Introducing Food Access: A Tale of Two Grocery Shopping Trips

, food systems & health analyst | January 22, 2015, 11:17 am EDT
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Sunday is grocery shopping day.

As I sit on the couch sipping my morning coffee, my husband walks over and asks, “What do you want to make for dinner this week?” I reach for a pen on our coffee table and a piece of paper. Before we head out to the store, we make a list of what we’re cooking for dinner each night of the week.

Once the list is complete we get in the car for a short 10-minute drive to the grocery store. We spend about 10 minutes perusing the produce section, then another 20 picking up the essentials, making sure we’ve checked off everything on our list. We stand in the check-out line and I give the cashier a handful of coupons (yes, my husband and I are coupon clippers!). I swipe my credit card and as always, I’m astonished by the total amount shown on the receipt. However, I’m quick to crumple the piece of paper and toss it in my purse.

Now, let me tell you about a different grocery shopping trip. While the character is fictional, the story is real—it’s based on my experiences listening to lower-income women talk about accessing healthy food.

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To walk or not to walk? That is the question.

Maria is a single mother with 2 children under the age of 10. She works 3 part-time jobs, relies on the city’s public transportation system, and is a recipient of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”). She chooses the bus to bring her to the grocery store even though it’s only a mile walk since several of her friends have been robbed walking home from the grocery store while holding multiple bags.

“Look mom!—It’s Toucan Sam!”

It’s the end of the month. Maria’s children accompany her to the grocery store because she can’t afford to pay the babysitter any more hours. She needs to save money to cover the grocery bill. Upon entering the grocery store the family is bombarded with marketing—“Doritos 2 for 1” “Coke buy 2 get 1 free!” “Fruit Loops on Sale!” Squealing with delight, Maria’s children tug on her arms when they see Toucan Sam attempting to pull her in the direction of the cereal aisle. She ignores their pleas and swiftly moves toward the produce section.

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Apples, bananas, and tomatoes…oh my!

Apples, bananas, and tomatoes are sloppily thrown on display tables. Most of the bananas are brown—some of the apples are mushy, and Maria’s nose detects the putrid smell of a rotting tomato. She grabs what she can, and out of the corner of her eye sees beautiful plump blueberries. Unfortunately, they’re $3.99 for 6 ounces, so she’ll have to pass on them until the first of the month when her SNAP benefits are replenished. Aisle after aisle Maria adds up the total cost of her weekly bounty. When she feels the cart is coming close to her budget, she heads for the check-out line.

Get in another line.

While the cashier rings her up, Maria nervously watches the prices flash across the screen, making sure she’s done her math right. When it’s time to pay she pulls out her SNAP card. The cashier annoyingly rolls his eyes. “We’ve been having trouble with our machine, so you need to go to Customer Service to use that card.” The children grab at candy bars and cookies—all which have been strategically placed at eye level. They are getting restless and hungry. Maria reluctantly pushes her grocery cart to Customer Service, motioning her children to follow.

“Mom, I want to help!”

After carrying multiple bags on each arm, herding her children on and off the bus, Maria is exhausted when she finally gets home. Slowly, she starts putting groceries away. She hears echoes from her children in the other room, “Mom, I’m hungry!” Even though she’s tired this is the only night this week that she’ll be home in the evening to cook everyone dinner. She bends down and grabs a pot and pulls the rice out the cupboard. Opening the fridge she chooses a couple vegetables and puts them on the cutting board. Her children rush around the table and stare at the cutting board. They want to help, but Maria is too drained to monitor and instruct them, so she shoos them out of the kitchen.

Thirty minutes later, dinner is served. Maria has just enough time to get plates on the table before leaving for her night shift. The extra time spent at Customer Service was going to be her dinner time. The doorbell rings – it’s the babysitter. Maria grabs a snack and throws it in her purse. She shakes her head, thinking about how foolish she was to expect a sit-down family dinner.

Food access is not just one barrier.

Maria’s story shows that food access is not just about one barrier—it’s about multiple barriers compounded together over time that create one systematic problem. Access to healthy food includes multiple factors, including transportation to stores; convenience of purchasing and preparing fresh foods; safety; affordability, quality, and variety of produce; stigmas associated with using SNAP; nutrition knowledge; and cooking skills. However, I will let the women who experience this every day sum up food access in their own words:

A lot of times I find it easier to get the canned stuff, I hate to do that, but it’s cheaper and I get more out of it than the fresh fruits. Besides, I would have to go into an upper class neighborhood to get produce that even looks good enough to buy. Would I like to have more fresh fruit?—Absolutely!—But let’s be real—I have 6 people to feed. I mean it’s already enough hassle to get on the bus, especially if you have children, you’ve got to come back with an armload of food and children.

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