, fewer people would live in poverty, and more could afford good food.
One quick and efficient way to help reduce poverty is to raise the minimum wage. The 1968 minimum wage would be equivalent to $10.90 in 2015 dollars. The national minimum wage is only $7.25. Workers have lost ground over the last 50 years.
Meanwhile, since the early 1970s, as workers’ wages have stagnated or grown only slowly, productivity more than doubled.
Workers today do more than they did five decades ago but they make less money. The profits for the increased productivity go to the top 1 percent.
Accepting food stamps at a farmers market is nice. No doubt it’s more than nice for those on food stamps who shop at farmers markets. That contracting snafu should be fixed.
But to really help all Americans access fresh, healthy food, we need to either fix the food system or address economic inequality. Or, better yet, both.
Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.