Does a healthy grocery trip have to be more expensive in SC?

jholleman@thestate.comApril 9, 2013 

As the state considers seeking a waiver to limit what foods can be purchased with food stamps, one of the most common arguments against the idea is that healthful foods are more expensive.

“I feed them the cheap stuff because that’s what I can buy,” Susan Singleton, a Columbia mother of three who relies on food stamps, said at a public meeting on the issue last month. “You go to the store, you cannot buy healthy, you buy cheap.”

Dietitians and nutritionists insist the healthy-means-more-expensive contention isn’t always true. Laura Stepp, a registered dietitian at Lexington Medical Center, said she could feast on healthy food for the $135 maximum weekly food stamp benefit for a family of four.

She made that point during a trip to a Lexington-area Publix, when she selected items totaling $117.59 that could be turned into a week’s worth of meals.

The price you pay? Time.

“The reality is people don’t want to cook,” Stepp said. “If you want to eat on this budget, you have to cook your own meals.”

For the working poor, however, finding time to cook several meals a day isn’t realistic, said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

“You have to have transportation to the store and the availability (of healthy food choices), and you have to have time,” Berkowitz said. “For people who are struggling at all three of those things, it’s difficult.”

There’s not always time to cook when “you get home from work, help the kids get their homework done and try to get them to bed at a reasonable hour,” she said.

Stepp agreed people who live in rural areas can find it difficult to get by on a food stamp budget because they have few grocery shopping options. That situation – referred to as a food desert – usually means higher prices, fewer healthy choices and fewer sales items. Food deserts are a factor to consider when debating Gov. Nikki Haley’s suggestion to limit food stamp usage to healthy foods.

Haley wants the state Department of Social Services, which administers the federal program here, to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put restrictions on what can be bought with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program money, also known as food stamps. At the first of four public meetings on the waiver idea last month, comments were overwhelmingly against the idea, and the added cost of buying healthy food came up in nearly every comment.

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