Olivia is one of the 13.5 million young adults living in poverty in the United States. That’s one in five 18-to-34-year-olds. She feeds her four-person family with $500 in food stamps each month — roughly $1.40 per meal per person — provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The SNAP funds are meant to supplement additional income, but in Olivia’s case, it’s nearly all the money she has to rely on, leaving her and her family food insecure. In 2014, an estimated 14% of American households were food insecure, meaning they “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members," according to USDA research.
Yet in many ways, Olivia is a shining example of this program: She uses the government support to help her pursue a degree in psychology (she will be the first woman in her family to graduate from college). She’s an active member of her school; other students approach her in the halls to ask about the next meeting of her club that focuses on youth justice. On days off from school, she’s an intern with a nonprofit that helps ex-convicts apply for and succeed in college. Government programs and some money from her boyfriend cover the rent.
'I wanted to be pregnant,' she confesses. 'This was going to be my way out.'
Olivia coaxes the kids out of bed around 6:45 a.m., as the sun is just creeping over the Bronx high-rises. Each day, her makeup is done to perfection: eyebrows trimmed and shaded in; her ombre hair curled in loose twists. In front of the bathroom mirror, Corey, stout and timid, and Jesse, lanky and boisterous, grab globs of gel and form pyramids with their black, straight hair. Annie throws on tights and a jean jacket and decides between a headband or pigtails. If there’s time, the kids devour bowls of cereal — Kix or Fruit Loops are preferred. If they’re out of milk, two pieces of white bread are microwaved with a slice of cheese. Sometimes, Olivia confesses, breakfast doesn’t happen.
'Do you get hungry?' I ask her children. Corey nods. 'I think I do,' he says. 'My stomach always gets all gurgly.'
“I finished my friend’s bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich,” Corey told me with delight.
“You did?” Jesse asked with envy, and Corey nodded.
“And then I had some Airheads around lunch and water, and Mom gave us arroz con pollo with olives at night.”
For Annie? She only had bread, cheese, and water, plus a snack at aftercare to make it from morning to dinnertime, around 7 p.m. Their mother subsists on much of the same — sometimes a smoothie in the morning that she fortifies with flax seeds and oatmeal, then a salad at the college cafeteria purchased with a voucher, and then, if there’s enough, dinner.
“Do you get hungry?” I ask her children. Corey nods and creates a circle with his arms that frames his stomach. “I think I do,” he says. “My stomach always gets all gurgly."
While food culture across the United States explodes, hunger rates have simultaneously risen.
“I know Western Beef, Ssips juice, and Mama Tere,” she says.
“Anthony Bourdain?” I offer.
“Never heard of him,” she replies.
I talk to Olivia about the food craze — young people taking pictures of their meals and rating restaurants online. “It would be cool to eat at restaurants,” she says. “At my internship, they took us out to have Nepalese and Thai food. It was delicious. I had never had that.”
Shouldn’t we be able to feed everyone before we wage a war against gluten?
“There was this guy, a chef or something,” Olivia tells me about a food and education event that she attended, “and he was talking about the importance of vegetables with names I barely pronounce because no one buys them out here,” she says in reference to her Bronx neighborhood, “and how he feeds his kids organic. And I was just rolling my eyes thinking, That’s because you have money… Those organic things are too expensive, so of course we’re going to buy the junk food. Of course people are going to be overweight out here,” she says again in reference to the Bronx, “because that’s the cheap food.”
The Bronx has some of the highest rates of hunger in the United States, and also sky-high rates of obesity and diabetes. While this may seem contradictory, it’s in fact directly correlated. Doctor have informed Olivia that Corey’s weight is of concern; while he looks to be a normal pre-pubescent-pudgy, he is actually obese. That is a common tale among SNAP recipients: Many of the nearly 50 million participants in the program primarily receive their calories from high-sugar, high-fat foods.
When I buy healthier goods, I end up running out of money. Real food is expensive.
The U.S. government provides insurance and subsidies to commodity crop farmers (think: corn and soybeans). As a result, between 1995 and 2010, $16.9 billion in tax dollars subsidized corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy oils. These subsidies allow the corn and soybean products (a.k.a. junk food) to be sold at a much lower price. On the flip side, very few subsidies are offered to organic or alternative grain, vegetable, or fruit farmers. In the grocery store, we observe this difference as we compare the price of organic versus non-organic, or Tostitos to kale chips. As long as the Farm Bill continues to provide subsidies for corn and soybean crops, low-income families will remain stuck with products laced with high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars.
I need to use the money I have to make my kids full. Fruits and vegetables aren’t going to do that. Rice is.
Another problem, she notes, is time. For a single parent like Olivia, the idea of always cooking meals also puts a strain on her hours. As is, she’s only getting about five hours of sleep a night. Wouldn’t it be nice if those affordable, prepared meals were actually healthy? Then, there’s also the issue of geographic accessibility. Even if Olivia wanted to start cooking with new ingredients, many of them are simply not sold nearby. Neighborhoods lacking such access are known as “food deserts,” and the Bronx is full of them.
It may not be the sexiest or most obvious voter issue for 2016, but spending time with Olivia drove home the idea the Farm Bill should be a key voting issue.
Young people may not realize it, but they have immense sway on world markets. Today, we’re seeing that power on display in Big Food’s attempts to please our shifting palettes, and venture capital money bubbling over at food delivery apps and agricultural technology companies. So while the Millennial impact motivates McDonald’s to go cage-free and Kraft to swap yellow dye for turmeric, we can also get our government officials to continue funding SNAP and to make organic, healthy crops more affordable for all.
Good food is not just about a delicious recipe, a hot new restaurant, or sharable moment on Instagram, it’s about creating a future where healthy, enjoyable eating is accessible to all.
In this already chaotic and entertaining 2016 run, the presidential candidates have yet to be pushed to define their stances on feeding America. For those of us who care about where our food comes from, who want to feed ourselves and our children the best food possible, and want to raise our children in a high-performing, healthy society, one of the most basic and obvious ways to implement change is food policy. If we want the organic, whole grain pasta with local tomato sauce to ever rival Chef Boyardee for families like Olivia’s, if we want rates of obesity and diabetes to drop, and if we want fewer hungry children in our classrooms, then this generation of food fanatics has to take our sustainable, locavore and pesticide-free minds to the polls. Good food is not just about a delicious recipe, a hot new restaurant, or sharable moment on Instagram, it’s about creating a future where healthy, enjoyable eating is accessible to all. And we can do that with our votes.