Too poor to get healthy this new year?

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First Posted: 12/29/2014

“My New Year’s resolution is to make sure my kids don’t see the burden on me to take care of them. I don’t want them to see that I struggle and I don’t want them to worry about where dinner is going to come from,” said Tracy Lee of Wilkes-Barre.

Lee is raising two boys alone, ages four and six.

She is unemployed, has an under-active thyroid that affects her weight and energy, only has one outfit to her name and relies on government assistance to feed her children.

“I wish I had the luxury of having a resolution to lose a few pounds, but my resolution is more complex. I want my kids to be happy and healthy,” Lee said.

The single mom of two struggles to provide the optimal nutrition for her children and said she feels the government should provide better assistance for her to keep her children healthy.

Lee never thought she would rely on the government to help support her children, she said.

“I grew up with money. I grew up in a big, beautiful house. My parents bought me a brand new Subaru WRZ when it first came out, we had a pool in our backyard and I even went to private school. I never saw myself in this situation. I never thought that I would be on welfare,” Lee said.

Once the father of her youngest child was out of the picture, Lee was left to take care of a two-year-old and an infant without any help. Her parents had to down-size when her father became chronically ill, and the financial comfort she once knew was no longer there.

“There is a stereotype out there that the people who are on welfare don’t need it and that they are doing it to be lazy or because they don’t want to get a job and work. That’s not how it is for everyone. That’s not even close to how it really is,” Lee said.

The struggling mother insists that she would rather be working than be on welfare.

“The last job that I had, I was let go from because my youngest son got sick with scarlet fever and I had to be home. My job wasn’t understanding of that and let me go. I don’t plan on needing welfare forever. That’s not my goal. That’s nobody’s goal,” Lee said.

Despite not wanting to be on welfare, Lee said she appreciates that the government is helping her.

“I’m grateful for getting money from the government and I don’t know where I’d be right now without getting that $400 each month for food on an Access Card. Still though, it’s hardly enough. It sounds like a lot of money for food, but when you have two growing boys, it’s nothing,” Lee said.

According to Kait Gillis, press secretary for the Department of Human Services, Lee is receiving the average national standard grant of assistance. She said the average grant for a family of three is $403 per month.

Lee mentioned the struggle presents itself when she tries to stretch out meals to last an entire month.

“I want to buy fresh vegetables, but the shelf life doesn’t last. I could do it for a week or two, and I do, but then to stretch out the money I have, I have to add frozen pizzas and other foods like mac-and-cheese that aren’t as good for them to eat. My boys are my life and I want to be around for them as long as possible. I want to eat healthier and make sure my kids eat healthier, but it’s hard. It’s really, really hard on a fixed income. I don’t care what anyone says, it can’t always be done,” Lee said.

Tammi Way of Clarks Green is a mother whoisn’t struggling from a low-income, but also admits that it can be a struggle to afford healthy food.

“I try to be as creative as possible to help my groceries stretch. I’ll often use one chicken or steak and stir-fry it throughout the week with vegetables. I mean, it’s my kids’ health, so I’ll go without something I want or need to make sure they’re eating better,” Way said.

Some people believe their is no struggle to obtain a nutritious diet if people want to be healthy, and that socioeconomic status is a crutch often used as an excuse. Barry Kaplan of Tunkhannok, co-owner of Everything Natural in Clarks Summit, feels strongly that “if you eat simpler, you’re going to eat more nutritiously and less expensively.”

To some extent, Kaplan, who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his organic food and natural product store, said he believes the socioeconomic crisis of lower-income individuals who feel they can’t afford to eat healthy is based on ignorance, considering their lack of a good education and knowledge that people of a higher social class with a better education can understand.

“The more education and the more exposure people have will help them realize that your economic status doesn’t mean that you can’t get the optimal nutrition that you need,” Kaplan said.

The local business owner mentioned there is a trade-off that people don’t consider or realize when it comes to prioritizing a healthier diet.

“Higher nutrition comes with optimal health, which decreases medical costs now and later. Degenerative disease costs us as individuals huge amounts of money for medical bills as well as pain and suffering to ourselves and to our families. The costs we spend from diseases and health problems we get when making poor diet choices costs way more than the amount that is spent on better food,” Kaplan said.

Opinions aside, scientific research has proven healthy food to be more expensive than food that is not healthy. A recent study at Harvard University revealed that the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day or about $550 per year, which can be a lot of money for low-income families, begging the question, why is unhealthy food more affordable when it is more damaging to our population? According to Kaplan, the government is responsible for that.

“I think the government needs to step up to the plate more in some ways. For example, people who don’t eat natural or organic are getting cheaper food that is toxic or isn’t nutritious because the government actually subsidizes the costs of chemical fertilizer with pesticides and research and development for ‘food science’ as opposed to actual food,” Kaplan said.

Deputy Secretary Jay Howes of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture discredited Kaplan’s statement assuring that their primary focus is food safety.

“Without pesticides, we wouldn’t have as much crops as we have, so we use pesticides as a management tool against pests that might impede the growth of the crop,” Howes said.

Dr. Lydia Johnson, Director of Food Safety for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture told Weekender there is no increased risk in food safety from the use of pesticides.

“Every summer we rotate throughout the regions of Pennsylvania to take samples of grown crops and examine them in our labs. If there is an issue, we monitor it and turn the issue over to the Bureau of Plant Industry to correct the issue or recall the product. Very rarely do we find an issue, because pesticides are generally developed to be inert within hours,” Dr. Johnson said.

Howes added that the use of pesticides doesn’t result in food contamination. When it comes to buying organic, the choice isn’t necessary, but a consumer choice, said Howes.

Local health expert and owner of Uno Fitness in Scranton, Ray Parchinski, who is a certified health counselor from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, said low-income families can get the necessary nutrition by concentrating on whole food as opposed to organic food.

“When you consume a whole food item, your body is nourished from a cell level. When you eat boxed food, you trick your stomach into feeling full, will be hungry sooner and you didn’t nourish the body,” Parchinski said.

Parchinski said liquids play a substantial role when it comes to being healthy.

“What people don’t understand is that liquids play a role in being healthy. Start with water, it’s a free resource. From there, just concentrate on whole foods such as oatmeal for breakfast, an egg, or nuts. Oatmeal is less expensive than boxed cereal, doesn’t have all that sugar and chemicals and will sustain you for five hours, helping you eat less than if you eat processed foods, which will cause you to be hungry sooner,” Parchinski said.

Modifying the food we eat to fit into our budget sounds simple enough to help everyone obtain a healthy lifestyle, but is it? According to Tracy Lee, it’s not that simple.

“A struggle people don’t realize is that it’s not all about the money. It’s about the resources. Sometimes you need to have something quick to prepare for your kids. As a single mom, I’m doing everything from washing the clothes, doing the dishes, working when I am able to, putting them to bed, and it’s hard to have the time to make a fresh meal when you don’t have someone there to help you with everything that is involved with taking care of two small children. Some days it is too overwhelming. Some days one of your kids is sick. Some days you’re not feeling well. Some days you just have to make a frozen dinner or mac-and-cheese,” Lee said.

The single mom on welfare feels that the government should help her out more, but she isn’t asking for more money.

“I don’t think the government should give me more money. People take advantage of money. I think the government should figure out a more practical way to assist struggling people so they can have the resources they need to survive and be healthy,” Lee said.

She recalled being out of food recently and relying on a food bank.

“I called the food bank and I got a voice recording telling me that they were only available on Mondays and Saturdays. I called on a Wednesday. I was really stuck. The government should have a system in place that could have helped me. There should be a weekly or bi-weekly fresh produce food drive instead of monthly so that we aren’t left eating unhealthy, processed food to get by until the next month once the short shelf life expires. Most of the things that come in a food drive are items like macaroni, beef stew, things that aren’t healthy. What the government provides is not healthy,” Lee said.

Lee’s solution for the government to help low-income members of society obtain optimal nutrition includes providing people on government assistance with resources including fresh produce, child care and clothing rather than money.

Whether you agree or disagree that living a healthy lifestyle can only be achieved if you have the money to spare, Lee is inarguably correct when she says that you can’t judge someone until you have lived their life.