Food deserts require action, not shame

Aby Sobotka-Briner | Staff Illustrator

As Pitt students fill out the lines at Chipotle and Einstein’s, they might fail to realize that access to food is an issue playing out in our own backyards.

Pittsburgh is riddled with food deserts — areas where residents struggle to purchase affordable or good quality fresh food. According to a 2012 federal report, among cities with populations ranging from 250,000 to 500,000, Pittsburgh has 71 percent, the largest percentage, of lower-income people living in food deserts.

Food stamps can give lower-income people the means to gain access to more affordable food and can help them overcome the effects of food deserts. Yet, the stigma American culture places on the people who rely on food stamps only allows food deserts to grow.

According to a Pew Research poll, 72 percent of Americans think underprivileged people have become too reliant on the government, demonstrating that many don’t realize how imperative food stamps are to those who are struggling to put food on the table.

In view of the sheer prevalence of food insecurity, this stigma is extremely harmful. It undermines the need to make food stamps a better tool for those who use them.

Last Thursday, I attended a global studies event on the right to food — or the right to unrestricted access to food. Dawn Plummer, director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, spoke on the right to food in Pittsburgh.

As Plummer’s presentation outlined, our city has made strides in the right direction, with the University’s creation of the Pitt Pantry and PFPC’s projects building up to Food Day on Oct. 24, — which involved informational film screenings and community building events. Still, it’s clear our city still has a long way to go.

Food deserts are expanded because some areas, like Oakland, have grocery stores that do not accept food stamps, rendering them largely too expensive for low-income residents.

In April 2013, more than 160,000 individuals received benefits from the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This constituted a 63 percent increase from three years prior. Yet, while more and more Pittsburghers require better access to food, the stigma surrounding SNAP benefits persists.

Americans tend to view reliance on SNAP benefits, often referred to as food stamps, as a personal failure. According to SNAP’s outreach coordinators in the south, this stigma persists among those who struggle to get by and are eligible for SNAP benefits.

“There are families that will kind of preface their conversation with you with about how they never thought they would be in this situation and how embarrassed they are,” P.J. Cowan, a SNAP and government advocacy manager in Alabama, said of people signing up for benefits in The Guardian.

Our culture perpetuates the belief that financial stability is a reflection of work ethic. Capitalist bootstrap values that equate hard work with social mobility tell us that financial problems stem from laziness — framing poverty as a choice, when, in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Poverty is often systemic. It acts as a vicious cycle, rooted in political disenfranchisement and discriminatory economic policies, that is very difficult to escape — it’s why one’s race is a reliable indicator of socioeconomic status. We need to stop shaming low-income residents for their poverty when it often stems from factors outside of their control.

To eradicate the stigma surrounding food stamps, we need to make them more effective.

Just Harvest, a nonprofit organization working to expand food access to lower-income people, is providing the model to do just that. In May 2013, Just Harvest, as well as CitiParks, the city of Pittsburgh’s department of parks and recreation, and local farmers launched Fresh Access in East Liberty and North Side farmers markets. The initiative enables SNAP recipients to swipe their electronic benefit transfer cards to purchase food at farmers markets. The program has since expanded to include a total of 15 farmers markets in Allegheny County.

Recently, the Fresh Access food markets implemented Fresh Access Food Bucks, which give customers who use food stamps an extra $2 to spend for every $5 they spend at the farmers market.

Programs like Fresh Access are essential in working to decrease food deserts in Pittsburgh. Along with efforts to build more affordable grocery stores in areas with higher populations of low-income residents, expanding the reach of food stamps is a key step.

We need to push vendors in our neighborhoods to accept food stamps. For example, though many consider IGA on Forbes Avenue to be the main grocery store in Oakland, it does not accept SNAP benefits. Oakland is not just populated by students with meal plans — in reality, the blocks surrounding Pitt has poverty rates that range from 21 percent to 64 percent, according to City Data.

Grocery stores need to make sure their food is accessible to all, regardless of their income. If more places accept food stamps, more people will have access to food.

The ability to put food on the table is dependent on the pursuit of happiness — if you don’t have the right to one, you can’t obtain the other.

Alyssa primarily writes on social justice and political issues for The Pitt News.

Write to her at

Leave a comment.