Federal food stamp program fails some low-income Chicagoans

Federal food stamp program fails some low-income Chicagoans

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Illinois uses $2 billion of the federal food stamp program.That translates into a lot of assistance for food, but it doesn’t always translate into assistance for healthy food. Parts of Chicago are food deserts – places where there’re few grocery stores with fresh produce and meat. Often, low-income families who rely on food stamps shop at liquor stores, gas stations and dollar stores. A WBEZ investigation found that these retailers make up 30 percent of the food stamp providers in Chicago.These places offer more junk food than fresh food, but the federal government still gives these stores the green light to accept food stamps. 

Caroline Ellis is at Citgo buying gas … and snacks.

ambi: I want five on one first and I want this on Link.

Ellis uses her Link Card, or food stamps, to buy two cans of pop and two bags of chips.

Besides a few bananas near the cash register, there’s not much healthy food here. After all, it is a gas station.

As Ellis pumps gas outside, she explains Citgo is not where she grocery shops.

ELLIS: See, I have a vehicle. A lot of people don’t have vehicles so they not able to get around and they forced to buy this stuff. I can ride past Western on Cicero to get me some fresh fruit, vegetables or whatever I need. I don’t buy fruits and vegetables and things like that at a gas station.

Ellis is in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. She travels several miles just to shop for fresh groceries.

That’s because she lives in a food desert – a community lacking healthy food or mainstream grocery stores. More than half a million Chicagoans live in such food deserts. The areas tend to be low-income and minority.

There are more than 2200 authorized food stamp retailers in Chicago. WBEZ found that 14 percent are gas stations or liquor stores.

Another 15 percent are pharmacies and dollar stores.

ambi: One Stop Store describing: You see garlic because people like garlic. Lemons, because people like lemons. Green apples…but you can’t put that much out there.

Michael H. works at One-Stop on 73rd and Racine. It’s a cross between a dollar store and a corner store. An on-duty butcher cuts meat, but there are only four heads of cabbage, three withered lemons, sweet potatoes and a box of onions. On the other hand, One-Stop is heavy on potato chips and pop. Still, it’s an authorized food stamp retailer.

Here are Michael’s thoughts if the federal government ever gave the store a decree for more healthy food:

MICHAEL: The thought is real good, but being such a small store…I would probably say this, I could add it, but I wouldn’t have to keep it where I can store it, because people ain’t gonna buy it.

He adds, he’d have to raise prices, too.

I hear arguments like Michael’s at a lot of gas stations and liquor stores I visit.

Over and over, they say it’s too hard to keep fresh food … so they don’t offer much.

GALLAGHER: There are two problems with the USDA food stamp retailer program. One, the standards are too low. And two we’re not in compliance with the low standards.

Mari Gallagher is a national food desert researcher based in Chicago.

GALLAGHER: The food stamp program is in effect rewarding people who are not playing by the rules and generally these stores that are not playing by the rules are of a lower retail caliber. And they attract more of the same.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does have criteria for SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program…commonly known as food stamps.

For one, tobacco and alcohol can’t be bought. 

Next, there must be at least three varieties of food in four staple food groups.

They have to offer perishable foods in at least two of these categories: meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits and finally, dairy products.

And last … More than half of the dollar amount of all things sold has to be from the sale of eligible staple foods.

And, yep … that’s supposed to include gas stations.

But these rules aren’t always followed at outlets that take food stamps.

ambi of liquor store, bags rustling

At ER&J Food and Liquor, owner Elias Abuelizam basically admits that he’s not adhering to the standards. But when USDA officials visit him, they don’t cite him.

ABUELIZAM: I’m a liquor store mostly. I got food and liquor. We sell liquor but food is slow these days but it’s okay, it’s not that much.

Again, there’re 2200 stores that accept food stamps in Chicago, but USDA officials say they haven’t kicked out even one retailer in fiscal year 2010 for noncompliance.

Kevin Concannon is USDA’s Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. I ask him if the benchmarks are high enough.

CONCANNON: I’ve asked the question myself to be perfectly frank. It certainly bothers me when I see a sign, the preeminent sign in front of the store is liquor and then the store meets the criteria minimally to be able to process the SNAP program of food stamps.

Concannon says he hopes the 2012 Farm Bill will increase requirements around food stamp choices. His agency points to the growing inclusion of farmer’s markets as a way to wipe out food deserts.

He doesn’t accept the rationalization store owners provide – again, that people just won’t buy healthy food. Concannon says a different food program known as Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, has worked.  It’s expanded food choices. More fruits, less fat. He says there’s evidence that when a store offers WIC food … even people outside the program buy healthier items.

The problem is … for now, current food stamp program requirements are still low.

So in people in food deserts are literally hungry for produce.

There are efforts to fill in the gap ….

ambi of food pantry: number 41

Deanna Haymer shows up for some free produce at a food pantry in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

Five produce trucks come by once a month. On this Friday morning, about 200 people file in for cucumbers, lettuce and grapefruit.

Deanna Haymer loads up her cardboard box.

ambi: yeah, I know how to cook green beans

Haymer says her produce options have been dicey. A Food 4 Less store recently opened a few blocks from her, but before that, she shopped at liquor stores and gas stations.

HAYMER: I’m not satisfied with what I get but sometimes you just have to accept what you can get at the time. Like the fruit sometimes it be like mushy or the green peppers be a different color or shriveled up.

Transportation has been a huge problem for Haymer.

In fact, a lot of low-income families can’t drive or use public transit to shop outside their neighborhoods.

Experts say we need to get creative to fix the problem of food deserts and food stamp standards.

That doesn’t just mean getting more mainstream grocery stores to open in food deserts.

Researcher Mari Gallagher says one idea is to improve all the stores that already accept food stamps.

GALLAGHER: What if we worked with those stores and said hey, we’re going to use carrots and sticks. The ones who are going to have the different types of dairy products and other kind of products that support a healthy diet can stay in the program. And the ones who don’t will have to get out. I think that would actually not only improve public health but it would help revitalize the market because stores would have to step up.

It might not seem fair to let some communities be dominated by dollar or liquor stores.

But Gallagher says, with the right tools, those stores could actually increase healthy food options … and not just be the destinations for junk food that they are right now.

Pritzker Journalism Fellow Icoi Johnson contributed to this report.

Music Button: Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly, “Ghost Writer”, from the CD Last Year’s Ghost, (482 Music)

Drug Drug stores and dollar stores