This Holiday Season, It’s Time For The Government To Stop Dictating The Food Choices Of The Poor | Talking Points Memo

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

They say beggars can’t be choosers, but in our nation of plenty, we can and should do better than that.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Working at Target in a rather well-off area of northwestern WI and MN, I can tell you that food choices across the board are a disaster. I cannot tell you the number of bags of calorie-laden, nutritionally empty snack foods I end up bagging each night. Hundreds of them, I promise you. And that’s across the economic spectrum. We aren’t a Super Target, which offers more options, but we do have a substantial fresh fruit and vegetable area (even if most veggies are bagged). I see far less of apples and pears and berries than I see of chips, pretzels and movie size boxes of candy.

I also have a saved post from social media that talks about how to donate food to a shelter and some of the suggestions they make set me back on my heels a bit (I bolded some of the more significant disconnects):

So, I spoke to people getting food at a food bank and here are some things I learned from those in need:

  1. Everyone donates Kraft Mac and Cheese in the box. They can rarely use it because it needs milk and butter which is hard to get from regular food banks.

2.Boxed milk is a treasure, as kids need it for cereal which they also get a lot of.

  1. Everyone donates pasta sauce and spaghetti noodles.

  2. They cannot eat all the awesome canned veggies and soup unless you put a can opener in too or buy pop tops.

  3. Oil is a luxury but needed for Rice a-Roni which they also get a lot of.

  4. Spices or salt and pepper would be a real Christmas gift.

  5. Tea bags and coffee make them feel like you care.

  6. Sugar and flour are treats.

  7. They fawn over fresh produce donated by farmers and grocery stores.

  8. Seeds are cool in Spring and Summer because growing can be easy for some.

  9. They rarely get fresh meat.

  10. Tuna and crackers make a good lunch.

  11. Hamburger Helper goes nowhere without ground beef.

  12. They get lots of peanut butter and jelly but usually not sandwich bread.

  13. Butter or margarine is nice too.

  14. Eggs are a real commodity.

  15. Cake mix and frosting makes it possible to make a child’s birthday cake.

  16. Dishwashing detergent is very expensive and is always appreciated.

  17. Feminine hygiene products are a luxury and women will cry over that.

  18. Everyone loves Stove Top Stuffing.

In all the years I have donated food at the Holidays, I bought what I thought they wanted, but have never asked. I am glad I did. If you are helping a Family this Christmas, maybe this can help you tailor it more. It does for me!


Yes to All of this … and so much more!

it can also make things much more efficient if there is a genuine understanding of the population being served - it makes no sense to provide food products that they are not familiar with - and neither the adults nor the children have a desire to ‘develop a taste’ for them… so a “windfall” of an abundance of frozen fish may be met with a cringing “no thank you” from a population that simply is not used to having fish in their diet - and has no real clue as to how to efficiently make a palatable meal out of this unfamiliar food …They have neither the time nor resources to go online and look up “clever ways to prepare frozen perch so that it tastes like chicken that Guatemalans are accustom to eating”


Working closely with Colorado Visiting Nurses Association my ex established a “Holiday Special Needs Food Bank” (diabetics, food allergies, etc.). Working as a grocery department head and shop steward kept her quite busy but she jumped right in and made it happen. The food bank was so successful that it became a year round food bank.
Soon after she was given an MLK Humanitarian Award by Denver mayor and first lady Wellington and Wilma Webb.


Yes, the current state of the US food program is another instance where rich folks assume they are smarter than poor folks. As if rich folks are immune from making poor purchasing decisions. As if poor folks became poor because they could not manage their food budget.

Most politicians, and Republicans especially, see food assistance as one more program to make so dysfunctional that people cant/wont/don’t use it.

I’d go one step further and just give poor folks money to spend as they need it. No strings attached and minimal oversight. If they need $50 to reinstate their license, buy a bike, get new clothes, pay a court fee, etc. Giving someone food is good, but wont allow the person to become self sufficient without additional assistance.


Hi Folks,

I’m the author (and one of TPM’s original cohort of PRIME members). Happy to answer any questions about my research on food and retail inequality. -Ken


Excellent article — thank you VERY much! This will be helpful to many, both on the receiving and the giving ends.


Four much-needed reforms to SNAP benefits:

  1. Make them usable for prepared foods, like rotisserie chicken and even takeout
  2. Extend them to non-food household essentials like toilet paper, soap and detergent
  3. Incentivize the opening of real supermarkets and food stores in low-income areas
  4. Match them with subsidies for other essentials like rent, transit, electricity and gas

If this is done, it should be split up into weekly payouts to discourage spending too much up front, and perhaps be done in part via subsidized % off for certain types of things rather than at a dollar amount.

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Thanks for the fantastic list!


If the poors don’t feel ashamed to be feeding their little babies, they will never pull themselves up by their bootstraps. GOP Policy statement. /s


Boxed milk? In a carton? Or the small individual cartons of milk?

If corporations are so poorly run they cannot pay taxes - they should be dissolved and their assets liquidated in a fire sale to the highest bidder. Capitalism demands it.

This is not snark.


Also too, if you can’t pay your workers a living wage you shouldn’t be in business.


I guess, but all of this is undone by the first reports (and there will be thousands) of poor people buying nothing but junk food and soda at the grocery store which is easily observable, and turns everyone against the poor, whom they already hate.

I live in NYC, and I see people with SNAP cards buying junk food and food that you can just open and eat all the time. The excuses “poor people don’t own a can opener”, but booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets are somehow obtainable, seems like nonsense.

The government can tell people what they can spend the money on, and trying to sell the notion that poor people are too ill-equipped to shop and prepare meals feels patriarchal, condescending and like white people making themselves feel good. I don’t buy it. The fact is lots of poor people live on crap convenience food which makes their health even worse than it is and we can’t expect people to want to subsidize that.

Remember how all that “Food Desert” thing turned out to be a fantasy? Programs attempting to bring fresh nutritious produce to inner city locations ended up a bust. People refuse to buy, eat or prepare them and really just want junk food. That’s reality.


The folks at Give Directly have demonstrated that people know their own needs. So many charities - just like these public services - infantilize people in need by assuming they cannot make their own choices.


I have no expertise here at all - but milk like Parmalet (I think that’s right) is irradiated to kill bacteria and will keep on the shelf for months.


Milk is available in shelf stable aseptic boxes in every supermarket. Also dried milk. Neither require refrigeration.


“And while forcing the poor to eat healthier may seem the obvious choice, the country needs to rethink that notion.”

This whole idea drives me nuts! What is healthy? Is it that ridiculously antiquated food pyramid? Is it vegetarianism? Is it low carb? Is it high carb/low fat? That’s a big part of the problem. Different people have vastly different ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet. Throw in any number of medical conditions and the idea of what makes a healthy diet is even further complicated. But that’s exactly why the government shouldn’t be dictating to poor people what they should eat. Because picking up a rotisserie chicken, a side from the deli counter, and a big salad from the salad bar at Kroger (if it ever opens again) is a far, far healthier meal than a bunch of boxed pasta and ground beef.


SNAP often includes a cash grant of $40 or other amounts.

Supermarkets are businesses. If theft and costs of maintaining order in the store are too high they cannot exist. I’ve lived in many places big and small, and there are generally supermarkets everywhere. Those in certain areas may be somewhat higher priced smaller stores because others cannot even break even there.

It’s probably easier for a supermarket to exist in lower income areas in states where they can sell liquor.

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