Editorials, Opinion

Food deserts, obesity & SNAP: The missing link

There’s something we’d like to add to Hoppy Kercheval’s below commentary, “West Virginia’s food conundrum,” so we recommend reading that first.

Now that you’ve read Hoppy’s piece, here’s what we’d like to add: A food desert isn’t necessarily a lack of food. Food deserts, according to the Food Empowerment Project, are “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.”

These are primarily communities in which the closest, or only, store is a convenience store or a dollar store. Such places might carry a couple necessities like milk, bread and eggs, but they primarily sell chips, cookies, candy and other boxed non-perishables, as well as high-sugar drinks.

When you take that into consideration, it’s no conundrum that West Virginia can have both an obesity and food desert problem. And it also helps explain why a large portion of SNAP benefits get used for unhealthy food.

With food stamps being spent on “junk” food, the real issue is the seeming mutual exclusivity of “affordable” and “healthy.” The sad reality is that junk foods and drinks — highly processed and full of sugar — cost less than fresh, healthy alternatives.

According to a fact sheet put together by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 18% of West Virginians received SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2022, totaling almost 311,000 people. That same year, the average benefit came out to approximately $5.53 per day per household member. When your budget is so limited, you have to start calculating calories for cost, and you can’t be as picky about whether those are good calories or bad calories. Less healthy food is cheaper, so it makes the money go further.

Just to give you an idea, here are some price comparisons. A pound of fresh broccoli ($2.69) or green beans ($1.99) is more expensive than canned ($1.59-$1.69) or frozen (as little as $2.50) veggies at Kroger. Whole grain white bread is $2 more than classic white bread. Fresh meat goes anywhere from $4.49 per pound (ground chicken) to as much as $9.49 per pound (top round steak). But a package of bologna is $2.99 — as are pre-packaged deli meats — and four pounds of chicken nuggets can cost as little as $9.99 (roughly $2.50 per pound). An eight-pack of hot dogs is $5.49-$6.99. A 12-ounce box of unsweetened cornflakes is $5.99. Microwave oatmeal is $3.69 for eight servings. But a 36-ounce bag of sugary cereal is less than $3.99 and a box of Pop Tarts (eight servings) is $2.99.

Want to put together a fresh salad? You’ll need lettuce ($2.99) and/or spinach ($5.99), plus carrots ($2.49), shredded cheese ($2.49), a couple cucumbers ($1.58) and a couple hothouse tomatoes ($2.19). That salad costs $11.74 to $14.74. For that same $12-$15, you could get up to 13 cans of soup; seven six-packs of ramen noodles; four boxes of Hot Pockets; two 50-count pizza rolls; 12 boxes of  mac-and-cheese; or 10 boxes of Little Debbie snacks.  

A $9.99 family-sized cheesy chicken broccoli pasta would cost a minimum $10.62 to make yourself, plus the time to put it together.

Convenience is another often overlooked factor. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 89% of West Virginians receiving SNAP benefits in 2020 were “working poor” (people who work but are still below the poverty line). Pre-packaged and pre-made meals take significantly less time and effort to prepare.

Limiting SNAP benefits to “healthy” food only won’t solve the obesity problem, because the problem isn’t that West Virginians make poor choices at the grocery store. The real problems are affordability and access, and those two things don’t just impact food stamp recipients. They affect us all.