The Kool-Aid Effect: The Relationship Between the Poor & Nutrition

December 29, 2011

About a year ago I met a woman. She is a single, hard working mom with three kids. For a number of years she was on welfare. She received state funded insurance and food assistance. She worked but was still had low enough income that qualified her for aid.

Luckily for her, all the hard work paid off and she was promoted up to General Manager at her job. She works for one of the dollar type stores (Family Dollar, Dollar General or something similar). Her income increased thankfully. She was now making enough money to be off food stamps and was only receiving supplemental insurance.

This is supposed to be great news right? Well it wasn’t.

Now that she was full time and management, she is receiving insurance benefits but has to pay a certain amount for it. She no longer qualifies for food stamps and is paying for all food on her own. She also has to work the maximum she is allowed to work each week (55 hours) to get as much money as she possibly can.

I stood there talking to her for quite awhile. I was receiving food stamps as well so we had a few things to talk about.

We got to talking about nutrition. And our discussion is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Eating healthy is expensive but eating cheap is essential.

I have received food assistance for the past four years (while married when my ex-husband was unemployed & then again when I left him and was unemployed).  For the past three months, I have not had food stamps. I still qualify for them but for a couple of reasons, I have not requested them.

I have been buying the bare essentials to get through each week. I’m forgoing nutrient rich foods in order to save money. My refrigerator use to be full of fresh fruits and veggies. Right now it has one apple and a few strawberries (those weren’t cheap either). I use to make these great salads to eat but I can’t afford to be spending $20 a week on fresh produce alone.

The woman I spoke to last year stated something similar. When she was on food stamps, her family ate a lot better. Now her grocery cart contains the who’s-who of sodium laden, fatty foods that can be purchased dirt cheap.

Where once she was buying fruit juices, fresh produce and lean meats, she is now purchasing packaged side dishes, processed meats and fruit flavored sugary drinks.

Cheap foods are not typically healthy foods.

If you have read anything from a dieting guru, you will know that they always say “shop the perimeter of the store.” The reason they say this is because that is where the healthiest foods are held. That is also where the fewest of foods with coupons available are held.

If you are shopping on a budget, you will find that the cheapest items are not healthy. Produce doesn’t go on sale too often. In fact produce is hit by economic changes faster than any other food. And when the price is lower, on apples for example, you can’t stock up too much because they will go bad. Coupons are rarely available for items like produce.

The woman I met and discussed this with told me a startling fact. Her daughter was of average weight when they were on food stamps but since she became ineligible for them (and there by forcing her to really watch what she spends on her food budget), her daughter had put on 25 pounds. I’ve seen this within myself as well. I’ve gained about 10 pounds in the past two months. I’m not buying the fresh produce I once purchased regularly. I’m opting for cheaper, lower quality meals in an effort to save money.

The Kool-aid effect

I’ve come to think of this harsh cycle of unhealthy eating as The Kool-aid Effect. The less money you make, the tighter your food budget becomes and with that, the lower quality of food is purchased. Where as once we may have been drinking 100% fresh juice, now it is kool-aid.

*Just a side-bar, I do not actually drink Kool-aid and will never serve it to my children. I’m thinking more of the lower income, less educated population who do not realize that drinks like Hi-C or CapriSun are actually full of sugar and not healthy. Statistically, low income goes hand in hand with less educated.

In my case, it isn’t the sugary drinks that we are consuming, it’s the overly processed side dishes that are replacing my freshly steamed broccoli or large salads.

The Kool-aid effect and health

What I see as a further issue is that this consumption of lower quality foods leads to health problems such as diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc. These are health problems that plague the poor.

For me, I can see clear solutions to these problems. It would seem to me that hard-working people like the woman I spoke with would benefit from further food assistance. She works hard, moved up in the company but once she did, she is actually worse off because she now has to pay for insurance and puts more money out for food. The health of her and her family is suffering. This will lead to higher medical costs.

Wouldn’t it be better to increase the food assistance allowance some?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers. This is just another issue I have encountered that is directly linked to my financial status. Now that I’ve realized what I have been unconsciously doing with my grocery shopping, I’m going to make a concerted effort to shop wiser. (I’m definitely giving up my horrendous addiction to Coca Cola!) I simply must make room in my budget for fresh produce, it is not an option for me.

For others who are in similar shoes, I’m not sure how they can make changes. If I had more than 2 kids for more than 1/2 of the month, I would be doubling my food budget just in fresh produce. That would be tough. I can certainly see how other families with more children pass on more expensive foods in order to feed everyone.


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11 Responses to The Kool-Aid Effect: The Relationship Between the Poor & Nutrition

  1. Belinda on December 29, 2011 at 8:47 am

    is it possible for u to start a small tub garden for vegies? there are some great pick n grow varities that produce good food and make grocery bills less of a hassle. potatos u can grow in a sack and just dig as u need them.
    thanks for sharing your experiences.. will pass on your link


    • Jessica The DebtPrincess on December 29, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Belinda, I think it’s possible in front of my apartment. I’m pretty sure my lease says I can’t but I have a neighbor with the tackiest decorations ever so why shouldn’t I be able to have a small container garden. It would be really cool if I could turn my laundry room into a growing room w/lights but that’s going to be far in the future. First I need to be able to walk into it (still unpacking from our move).

      Thanks for replying!


  2. Fay
    on December 29, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Great article, very enlightening. In Canada, there is no food stamp program. There is social assistance that you have to budget yourself and access to local food banks that depend on donations of cash or non-perishable items.


    • Jessica The DebtPrincess on December 29, 2011 at 9:18 am

      Thanks Fay. I’ve never used a food bank and only once thought I might. Our welfare system is very messed up. We are basically causing the poor to be unhealthy and then limiting their insurance benefits to the point where they can’t get proper care. I think it’s changed now but at one point birth control wasn’t covered. That just astounded me, why would we want to add to welfare costs when an unexpected pregnancy happens? Why not just cover birth control. But like I said, I think that’s changed.


  3. Miranda on December 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Great, thought-provoking piece. When we lived in New York, both poor grad students, we didn’t get food stamps, even though we qualified. We did use WIC, though, to ensure that our son had a healthy diet. But, yeah, my husband and I both gained more than 20 pounds while living there because we could only afford the cheapest foods — white bread, hot dogs, mac & cheese, dollar frozen meals. The only healthy things we could afford were apples (lots of apples in central NY) and lettuce. Once we moved back to where the cost of living was lower, and I started earning money, we began losing some of that weight, thanks to the healthier foods we could afford.

    I think, too, that you should also point out that she has to work a lot more. Eating healthy, home-cooked meals often requires a little more time and preparation. Steaming broccoli over the stove takes more time than heating up a pre-packaged meal in the microwave. Since I work from home, and am no longer studying in grad school, I have time to cook, and our meals are healthier. Indeed, those that work 50 to 60 hours a week, and still only just manage to scrape by a living, don’t have the time to fix a good meal. It’s faster and easier (and often cheaper) to grab something off the dollar menu, or get a $2 dollar prepackaged meal with a coupon.


    • Jessica The DebtPrincess on December 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Thank you for your great reply Miranda. I too buy apples a lot as well as bananas and grapes. It’s the greens that I miss the most. Fresh spinach for my salads, broccoli and other fabulous veggies for a salad.

      You are so right about her having less time to cook as well. This woman had back pain but her job is in retail so she’s literally on her feet all day. She truly worked as hard as she could to improve her family’s life but struggles more now. Something is seriously wrong when our working poor are doing worse than our unemployed welfare recipients. I just wish it was more important to our government. I wish the United States took better care of its people.


  4. Christa on December 29, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    When I was young, my mom was on food stamps, and we ate like royalty: fresh meats, fruits, veggies. Once she no longer qualified, we ate more processed foods. I definitely think there’s a link between having more money (or food stamps) and eating healthfully.


    • Jessica The DebtPrincess on December 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm

      It’s such a shame, isn’t it Christa? I know there has to be a cut-off point somewhere and at some point you can’t qualify for food stamps but I think it’s too low right now.


  5. Jana @ Daily Money Shot
    on December 30, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I have no personal experience with food stamps. The only experience I have is as a social worker, working with client who receive them. I have seen much of what you’ve describe here and I’m glad that you shared your firsthand experience. However, I did go through a time where I made too much money to qualify for any assistance but my husband and I could barely afford to eat. The choices we made then are definitely different than the choices we make now.

    When you’re a parent and you’re struggling to feed your kids, you have to balance wanting them to have calories and feel satisfied and/or full with price. Macaroni and cheese from a box may not be as healthy as a package of chicken but it’s going to make the kids feel full. And no one wants their kids to feel hungry.
    Jana @ Daily Money Shot recently posted..Daily Money Shot gives back in 2012


    • Jessica The DebtPrincess on December 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm

      Even more of an issue for me Jana is that I’m noticing my youngest is gaining weight at a rather fast rate. He’s very tall for an almost 6 year old but he’s over 80lbs. His father is very over weight and doesn’t know the first thing about nutrition. Feeding him in a healthy way falls completely on me. I just can’t feed him this processed stuff because he’s getting it every other week with his father. I’m going to have to be VERY smart about budgeting my grocery spending. I do have the time to make food though since I’m working at home. I really need to work on this one.


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