Goodbye to the Small But Crucial Dignity of Picking Out Your Own Groceries

A woman and her daughter go shopping with their EBT coupons. Image via Getty.
A woman and her daughter go shopping with their EBT coupons. Image via Getty.

Trump’s budget proposal is here. It’s ill-advised and full of ways to punish the poor in all the big ways, but also in a way some may consider small: it suggests cutting $17 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, instead proposing a program that mandates a chunk of allotted food come in the form of pre-selected groceries to qualifying households.

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney compared this idea to the offerings of the company Blue Apron, which sends boxes full of pre-apportioned ingredients and recipes for things like roast chicken and lamb burgers to the homes of those who sign up for it. (It has a lot of competitors, one of which—full disclosure, I suppose?—I personally subscribe to.) SNAP, which is sometimes called the food stamp program, is a flawed one, but the main thing it has going for it is that you can use it to pick out your own groceries.


Critics have pointed out that this “Blue Apron”-y alternative isn’t a particularly cost-effective solution to the problem of food insecurity in America. In fact, this proposal has a lot of problems with it, logistical and otherwise: How are you supposed to pick up your box if you were evicted last night? Will there be a delivery window? What if you work three jobs and can’t be home for the delivery window? What if there’s a storm? What if there’s a raccoon infestation and your landlord hasn’t dealt with it? What if your box doesn’t show up? What if someone steals it? What if you have dietary restrictions? Are you gonna have to get a doctor’s note to prove you’re allergic to nuts? What if you don’t have healthcare or regular access to a doctor? What if you don’t like the food that comes in the box? What if you don’t want to broadcast to your neighbors that you’re having trouble paying for food?

Mick Mulvaney will tell us that they’re working on all these issues. Except those last two, which are the entire point.

You’re supposed to be embarrassed by poverty, and it’s not supposed to taste good. Poverty’s pain is not enough, and these boxes are here to remind you of that. (Mulvaney will also tell us that the whole point here is to help people—don’t believe him. The plan is to save money by cutting an additional $213 billion in SNAP spending over the next decade.)


Walking into the grocery store or bodega and deciding what you’d like to eat or cook is such a basic part of adult life that to strip it amounts to the removal of a small but crucial dignity. To eat an old favorite, to try a new food, to make healthier or less healthy choices than the box permits, are things one should be able to do. The box and the people who came up with this idea do not agree with me. This change says to poor people: “You cannot be trusted even to choose what to eat,” which is a sentiment that would not exist without the underlying belief that to become poor, one must have fucked up somewhere along the way. It is not inadequate education, systemic racism, effective segregation, divorce, medical debt, student debt, or a lack of support from your government that made you poor. If you were responsible, you wouldn’t be poor, so the thinking goes. The mother who hands her kid a Pepsi she bought with her EBT card just isn’t responsible for the nutritional needs of her kid. Or the one who buys chips instead of carrots. She cannot be trusted.

This is, by the way, a logical breakdown. A central operating principle behind how American welfare functions is that you’re expected to work reasonably hard to qualify for help, or show the government that there’s a good reason why you can’t work. People like to call this “personal responsibility,” and the expectation here is that a basic part of adult life is possessing it. And yet, to have your groceries pre-selected and sent to your home assumes that you aren’t responsible; that you might spend that money on junk food—a category of food which, thanks for corn subsidies and zero limits on marketing to kids, the entire nation is addicted to.


We should be used to this. Women and other marginalized genders especially. The logic that says you cannot make the decision to have an abortion without a transvaginal ultrasound, after all, is the same logic that says you cannot feed yourself unless it comes out of this box. The same worldview generated both of these methods of controlling the bodily autonomy of the marginalized under the guise of being helpful, and it basically comes down to: we don’t trust you to make a sound decision without intervention. The ultrasound supposedly gives a pregnant woman the information she needs to decide if she wants to continue being pregnant; the box gives her the canned goods she needs to eat, if not joyfully, then at least enough to survive.


And yes, sometimes this is information and assistance we want or need. Surely there will be some people who say “Hey, actually, I like this new program! I hate shopping. I feel oppressed by it and I don’t have time for it, since, by the way, I work all the time.” (After all, this was my rationale for signing up for the Blue Apron competitor.) If this program saves time and effort for the people who need to conserve those most, then I rejoice. But this will hurt some people, especially women, because it is still mostly women who are standing, night after night in front of empty fridges—in the lucky event that we have a fridge at all.

At its heart though, this “Blue Apron” idea exposes Republican fears that a person who doesn’t have much money might enjoy the simple pleasure of choosing something for herself, of making an intimate decision without surveillance, that a poor person might enjoy anything at all.


It’s also particularly cruel to take away the freedom of food choice from women because women and other marginalized genders are a group that is exposed, over our lifetimes, to such a wealth of complicated messaging about food that I could not possibly account for all of it here. Food is both a balm and a threat: it will make us obese, and sick. It’s full of “toxins.” (Just because the pursuit of “purity” in our food is the watchword of wealthy white women doesn’t mean poor women and women of color haven’t heard this, and been told to fear “toxins,” too.) If we eat too little, we’re sick. If we eat too much, we’re sick. Women are disproportionally affected by disordered eating and I can’t imagine why. We are told in ways big and small that what we eat is the key to happiness, success, and wealth.

Indeed, there are many times when I think that we demand too much of food, sometimes to a laughable degree. When I hear Goop and her friends tell rich, already generally healthy women (most of whom are white) that beets will make us see our problems as “challenges,” and apple cider vinegar will cure my acne, I roll my eyes, but I also have—I admit—tried it. More often than not, the medicalization of food is bogus, junk science profiting off our fears. But it’s also a way of feeling like we deserve care, especially when what we eat, we are told, can heal what medicine can’t. Thank god, thinks the woman who doesn’t have access to a doctor, or who, for good reason distrusts medical establishment, at least there is something for me.


The choice to buy apple cider vinegar is no smarter than buying a Pepsi when what you really need is a handful of almonds, but we don’t always choose what’s most likely to deliver good results, when it comes to eating—sometimes we just like what we like. Little kids love to ask each other “what’s your favorite food?” The kid who answers “pizza” sees herself as, in some small way, as different from the kid who answers “ice cream.” We don’t lose this as adults. To eat your favorite food when you’re hungry is to say at least there is something for me. Perhaps your favorite food is included in the USDA’s list of what is likely to come in the boxes: “shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned meat, fruits and vegetables.” I’m guessing that it’s not, because most people’s favorite food is not “grains.”


This list doesn’t shock me because it includes grains, though—it shocks me because it amounts to the surveillance of taste. It’s a peremptory stay on small pleasures. It says “no, you cannot even have that.” It’s a demand for perfection and a punishment at the same time.

This country demands perfection from the people who have the biggest trouble delivering it. Have sex without birth control because you can’t get a ride to Planned Parenthood? Get pregnant? Shouldn’t have had sex! Shouldn’t have done this thing that we all do from time to time to feel good. Want to wear makeup in prison? Too bad, you are poor and you committed a crime—that’s how you ended up here! You cannot do this thing that we all do from time to time to feel good. Handing your daughter a Pepsi when the going gets rough won’t fix much, and isn’t “good” for her, but we all do this from time to time to feel good. We know it will fuck with her blood sugar, but enough. One shouldn’t have to be perfect to have access to a grocery store.


Last week I read an analysis in the Los Angeles Times by Priya Fielding-Singh, a food researcher who has spent years studying why people buy and eat the foods that they do, and I can’t stop thinking about it. She interviewed 73 families in California and found that there’s a simple and gutting reason why poor parents are more likely to say “yes” when their kids beg them for unhealthy food than wealthy parents are. According to Fielding-Singh, there is the profound inequity of food deserts operating here, but there’s also something much more fundamental to how we live and love in this wicked world: junk food is “the only indulgence they can afford.”


She wisely remarked that wealthy parents have plenty of opportunities to say “yes” to their kids. Poor parents may only have that ability in the grocery store, where the decisions about our lives and how we live them are small enough that they can fit in our baskets.

Kelly Stout is Jezebel's features editor.

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Is it though, at it’s center? As a legal aid attorney who works with welfare recipients, I see two problems with SNAP.

The first is that the amount given each month is not enough money for a month for a family. The second is the bureaucratic system setup to prevent “welfare fraud”, a rare event but the fear of which makes every food stamp recipient wade through stupid redundant paperwork twice a year or maybe more if they change jobs or have varying income, and which punishes them for missing a phone call or not being able to get a landlord to confirm where they live.

Neither of these flaws in inherent to SNAP. Both of them are a direct result of lack of trust in and support for the SNAP program. There is a school of throught that somehow came to prevail that there is something distasteful about providing help to people, that the very fact that SNAP exists is a flaw. But SNAP itself is an amazing program and an amazing concept. It gives money Directly to people to people so they can feed themselves and their families. It puts money back into local economies because recipients shop at local grocery stores and farmers markets. It alleviates many aspects of poverty because people with SNAP have more money to spend on rent or clothing. It can, with enough funding and humane administration, eliminate hunger in the US. We know that because it very nearly did when it was first introduced.

Let’s not concede dumb points to assholes who want to end welfare. Let’s definitely not make their points for them. Make them prove what’s wrong with feeding families. Make them name the flaws and then make them prove their dumb reform ideas didn’t cause them.