Wisconsin State Lawmaker Wants To Ban Ability To Purchase Junk Food With Food Stamps

My lunchtime routine is sitting in the break room at work and reading the local paper while I slowly eat my packed lunch.  Let’s face it, I’m not in a hurry to get back to my desk and stare at a computer screen for another four hours.  Yesterday, as I turned to the local section of the Wisconsin State Journal, I noticed an article stating that a Wisconsin State Representative wanted to ban the use of Food Stamps for foods that lack nutritional value.  I am against this proposal for many reasons, some of which I have listed here:

1) I live in wonderful Madison, Wisconsin.  My fine city continuously makes lists by various publications ranking it the most educated city in the nation, it is in the top ten for health care in the US, and is ranked as one of the best places to raise a family.  Madison is a beautiful and progressive city (with the best farmers market in America, I might add) with a strong local food movement. I love living here and am very happy to call Madison home.  Despite all these accolades (and more!), I drive through a huge food desert on my way home from work.  Food deserts are defined as areas with little to no access to fresh and affordable foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet.  Instead of access to fresh foods, the people who live in this area only have fast food and convenience stores from which to buy their groceries.  Low income people who live in the Madison food desert need to ride busses for over an hour just to get to a market that sells fresh food.  A bill like this would cause much harm to families (specifically children) who simply do not have access to the nutrition they need.  If given choices, they would buy healthier options but instead of being able to choose between junk food and fresh food they can only choose between junk food and starving.

2) My small Wisconsin home town does not have a grocery store or any form of public transportation.  The gas stations there take food stamps because low-income people in rural areas with no cars and no access to public transportation need to eat, too.  Once again, the choice for the significant population of my home town that lives below the poverty line is either junk food or starving.

3) In the article linked above, State Representative Kaufert states that “It is taxpayer dollars and maybe we should have a say on how it is spent.”  If politicians really cared about “tax payer dollars,” they would not support government corn and milk subsidies that lead to a food surplus and result in factories needing to make food-like products out of the junk (such as high fructose corn syrup and whey powder) that remains.

4)  Food policing.  Quit it. If poor people want to eat junk, let them.  After all, rich people pay top dollar for junk food labelled as “low fat”. Do you know what is in all that “low fat” garbage and diet foods you pay more money for than their “full-fat” counterparts? High fructose corn syrup. The same stuff you don’t want poor people eating.  These “diet” food items are just marketed differently.

5)  Once upon a time, those who lived in poverty did not have access to any food.  They became emaciated as a result.  Now, inexpensive highly processed foods with no nutritional value are easily accessible and the only food option for many low-income people.  The result?  Those with no access to nutritious foods eat junk food and get fat.  Being thin was once the (presumed) social indicator of poverty.  In today’s society, being fat is greatly linked to poverty.  In fact, BMI is consistently the highest among those in the lowest income groups and wages are inversely related to BMI.  In other words, those with a low income are more likely to be obese and those who are obese are more likely to have a low income.  Today’s low-income people not only have the social difficulties caused by poverty and race preventing them from overcoming their difficulties, they are now more than likely to face size discrimination as yet another barrier keeping them from gaining quality employment.  Common themes in studies (such as this one from Yale) indicate:

  • the probability of being called back for an interview decreases if the applicant is obese.
  • hiring managers prefer thin candidates over their obese counterparts, even if they have equal qualifications

So, finding a job is harder if you’re fat and you’re obese because you’re poor and you’re poor because you’re obese.  What’s a person to do?

I propose that instead of food-policing and dictating what people can eat, we should make affordable healthy foods available in communities that do not have easy access to such items. We should offer classes on the subject of proper nutrition to low-income individuals while simultaneously making it easier for them to access nutritious foods. Support grocery stores on wheels known as “food mobiles”  that can travel to low-income neighborhoods. Support community gardening plots and offer people education about how to grow their own food.  There is so much personal satisfaction to be gained from growing your own food.  If you grow it, you’ll eat it!

More people in your life than you even realize (including myself) have used food assistance programs. Instead of judging, help your neighbors get rides to grocery stores with healthy foods. Help enact positive change instead of negative rhetoric, please.  Help make my state a better place to live.

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I get to see this building every day. Isn’t the Wisconsin State Capitol beautiful?

Substantial Figures in History

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how concepts regarding beauty are fluid and continuously changing.  What is aesthetically pleasing in one era might be an undesirable trait a few generations later.  Foot binding, while an extreme example, is a practice that comes to mind when I think of beauty rituals and traits that were desirable at one time, but have since fallen out of vogue.

Foot binding was practiced for nearly 1000 years in China.  The beauty ideal of three to five inch long feet was achieved by systematically breaking and binding the feet of girls when they were as young as three years old.  The smaller a woman’s feet, the higher the implied social status and the more desirable she was to potential suiters.  The practice was eliminated beginning in the early part of the 20th century.  In the 1910’s, feminists and labor activists from the Communist Party recognized foot binding for what it was: a painful, debilitating practice intended to control women, reinforce a hyper-delicate feminine ideal and to equate the size of women’s feet with their personal moral conduct.  Eventually, the practice of foot binding was banned and contemporary Chinese culture largely views the practice as an outdated and brutal beauty ritual.  I bet those themes of “control”, “feminine ideals” and “equating size of body parts with moral conduct” sound a little familiar.

Anyway, this concept of ever-changing beauty ideals made me think I would like to do a series of themed posts called “Substantial Figures in History“.  To talk about fat people who were considered beautiful in their day, or to discuss the historical contributions of people of all sorts of shapes and sizes.  To switch to something a bit more light-hearted than foot binding (sorry to be a Debbie-downer), the first subject of “Substantial Figures in History” will be one of the FIRST documented fat people in history: Venus of Willendorf!

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Venus of Willendorf, herself.

At 4.5 inches tall and nearly 25,000 years old, this statue is said to be a representation of what people during her time found to be the feminine beauty ideal.  Her voluptuous size and accentuated lady bits reinforce what were the desirable attributes of 25,000 years ago.  You know…the “two f’s”:  fatness and fertility.  25,000 years ago, being fat would have been a sign of prosperity to her gatherer-hunter society.  And her accentuated lady bits?  Because of doin’ the nasty.  Well, doin’ the nasty AND the then-considered mystical, awe-inspiring, life-generating act of childbirth.  We can’t forget about that, I guess!

Riot Not Diet

“The way many women use scales is grossly destructive.  The scale is a cruel purveyor of personal worth for the day.  If you wanted to come up with a plot to take an entire gender and render them less effective, you’d put them on a diet and have them buy a scale.  The human energy wasted by women thinking about these numbers is enormous.”–David M. Garner, Ph.D.

It is a snowy day here in Wisconsin.  About six inches fell overnight. I help my husband dig his car out of the driveway and trudge through the snow to take my pup for her afternoon walk.  Taking off my wet, snow-soaked jacket, I notice a pin that is fastened to the lapel.  It features the classic “raised fist” image evokative of many social movements and reads “riot not diet!”.  This simple pin makes me contemplate my journey as a feminist and size activist.

I remember driving around with my dad in his old F150 and discussing how we didn’t think it was fair that our large size was never attributed to genetics.  I was in middle school and we were having a relatively profound conversation about how we believed weight was a source of discrimination towards us and that we thought our genetics were to blame.  My red hair?  From my dad.  My poor eyes?  Thanks, Dad!  My asthma?  You guessed it…Dad.  However, questions about why I was bigger than the other kids always resulted in an answer regarding my diet and assumed lack of activity.  Even as a child it didn’t make sense to me that my older brother and I had the exact same diet and spent entire summers playing outside together (an art seemingly lost to today’s children).  Somehow, he was a bean pole and I was chubby.  My mom’s side of the family are all tall and slender.  My dad’s side of the family?  A bunch of fatties.  Even at a young age, it was evident that fat people faced discrimination and weight is not entirely due to environmental factors.

My knowledge of size acceptance was rather limited until college. As a sophomore at the university, I was required to write a paper for a general education sociology class about discrimination I have personally faced.  I wrote about size discrimination.  The feedback my paper received from the (thin) professor was that she didn’t believe discrimination based on size met the criteria for the paper.  In other words, even with properly documented sources, she didn’t think size discrimination was real.

My fourth year of college, I switched my degree from Music Education to a Bachelor of Music with a Women’s Studies Minor (I joke that my goal was to be completely unemployable).  It was then that I began to delve into the more academic aspects of the societal codes of femininity.  I took classes and read books that informed me about how our modern beauty standard stresses a diminutive beauty ideal because the small size reinforces the archetypes of a physically weak woman and the passive female personality.  I began to understand why our culture wanted women to waste time worrying about food intake instead of about larger societal issues, but didn’t really modify my personal attitude towards my size.  I continued to spend money on diet plans.  I would count “points,” talk to my female co-workers for hours about weight loss, I would pay more at the grocery store for highly-processed food items advertised as “low fat” and lose sleep if I went over my weekly allotment of “points”.

Last fall, an old friend named Tasha who I hadn’t talked to in years randomly called me.  Tasha lives in Philadelphia now.  When I received the call, I didn’t even know what part of the world she called home.  Tasha called because she was following a punk rock band on their US tour.  The band had a stop in Madison and she wanted me to check them out.  In return for a place to crash, she’d pay for my ticket to the show.  I was intrigued.  I was a punk rock kid in middle school and high school but it had been years since I had gone to a concert that had a mosh pit.  The band was good, but music that loud is no longer my thing.  To escape the noise, I decided to peruse the merchandise table.  Among the stickers with the Misfits logo and the DIY zines, I saw a lovely little pin that said “RIOT NOT DIET.”  I had to have it.

It was at that moment that it finally hit me.  The energy I spent worrying about my food intake all these years could have been spent positively empowering myself and other women.  The extra money I spent on diet plans and diet foods could have been spent helping those who have nothing to eat.  Instead of eternally chattering with my female friends about the “points value” in a cup of popcorn, we could have been talking about the work-place discrimination we were collectively facing as women.

As I proudly put that pin on my jacket at the punk rock show, I thought to myself “no longer”.  That tiny little pin has made me contemplate my personal actions and the role weight loss has played in keeping my mind off bigger issues.  That little piece of flair has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.  I now refuse to let myself be pre-occupied by something as trivial as my weight when there are truly more important things to worry about.  Riot not diet, indeed.

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The pin that got me into all this trouble and the snow that just needs to go away.