Concerning Public Assistance, Shame, and Healthy Eating

by Joshua Michtom

From a website I was surprised to find myself perusing, since it’s called “Christ and Pop Culture” (neither of which interests me greatly), here is an interesting first-person account of trying to use WIC vouchers at Whole Foods (spoiler: you can’t):

My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.

The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.

The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program.

There’s a lot to unpack and discuss there, from the weighty question of how comfortable we feel revealing to the world that we use or need government assistance (see, e.g., the Roots’ apt simile, “I make n****s embarrassed like they’re spending food stamps”), to the matter of whether sustainable organic farming will ever triumph in the market while it remains out of reach for so many people (I wonder if Whole Foods accepts WIC at their much-ballyhooed Detroit location).

What do you think, dear readers? Have you ever felt embarrassed to buy food with WIC vouchers or food stamps (or their current equivalent, the EBT card)? This is one where I think context matters — I do a lot of my shopping at a discount grocery store in a poor neighborhood, where it seems as though most customers use food stamps, so the stigma, if any, is probably mild. I assume that’s not so at the Whole Foods in a nearby, affluent suburb. And what about buying organic on a budget? Without wading into the odious line of thinking that says that poor people should forego iPhones (please!), where does organic food figure on your scale of expenses to be sacrificed in the name of frugality?