Food Stamp Challenge, Day 3: On Grocery Stores, Genetically Engineered Food and Assets



Good morning, all! Welcome to Day 3 of our food stamp challenge. Today I’m going to talk about how I kind of messed up my meal planning, and how PW arts and culture editor Sheena Lester is already off to a good start in terms of using her $35 (the maximum weekly amount available to food stamp recipients) wisely.

There are a ton of grocery stores in Philadelphia—OK, not a “ton,” but 1,437, according to the Yellow Pages, which includes corner stores, 7-Elevens, Wawas, and others. And while the city’s Get Healthy Philly! initiative, combined with Michelle Obama’s badassery, has brought us more grocery stores and fresh produce in our corner markets in recent years, a 2008 study found that Philadelphia has the fewest number of grocery stores per capita among big cities. Which is why if you’re receiving food stamps, the ability to get around is key.

Enter Sheena. She did her research. Before buying her groceries, she talked to a friend who receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). And after fasting through work on Tuesday, she got that friend to take her to a series of stores, including Sav-A-Lot and Bottom Dollar, for her shopping. With the same amount of cash I had for the week’s challenge ($35), she was able to purchase milk, eggs, wheat bread, brown rice, dried black beans, buillon cubes, Colby Jack cheese, lettuce, spinach, cilantro, four yogurts, bananas, oranges, chicken thighs, turkey bacon and Smart Balance spread. “This morning, I cracked open the no-brand Rice Krispies,” says Lester. “And for lunch, I brought a salad of romaine, turkey bacon, shredded cheese and a little cilantro. My black beans are soaking as we speak for cooking when I get home … If I’d have shopped at Shop Rite, the closest major grocery chain, it’s doubtful I’d have fared as well.”

Sheena will no doubt come out of this week with likely with more energy than I and, quite possibly, no distaste for the foods she eats on a regular basis. Here’s the thing though: Cheap food is almost never good for you. Which is part of the reason why there’s the social junk food stigma surrounding SNAP benefits. It’s also part of the reason why the city began partially subsidizing fresh fruit and vegetables in corner stores around the city, which has been touted as a success by many. But if it’s cheap, it’s probably been mass-produced using genetic engineering to better withstand pesticides and yield larger harvests.

“Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer,” notes the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., on genetically engineered foods. “As for environmental impacts, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture will lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of all nongenetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.”

There’s no long-term study that actually shows genetically engineered food is safe for human consumption—even though it’s in almost everything we eat, especially if we don’t have the means to buy organic. Up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, according to the CFS. So are 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton (the seeds of which are used in food oils) and 95 percent of sugar beets, which is often contained in foods that advertise “sugar,” but not “pure cane sugar.”

Taking a look at the food I was able to buy with my $35 stipend, the “whole grain” bread that’s a “good source of calcium” with “no artificial colors or flavors” contains several of the usual suspects: high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, soy lecithin, and whole grain yellow corn flour. The cheap America’s Choice peanut butter I purchased on Monday contains both cottonseed and soybeans. The pita has high fructose corn syrup and something called calcium propionate in it. As for the pasta I bought, the ingredients read like a list of items Walter White would send Jesse Pinkman to scrounge up for their meth production (if you don’t watch Breaking Bad, you should): Durum semolina, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid.

And, as discussed yesterday, Gov. Corbett’s policies surrounding food stamps, most notably his “asset test,” as discussed yesterday, make it hard to ever get off this sort of chemical-laden diet.

“Every person that I know receives some kind of small amount of food stamps,” says Cheri Honkala, former vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party and director of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. “Now there’s this thing about, if you have over $2,000 or whatever in a savings account, you can’t save up your money to get out of poverty. So, you have to tap into whatever resources you have, which is basically nothing if you qualify for food stamps in the first place.” Honkala ran as running mate to Dr. Jill Stein during the recent presidential election. Stein is a physician who made it part of her platform to force the government to recognize GMOs in certain foods to help Americans make “informed food choices.”

According to the CFS Food Shoppers Guide, most generic brands (save Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods) contain GMO ingredients. And most nongeneric food choices do, too, including my breakfast food, Quaker Oats.

“I’m so tired of the comments, of people saying, ‘People that are on food stamps, first of all, they need to be working; and they need to stop buying junk,’” continues Honkala. “Well, the grocery stores that are in our neighborhood, that’s all they have is unhealthy food. Or if there’s anything that happens to be healthy, people can’t afford it.”

5 Responses to “ Food Stamp Challenge, Day 3: On Grocery Stores, Genetically Engineered Food and Assets ”

  1. Great post! Love the updates!

  2. A says:

    “Durum semolina, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid”

    Yes, the flour used to make pasta, iron and B vitamins are so bad for you. Just because you don’t know what something means doesn’t mean you should portray things as bad-for-you chemicals.

    Way to go on scaring people away from food that is actually good for them.

  3. B says:

    A: look up those ingredients.

  4. Julie says:

    I wish it were easier to get from one blog post to the next. It’s hard to catch up on the whole story. If I weren’t so interested, I would give up.

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