For the homeless, there’s more to eating than food
by Judith Lewis Mernit in Civil Eats May 28, 2018 (edited version by Meals For Good)
If you’ve ever lived on the street or in your car, or have suffered any other kind of itinerant existence, you will know there’s more to feeding yourself than not starving. There is, for instance, the question of whether the food you manage to scare up is fresh, clean, and, in some cases, sufficiently cooked to not infect you with any number of foodborne illnesses, from salmonella to hepatitis A. Then you have to worry about whether, even if the food is safe, your hands are not. Hand-washing has been found to reduce gastrointestinal illness by as much as 31 percent.
Complicating matters even more, you might have a diet-related illness: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or the inability to digest certain foods. You might have lost many of your teeth—people who live on the street have scant access to dental care—which rules out that fresh, crunchy carrot. And you might have to limit your food choices to what’s on the shelves in a convenience store. When you’re carting everything you own with you everywhere you go, a trip inside a grocery store means finding a place to stash your gear and pray that no one swipes it.
Food safety, security, storage—these are the problems that necessarily influence the meal choices of people living without the other conveniences of shelter. “People who live without a place to cook or prepare their food, or a place to wash their hands, have considerations that are different than those for people who are housed,” says Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Buying in bulk is not an option for them. Buying food that’s fresher and can spoil easily is not an option for them.”
Nor is spending a lot of time obsessing about bacteria. “At the top of people’s minds when they’re living homeless is not, ‘How do I keep my food safe?’ They’re thinking about how to prevent arrest.”
“I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and I always get the same question,” says Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “Why, if people are food insecure, are they overweight?” The reason, he says, is that the cheapest and most filling foods pack in the maximum salt, sugar, and fat. “You might know what’s good for you. But when you go into 7-Eleven, what you can buy is a bag of potato chips and a coke.”
Prepared hot meals might be the safest and most convenient option for people without kitchen access, for instance. But SNAP can’t be used for prepared hot meals.