Can Beggars Be Choosers?

At the beginning of the school year it took the cafeteria in our school two whole weeks to print and release menus for the students and parents to view.  I had called several times and stopped in the office to inquire about the food served.  My kids are picky, and they like to choose which days they buy and which days they bring their lunches.  This year our school district has a program that provides free meals to all students.  It’s a grant given by the state because of a community based need.  The ratio of student families that receive free lunch is so high that the entire district qualifies for the state funded program.  When I went into the office to ask when we’d be able to view lunch menus, the office receptionist responded to me, “you do know it’s free, right?”  As if the price of the meal made up for the fact that we weren’t able to make knowledgeable choices about our kids meals.  It seemed as if because the meal was free, that fact was more important than making conscious informed choices.  As if that meant I shouldn’t be picky about what was going to be served to my kids.  I think this concept, that when you’re getting free stuff, you ought to be happy regardless, is also something mirrored in society.

I hear a lot of people who get absolutely livid over the fact that you can buy soda and chips even energy drinks (or really anything you want that has a nutrition label) with food stamps.  I find it interesting that people think that just because a person is poor they are not fit to make their own meal choices.  I’m sure most of us don’t necessarily make the best food choices every time we eat.  It’s nice to indulge now and then on completely frivolous food.  It’s also a freedom we may take for granted if we personally do not have any restrictions against us.  Celebrating birthday parties with the family, it’s fun to blow out the candles on a cake and then eat a piece with ice cream.  Movie Nights at home eating popcorn on the couch with the kids.  Having friends over for the Super Bowl eating chicken wings and Doritos.  Eating pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.  No, these snacks aren’t the picture of perfect nutrition, but they’re things that we like to partake in that would all fit into the ‘junk food’ category.  Why is it that because people are getting public food assistance that we feel the need to dictate which sorts of food items they deserve to buy?  Which food items they ought to be eating for everyday meals or at snack and special occasion time?  Should we provide for the poor, but only with specific strings attached?  Should we punish those on public assistance and limit their autonomy and choices?

On the other hand, there’s a  program called WIC (women infant children), another government assisted food program, where recipients have no autonomy over their food choices.  People get food items like milk, bread, cereal, eggs, beans, cheese, and baby formula and baby food and a few other staple items.  A recipient cannot buy certain items like organic food or food enhanced with extra omega-3s with their food checks.  This program takes away the choice for recipients to provide certain food for their families like organic that many of us deem as superior.  Should beggars not be choosers, be grateful they have food on their plates at all, or should poor people have the right to choose chemical free produce?  Should the government be prioritizing quantity over quality?  What about prison food?  Should the choiceless expect to be provided with the best or be expected to get by on minimum requirements with possible health disadvantages?

Another example is what may seemingly be the best nutritional choice may not actually be the best choice for an individual.  Myself for example, because of problems with my colon, I cannot eat foods like wheat bread or fibrous cereals, amongst other things.  It’s important for me to drink vitamin water with electrolytes and expensive protein bars to maintain my nutrition and strength.  In typical situations, one would think wheat bread is a better nutritional choice than white bread and think that it’s a positive compulsory requirement, not in my case.  Without the power of choice, my diet wouldn’t be right.  What about coffee?  Many people see that as a requirement to get them through the workday.  Does this only hold true for wealthy employees?  WIC also has blanket regulations, like dictating what percentage of milk fat recipients can purchase, taking away the ability of parents to make those choices for their families.

I see pictures like this one above posted often on Facebook.  Basically the idea is, if you are poor and on government assistance, then you should not be able to make any personal choices at all.  Why stop at beer and cigarettes?  Why not restrict Christmas presents for their children or name brand shoes for their feet?  I think it’s unrealistic and unfair that we expect low-income people to not indulge in any extra expenses, especially choices over what they put into their bodies.

“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… just don’t ask for organic food because we aren’t that charitable.”

As a mom, I hear constant whining from my kids about what I give them.  I often say the phrase, “you get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.”  They are children, and I have to make safe choices for them.  Does this also hold true for adults that are on public food assistance?  Should they take second-rate goods or have no control over meals and not pitch a fit?

Food is a very personal thing and freedom to make choices over what goes into your body is a big deal. So you tell me, can beggars be choosers or should they be happy with what they get?

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3 responses to “Can Beggars Be Choosers?

  1. hmm.. very thought provoking, you make valid points about government assisted programs not allowing the reciepients right to make choices for their family. I’m appauled that the school district does not offer a monthly menu, that’s just lazy. Terrific blog!

  2. People just love to judge other people’s choices. I worked at an agency that served families in need, I’ve seen people criticize their meal choices. At the same time – we had a young AmeriCorps volunteer working with us. They receive a poverty level stipend in exchange for their year of service. They are also encouraged to live on food stamps in order to try and understand the difficulty and reality of applying and using them. First – she came back from the interview crying and humiliated. The woman had never heard of Americorps and literally told her she didn’t “look” like she needed food help. So can you imagine how hard that is for newly unemployed people who finally break down and seek assistance ? In addition she was a young girl who mostly ate vegetables, salads, and fish. She would get the same judgmental looks from other shoppers when she had a basket full of organic veggies and a ready to cook salmon fillet. I guess the lesson is, keep your eyes on your own basket. You have no way of knowing what someone else’s walk is,

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