Food Stamps, Obesity, and Hunger in the Rio Grande Valley

In the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, poverty rates are high and people are hungry, yet 38.5 percent of the residents there are considered obese. Part of this reason, according to this feature by Eli Saslow in The Washington Post (Saslow’s fifth story in this series), is because food stamps can be used to buy junk food at many convenience stores, which sell lots of processed, or fried food, and a $1 snack I hadn’t heard about until now: a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with hot cheese poured over it.

Terry Canales, a 33-year-old Texas state representative who grew up surrounded by poverty and obesity, concluded that “we are slowly killing ourselves,” and decided to introduce a bill that he thought could do a small part to counteract this:

Instead of trying to regulate the estimated $2 billion in junk-food purchases enabled each year by food stamps, he wrote a bill to ban the food-stamp purchase of only one product. That was energy drinks — high in caffeine and higher in sugar, expensive and marketed to children despite offering little nutritional value.

“A no-brainer,” he explained as he introduced the bill in a committee meeting last summer.

Then he yielded the microphone and waited for rebuttals.

The rebuttals came from everyone: a lobbyist for the Texas Beverage Association (for obvious reasons), but also representatives from food banks, anti-hunger groups, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. The reasons were plentiful: Why ban one unhealthy product, but leave so many others available? Should the government be able to tell people what they should eat? Shouldn’t lawmakers use their time and energy to figure out how to eradicate poverty instead of regulate them? Or what about making the street safer so people could exercise? How about putting funding into nutrition education programs, and getting more fresh produce into inner-city grocery stores?

The last point is especially important. Saslow follows two nutrition educators as they go through low-income communities to enroll women in nutrition classes. One woman explained that the closest grocery store with fresh produce was seven miles away and that people didn’t really venture out after 4 p.m. because of the drug cartels in the area. She also didn’t own a refrigerator, which meant processed food would keep longer than fresh food would. The answer to how to help people on food stamps eat better is a difficult one to address.

Photo: Calgary Reviews


24 Comments / Post A Comment

It may be a small nitpick but it’s a telling one: I’m really disappointed that Saslow is writing a whole series on food stamps and continues to misleadingly refer to the “massive growth” of the food stamp program. This implies that there has been some sort of effort to increase the scope of the program, which is not the case: rather, there are simply more people eligible for food stamps because of the economic calamity of the past five years. A more accurate phrasing would be the “massive growth in the number of people who qualify for food stamps.” This correctly places the emphasis on the real problem — the fact that large numbers of people are becoming too poor to feed their families — which would be true whether or not the food stamp program existed.

As an analogy: a lot of banks failed between 2008-2010, causing FDIC insurance payouts to skyrocket. But nobody talked about the “explosive growth of the FDIC program” or whether thousands of Americans suddenly receiving payments for their insured deposits was creating a culture of dependency. That was simply the system functioning the way it is meant to in a crisis. Same thing with the “growth” of the food stamp program.

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@stuffisthings thank you for this! It is mind-boggling that people do not understand how food need works.

Lily Rowan (#70)

See, the talk about food stamps and access to food and refrigerators and etc feels like the same question I was asking earlier about what kind of aid is best. Does it benefit people enough to give them food stamps if they don’t have access to fresh food? But how does the government work to improve that access? Etc.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Lily Rowan It feels like an important distinction to present the question like you did: Instead of “How do we regulate what people buy?” ask, “How can we improve access to and desirability of good choices?”

@Lily Rowan It does help people to give them food stamps, but there also need to be larger changes that will improve access to healthy foods. Kind of the long-range vs short-range goals. These people need better food options but if they don’t have food stamps NOW, they might not have food at all.

(The government is doing very little to make it easier for food stamp/SNAP recipients to get healthier food. To my great distress. But some ideas – WIC has both a farmers market program where you get vouchers specifically for farmers markets and mandatory nutrition education for recipients. While I’m not 100% sold on a mandatory education program, expanding the SNAP nutrition ed would be REALLY GOOD. As well as making it easier for farmers markets to take SNAP funds. Currently it can be very difficult, for a variety of reasons.)

Lily Rowan (#70)

@aetataureate Thank you. I was trying to resist saying “Nutrition education for people who physically/geographically can’t get to a supermarket? FUCK YOU.”

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Lily Rowan “Let’s bar them from buying the only things they CAN get within walking distance!” Now that I’ve typed that out, it’s downright Mr. Burnsian.

@Lily Rowan I was on food stamps for about six months after college and even the existing restrictions could be really frustrating — not only can you not buy alcohol and cigarettes, which is fine by me, but you also can’t buy any kind of prepared hot food, e.g., those cheap, versatile, and relatively healthy rotisserie chickens. So you can purchase lobster but not a deli sandwich. Or tin foil, or dish soap. It’s especially hard for homeless people who don’t even have access to a basic kitchen (though according to the USDA website in some areas SNAP can be used for low-cost meals at authorized restaurants. Not sure what that means in practice, thankfully I wasn’t homeless when I had them.)

cjm (#3,397)

@stuffisthings #1 law I would enact: Each rental unit needs to have access to a working refrigerator and cook top in good working order. In Oregon, refrigerators are always a part of the rental, but in CA they were not included and people moved their own personal fridge. This should be a part of rent, like bathrooms and heat. If a unit is an aPODment/ dorm that’s fine, as long as there is at least one fridge per 5 apartments or something. I do not think this would substantially increase the rent anywhere.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Also I forgot to say how sad I am that no one has ever offered me Hot Cheetos with CHEESE ON THEM. Holy crap, that sounds amazing.

@Lily Rowan I’m pretty sure when the writer said “smothered with cheese” he was just playing the wide-eyed New Yorker down south who’d never seen snacks flavored with orange cheese powder before. Feel free to chime in if I’m wrong, South Texans, and Cheetos covered in additional cheese is actually a thing!

Lily Rowan (#70)

@stuffisthings Well, it will be a thing in Massachusetts at some point, if I have anything to say about it!

shannowhamo (#845)

@stuffisthings I’ve never heard of that specifically but there is a portable Frito pie kind of thing where you open a bag of fritos and pour chili and nacho cheese over the chips in the bag so I assumed it was like that. He did say “poured” so it sounds liquid. I’d fear for the integrity of the Cheeto’s texture but that just means I have to try and it and find out! (I live in northern Texas so have no special insight into the Rio Grand Valley.)

@shannowhamo Go try it and report back! For science!

sea ermine (#122)

@stuffisthings I think every convenience store in New York has snacks flavored with orange cheese powder in them. What I think he’s talking about is where you buy the snack, open the bag, and pump the cheese liquid (like what they have in gas stations for nachos) into the bag and then pay for that. I’ve only seen that done with chips and fritos before but I bet you could do it with other snacks.

@stuffisthings Yes to what @seaermine said. It’s basically a bag of cheetos with nacho cheese poured on top. There’s a photo of it in the article linked above also. Seems basically like Texas poutine.

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@Lily Rowan IT IS. Also this totally happens in Chicago (or at least some parts, which may say a lot about how Tejanos and other folks migrate. Someone feel free to write on this as a dissertation).

stuffisthings – the actual Post story had a photo of the dish in question – tear the bag of Cheetos open, pour melted cheez whiz stuff on top. There was also a 9 year old boy on cholesterol medication in that family.

I get the problem of access to fresh foods/better foods, but I think it’s more of a chicken-egg thing than we realize. The first story in this post series (which is really well done, IMO), features an independent grocery store in a high-poverty area where the majority of shoppers use SNAP. The owner of the store describes how he basically has zero customers the last week of the month, then stocks up to do most of his sales the first week of the month when benefits hit peoples’ accounts. He stocks the store with items people on SNAP want to stretch their food out as long as they can.
Which makes me wonder – what if we simply said SNAP benefits will only buy WIC-approved foods. Something tells me that the bodegas and other outlets in these food deserts will stock what the majority of the customer base can buy. So if we put the restrictions in, access would improve. That seems like basic economics. But, it’s a pretty complex thing, clearly.

@Dana Cruikshank@facebook Right now WIC is a relatively small program ($6.7bn vs. something like $80bn for SNAP). If you did that, the food industry lobbyists would swarm in like locusts and within a year you’d ONLY be able to Hot Cheetos and Red Bull on SNAP.

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@Dana Cruikshank@facebook It is complex because depending on who you are and where you are, your SNAP fluxuates. I worked for an organization that helped pioneer accepting SNAP in farmer’s markets, and thus spent a lot of time at the IL-benefits offices around Chicago trying to promote people to go to our market (we had a double value coupon program where people could double their money spent on market purchases, thanks Paul Newman!). I would talk to so many people who were trying to figure out why their benefits were shrinking and how much they would want to spend with us, if it was going to be doubled. The complexities of this system are hard for people doing grant writing and outreach-targeting, and the people who use it are brilliant for trying to make it work.

Ellie (#62)

I think that there is some element of this (this=people with few resources to buy food eating food that makes them sick) that results from people making bad decisions on their own initiative. However, these decisions are obviously pretty hard not to make and it’s clear that many people are in circumstances where most reasonable people would find it very difficult to eat healthfully. For people in better socioeconomic circumstances, it’s indescribably easier to make better decisions. For people in food deserts with few resources, it’s extremely difficult to make such decisions. But, I don’t think that we need to categorize as people as “victims” or entirely move the conversation away from the agency of individual people. I think that shifting the rhetoric toward how to make it easier for people to make good decisions is a positive thing, and recognizes both individual agency and the deleterious effects of political and socioeconomic circumstances. Both are improvable.

stinapag (#2,144)

What’s interesting about the Rio Grande Valley, though is that the health outcomes aren’t what one would expect from the population demographics. See

Is this really a problem that needs addressing given the low mortality rates?

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