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Food Stamps, Low-Income People, Junk Foods, and Shopping Carts

Updated on January 25, 2015
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

What's With All That Unhealthy Food In The Shopping Carts of Low income People?

Whether it's online or on talk radio, whenever there are discussions about things like policies, low-income families, or finances; it usually doesn't take too long before someone raises the matter of the kind of groceries that are purchased by low-income parents for their families. It's pretty much always the same kind of comments/questions that are raised. In fact, I've listened to talk radio and been online for enough years now that, to me, makes all those comments and questions about "what poor people eat" or "what poor people have in their shopping carts" not only a display of self-righteous ignorance but, quite simply, yet more of the same old "blah-blah" .

Much of the time those comments/questions come when tax dollars come into the discussion. Sometimes, however, comments about "what poor people eat" come when the discussion is about healthy eating. There are times, too, however, when it seems kind of obvious that at least some of the people who make those comments (and in a tone that fairly clearly shows contempt) can be people whose own income isn't so far above "low-income" that they resent the fact that others who aren't really so different from them get free food on the Food Stamps program. They struggle to pay their bills and buy food for their own families, and "nobody gives them anything free".

Then, too, there are people whose own income isn't anywhere near "low-income" but who nonetheless have been taxed down from the "very comfortable for the most part" that their hard-earned income would normally afford if they weren't taxed down to "not-low-income, but-nowhere-near-comfortable-either".

"Legitimate" resentments aside, there are always people who don't shop for a family, may not have their own family yet, and/or just don't do the grocery shopping at all; who view the "poor-people-eat" issue "in theory" only, or "on paper" only. And, let's not forget that a little too much arrogance and/or ego can be enough to make people of all categories enjoy the opportunity/excuse to feel a little superior (in intelligence and/or character) to someone else. "Poor people", of couse, make a great target for a lot of those people; and with a middle class that's not all that safely grounded in the middle, the numbers of people who don't have a lot of other people to whom to feel superior are, I'm guessing, a lot larger than they once were (not to mention that "low-middle" people, for one reason or another, can, themselves get assistance with food.

In any case, in those all too common discussions about "what poor people eat" there's usually someone who makes a statement about "looking in the grocery carts of some of these people and seeing little healthy food and a lot of processed and otherwise junky food". Whenever I hear someone say that my first thought is always why, on Earth, some of these people are even paying attention to what someone else buys! In about forty years of buying my own groceries, buying groceries for my own family, and sometimes buying groceries for my late mother and anyone else she bought groceries for; I've never paid attention to who is buying what, or what's in someone else's carriage - at all Sure, I notice when someone has a problem with their ATM or credit card going through (and the line I'm in gets held up because of it). Sure, I notice if the person in front of me has, for example, nothing in his carriage but fifty cases of spring water, or something like a giant special-occasion cake that requires special handling. Honestly, though, I've always just been too involved with whatever I'm buying to pay attention to who else is buying what else.

Going way back, I was either single and working and not eye-balling the carriage of strangers. Then I was married, shopping for a family of five (with three of that five in or on my shopping cart and one one of that five being me).

Who, exactly, are these busy-bodies who are "seeing what's in the shopping cart of 'these low-income people" and making their determination of what "these people" should/shouldn't be buying?

I know that where I shop is not known for being a low-income area. I see a difference in the "overall culture" of even the "plain,old/nothing-special" store where I shop versus the "overall culture" of stores that are in "more heavily low-income" areas. I know, too, that one shops in a store that is "more heavily" low-income the chances of running into other customers who kind of make "a big public deal" out of what they're buying can be higher. So, maybe the chance to overhear the personal business of other customers is higher is some areas than others.

Maybe I'm being unfair to those people who talk about what they see in other people's shopping carts. Maybe those people are shopping where there are, in fact, a lot of low-income people. Then again, however, I wonder how many times, exactly, any of those "commenters" have actually seen "one of these poor people" with a carriage full of "wrong" food. In fact, I've even wondered if at least some of these comments about seeing what "these people" have in their carts are a matter of someone's knowing or believing something about what low-income people buy, but then backing it up with a made-up statement about "having seen what's in their carriage".

There's a good chance that the points and questions I've raised would result in any number of people replying with statements like, "I know it's not ALL of them, but there's a whole lot of this that goes on. Without turning this particular page into a whole, in-depth, analysis of what does and doesn't go on among low-income people (particularly those who receive assistance with food), here are some points that I think should be factored into some of those discussions about "what poor people" or "low-income people" having in their shopping carts at the grocery store.

Low-income people are individuals. They aren't one, big, giant, club of people who all think alike, do the same the sames, have the same individual/family needs.

Not all people who are eligible for food stamps are eligible for the same reason.

There is probably no real need to point out that people who are eligible for food stamps often have very different lifestyles and needs. Some have children. Some don't. Some aren't much more than children, themselves. Some have disabilities (whether visible or not). Some have disabilities and children. Not all get he same benefits, and not all people with children and with eligibility for food stamps have full-time custody of those children. It goes on and one. You get the idea.

Not all people who would be eligible for food stamps are willing to take advantage of that eligibility.

When I left my marriage, and eventually found myself with a low income I was told that I was at least eligible for food stamps (even though I wasn't eligible for any other kind of assistance at the time). Since I wasn't buyng groceries for my whole family and only needed to buy food for when I had my children with me, I was more than able to afford food and didn't need a family's worth/home's worth of things like laundry detergent, paper products, cleaning products, etc.

There was one point where my income either completely stopped or was drastically reduced, and I did need to buy food for when my children were with me (and myself). I looked into the food stamps program at that time, and when I found out that because I was staying in a family home (not the marital home) with a couple of other family members, if I applied for food stamps I'd have to ask those family members to share their own incomes on the application. Since I didn't want to involve people who shouldn't have to be bothered with the "baloney" of a government program, I wasn't about to break down the barrier between my personal business and privacy and theirs.

Just Some Kind-of-Random Points Before Addressing The Real Points About What's In The Shopping Carts Of "Low-Income People"

One point here, for anyone thinking about tax dollars being wasted on things purchased with food stamps, is that there are people who elect not to take advantage of their own eligibility for food stamps. How many of such people there are I don' t/can't know, of course; and one thought may be, "Well, great. That means that many fewer tax dollars being used." One may also consider, however, that if someone who does buy groceries with food stamps elects to purchase an item that is more than the absolutely, most dirt-cheap, version of that food item; maybe at least some "waste" of tax dollars kind of evens out a little.

Before getting to those real points, one question that shouldn't be overlooked is whether, in fact, those people who have been presumed to be low-income (or even those who have said or done things that make it clear they, in fact, are low-income) are actually paying for whatever is in their cart with food stamps. Sure, some of those who stand in line near apparently guilty parties will actually witness exactly how that other person is paying for what part of what's in his cart. One may consider, however, that unless one has actually witnessed the actual transaction(s) and knows for a fact that food stamps have been used to pay for everything in the cart, there's always the possibility that someone either isn't using food stamps to pay for everything in the cart. Although my mother was never on food stamps, when I shopped for her, and did her banking, the year before she passed away, I'd at times use one or another card that was hers. There were prescriptions purchased on her particular insurance, for example. Someone standing near me at the drug store (and paying attention) could have noticed that I was using one kind of insurance or asking a question about one medication or another. If they jumped to a conclusion about what insurance they thought I had, or what medication they thought I must be taking, they'd have been wrong.

To the best of my understanding, there are circumstances under which one person on the food stamps program can purchase groceries for another. Again, going only by all those times in my own life when I've picked up groceries or medications for someone else, it wouldn't be particularly unusual for me to have some errands of my own to run (including buying one thing or another) and errands of one or more other people. The person who only ever shops for his own little self may have no clue about how complicated things can be for anyone who shops for at least one other person, and particularly if that person also shops for himself and/or his own family at the same time. As they say, "just sayin'". Also, only from my own shopping practices... If someone were to pay attention to what's in my cart on any trip to the grocery store, he might notice that my cart is full of mostly fruit, with only, maybe, some cream for coffee and one or another kind of bread. On another shopping errand, someone paying attention my see almost all paper products or cleaning products, or else a couple of bags of holiday candy that I pick up early because it's on sale. On yet another trip, someone paying attention may notice a high percentage of, say, frozen entrees or frozen, "fake meats" (because I don't like most of what's usually offered among these things, so if I see a good stock of the limited ones that I like I may stock up my freezer). I always keep at home a supply of frozen vegetables and a few cans of vegetables, as well as a few canned soups. If I already have plenty of either of those at home, it's not likely I'll have more than one (if any) on some shopping trips. Some things keep longer than others at home. Then again, if I'm buying a few groceries for myself and then some groceries to, say, bring to a get-together at someone else's house the most noticeable thing I have could be a bunch of cheese, boxes of crackers, and some sweets that weren't even headed for my house. OR, there may be some items I don't buy for myself but think are worth spending on for a get-together.

In other words, nobody had better think that by looking into my shopping cart and judging the percentage of "good" food versus "bad" food (or "cheapest food" versus "most expensive" food) he'll really have a clue as to what I eat, what I keep on hand for any family or guests who may come by, or even whether I waste x number of dollars a month on lettuce that goes brown because I shop for myself most of the time and just can't always eat a whole head of lettuce fast enough not to have to have to throw at least some (occasionally all) of it away before replacing it. Similarly, with a driveway that tends to get icy, and my own fear of re-injuring a leg that's just now getting back to normal; there's a good chance someone may notice that I've stocked up on light cream for coffee because I don't plan to go out for several days.

Now To The Real Points

Whether one lives alone or provides food for a family (or something in-between), living on a low income is, in itself, stressful. I'll use some simple examples, the single individual who lives alone (maybe in an apartment paid for with assistance) may have to struggle with day-to-day life in any number of ways. The individual who has to provided some sense of normalcy to children faces yet different and more complicated types of stress.

Regardless of living situation or why someone is elibible for food stamps in the first place, the person providing for, and taking care of, the needs of children and/or other family members (maybe an elderly parent) not only has his own mix of sources of stress/worry, but can have demands on his physical/mental energy that make keeping going difficult. For a lot of people, not keeping going just isn't an option.

It's well established that stress causes people to need high calorie/high-fat foods. Even if a person is very skilled at managing a lot of his own mental stress, the person who has to keep going and who lives under a lot of long-term stress can easily discover that keeping going is only going to happen if he eats something other than lettuce, or even broccoli.

Too much stress for too long can cause people to crave, or at least need, more salt or sugar. Stress hormones can do all kinds of things that throw off a person's system and make that person feel like he needs more of those "bad" foods (that he may not even really like very much) in order to keep going.

So, if you consider a married couple with a couple of young children, if, for example, the father became unemployed and had to take a lower paying job, and the mother is already working part-time; imagine them also losing their home and dealing with that, maybe moving to an area that isn't great or else (even if only temporarily) moving into the home of relatives.

Maybe throw in an elderly and ailing parent to worry about, or else consider more than just two children. After all, these people were comfortable before the guy lost his job and had to take "any job" for now. Maybe throw in that the beloved family pet got sick and paying for its care became impossible. Throw in any number of losses and worries and heartbreaks these people may be dealing with, and then throw in that they know they have to watch their children deal with their own version of the same stuff.

Now throw in that these people moved in with, maybe, a parent or sibling who isn't exactly 'Diamond Jim" himself. They don't want to, or can't, borrow from the relative. Maybe the relative have his own children living with him too. Throw in that, maybe, on one shopping trip this couple needs detergent, deodorant, and a few other non-food items; so the relative gives them what he would have spent on food toward those non-food items they need, and then asks them to pick up for him some cookies for his kids, a bag of chips to keep for Friday night pizza, and x number of high-priced gluten-free or sugar-free items for him.

Now consider that because this couple is sharing the kitchen with someone else, or simply because they're tired from everything, it's just easier to buy something frozen or pre-packaged.

Now imagine that the six-year-old only eats chicken nuggets or pizza (although he'lll eat frozen pizza and doesn't always need "real" pizza), each child is allowed the treat of a box of cookies or crackers for being good on the shopping trip, Mom is craving Jalopeno chips because of the time of the month, or else she's so exhausted and stressed not only with the stuff related to their problems but because she's taking care of little kids; she actually doesn't have much appetite at all and can't even imagine eating anything. So, she tries to think what she can eat in view of the fact that just the thought of food makes her feel like gagging (anorexia, absence of appetite, isn't just for the thin-obsessed or elderly people whose medications affect their ability to eat). Mom thinks she may be able to eat last get some mashed potato down. The easiest way to come by mashed potato is, for her, a box of instant flakes.

As it happens in this hypothetical situation, these people bought a bunch of fruiit last weekend when they were out. They're relying on frozen vegetables while they have the kitchen challenge because they know it's temporary, or because they know their child gets x number of good meals at a grandparent's house or at school. As it happens, maybe there's a party at one of the children's schools and all they can send in for the party are a couple of boxes of Little Debbie cakes (which are stilll cheaper than bakery cakes. As it happens, maybe these people have been living on little salads and macaroni and cheese a good part of the time; and maybe Mom decides that at least once in a while she'll buy Dad that steak that doesn't get to have very often at all these days. Maybe the eight-year-old was once served Spaghettios at a friend's house, discovered she really loves them, and is now (in spite of Mom's preference to serve other types of foods) is allowed to have Spaghettios every Saturday for lunch. After all, she's still getting over losing that beloved pet; and the furniture from her bedroom, along with a lot of her toys, are in storage.

Maybe any number of things. Maybe the price of losing a job, taking a low-paying job because "it's better than nothing", getting a divorce, or even just being a young person who got lost when parents, the school system, and or the probate court let you fall between cracks (or else threw you to the wolves and said, "Good luck, kid.") is having strangers eyeball your shopping and decide whether your nine-year-old should be eating those Spaghettios, or whether your hard-working husband should be eating that steak every few weeks when they, or their spouse, either aren't eating macaroni and cheese quite as often as you; or else when they spend their money on gas for two cars while you're now down to one.

Maybe the price of being low-income is just being an easy target for someone who likes to come across as being superior in discussions about taxes and policies. Maybe it's having people who are one paycheck or one child away from being on food stamps themselves get to pretend, or believe, they're just a little bit better than you.

Then, too, maybe the price of using food stamps to buy one's groceries is being judged by people who may actually be less educated, less-hard-working, less knowledgeable about how to keep things as normal as possible for a family, or else just clueless because they're young or otherwise inexperienced.

Back when I was told that I was eligible for food stamps (which I didn't want or need) and for "welfare insurance" (which I didn't need because I was on my ex-husband's health-insurance plan); my kids were young enough, and had been through enough, that if applying for food stamps hadn't involved asking other adult family members to share their personal business on government forms I might have done differently; because, although this didn't happen to be necessary, I was not about to not give out Trick or Treat candy or not buy "bad" foods for birthday get-togethers (or even not buy the weekly box of Cosmic brownies that I'd buy for when my kids came to visit).

I wouldn't have thought twice about throwing in a Halloween's-worth of candy or a birthday party's-worth of junk food or three easy-to-carry bags of snack foods for a school party. In fact, if those Cosmic brownies that I bought for weekly visits were on sale, I wouldn't have thought twice about buying four boxes of them in one trip. It's been awhile since I bought Cosmic brownies, so I forget how many are in a box; but it's something like eight. I have three kids. Do the math on how many Cosmic brownies any of them were eating each week (and keep in mind that one part of that treat was that they'd take left-overs back with them)

While I never did follow through with that application for food stamps, I can tell you this. When I think of my own kids and how it was that after a life-time of never having to even consider any kind of assistance, their mother found herself eligible for food stamps back then; and as a mother, I ask myself whether it would have been anyone's business if I had gotten food stamps and then tossed a few boxes of Cosmic brownies into my shopping cart every few weeks. You can probably guess what my answer to myself is.

As I said, in those forty or so years of buying groceries for myself and my family I have never looked in anyone else's cart - ever (oh, except for a time or two when I had a question about whether a shopping cart was my own or someone else's, in which case I needed to identify what was in it).

Personally, I cannot imagine having the kind of mind (or the kind of life) that involves paying any attention whatsoever to what anyone else has in their cart or how, exactly, the person in front of me in line is paying for their groceries.

There are, of course, those who believe that since the Food Stamps program is a government program that means that whatever "those" low-income people eat and buy is everyone's business. I don't know...

I just think it's up to the people running those programs to sort out how to prevent and detect fraud and/or waste. Other than that, everyone else ought to keep their eyes on their own shopping cart and be bloody thankful they don't qualify for, or have the luxury of not applying for, food stamps.


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    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      I agree with Jean below. It is much less expensive to live on processed food. People do not necessarily want to, but it is all they can afford. I remember I went on a "raw" diet for a while. I had to quit because eating just fruits and vegetables was way too expensive. Nice job on this article. :)

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 

      4 years ago from New Jersey

      Another problem is that healthy, organic foods and meats are way more expensive than junk food. So low income people buy what they can afford, and in the U.S. the income gap is so wide, the wealthier people don't understand unhealthy foods are just cheaper.

    • peachpurple profile image


      4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      people do judge others, never getting to know the behind reasons

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 

      4 years ago from New Zealand

      Stress can make us hungry and want to eat more. The poor become poorer as what you imply. I agree with that. Thanks for this hub. I am enlightened in many insights you wrote.

    • Hendrika profile image


      4 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      I found this Hub very interesting because our circumstances in South Africa are completely different. We so not get food stamps and either you qualify for a Government pension. We qualify. We also cook meals for my son and freeze them for him which he pays us for. In the process we get to eat some of that food as well. So our trolley will have expensive meat and veggies to cook his meals with.

      Further, we would deliberately cut on our food for a while to be able to buy a bottle of wine for a special occasion, so you will see that in our trolley as well.

      So we cannot be accused of wasting Tax money with our pensions and our trolley does not show the whole of our shopping and what we eat. We cannot even eat macaroni and cheese as the cheese is too expensive. We eat pasta with only a little butter stirred through it, so you will see the butter in our trolley, but not realize that it is actually a way of saving money for us.

      So yes, a persons shopping cart really does not give an accurate picture of what is really going on in a low-income family's hous.

    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      timorous, thank you for the contribution here. I did read it but am not really able to take time to reply with more than just this acknowledgement. I'll be back.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      People do tend to judge quickly. Before anyone judges they need all of the information. I too have been guilty of making a quick judgment.

    • timorous profile image

      Tim Nichol 

      4 years ago from Me to You

      Hi Lisa; You're right about how quick many people are to judge others. A lot of us do it unconsciously, like it's a bad habit (which it is). Sometimes it's just an observation, without judging it to be 'poor people eating junk food'.

      Having been on social assistance for a few years, I know what it's like. However, in the last couple of years, I've been studying mind awareness, and realized the only thing keeping me from 'getting ahead', was my own self-limiting beliefs. So I've changed the way I look at things, and sure enough, the things I was looking at changed.

      I'm now running my own business, selling my own brand of microphone cables on Amazon (so far). I'm still getting out of debt, and not quite earning a full-time income from it, but it's not that far away. I'm enjoying the journey, and I'm happy.

      I also realized that money is just a commodity to get things done with. It's not a lifeline. Once you realize this, you don't worry about not having enough, even if you don't actually have enough at that moment. The opportunities to make some money, just seem to show up. And because you have the right mindset, you see them and take advantage of them. It's not luck, it's how powerful the mind really is. I really can't explain it.

      We all came into this world with the same possibilities. It's only these limiting beliefs that others instill into our minds (parents, teachers, friends, the media), however well-meaning, that keeps us from achieving what we're capable of. Everybody's good at something.

      Lots of 'poor people' have seen the wisdom of changing the way they look at things, such as Oprah Winfrey. Why does anyone think they can't achieve what they desire? It's all about your mindset. There's nothing stopping anyone from being successful, happy, or banishing stress, worry, regret, resentfulness from their lives. It can be done.. I'm quite serious.

      These 'poor' people need the means to see their situation in a different light, not an endless cycle of handouts.

      The book that made the biggest difference for me, was 'Creating A Bug-Free Mind' by Andy Shaw. It's quite revolutionary, and really works in turning your mind around, whereas all the other self-improvement books provide nothing but a temporary feel-good story.

      You can only buy this book (first of a pair of books) from his website: A word of warning have to be prepared to let go of your ego, and take back control of your own mind.


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