In this prize-winning Washington Post series the author, Eli Saslow, gives us a glimpse into the desperate lives of these Mexican immigrants living in a Texas border town, subsisting entirely on the government food stamp program, with disastrous results.
They were already running late for a doctor’s appointment, but first the Salas family hurried into their kitchen for another breakfast paid for by the federal government. The 4-year-old grabbed a bag of cheddar-flavored potato chips and a granola bar. The 9-year-old filled a bowl with sugary cereal and then gulped down chocolate milk. Their mother, Blanca, arrive at the refrigerator and reached into the drawer where she stored the insulin needed to treat her diabetes. She filled a needle with with fluid and injected it into her stomach with a practiced jab.
Let’s go,” she told the children, rushing them out of the kitchen and into the car. “We can stop for snacks on our way home.”
The family checkup had been scheduled at the insistence of a school nurse, who wanted the Salas family to address two concerns: They were suffering from both a shortage of nutritious food and a diet of excess – paradoxical problems that have become increasingly interconnected in the United States, and especially in South Texas.
For almost a decade Blanca had supported her five children by stretching $430 in monthly food stamp benefits, adding lard to thicken her refried beans and buying instant soup by the case at a nearby dollar store. She shopped for “quantity over quality,” she said, aiming to fill a grocery cart for $100 or less.
But the cheap food she could afford on the standard government allotment of about $1.50 per meal also tended to be among the least nutritious – heavy in preservatives, fats, salt and refined sugar. Now Clarissa, her 13-year-old daughter, had a darkening ring around her neck that suggested early-onset diabetes from too mush sugar. Now Antonio, 9, was sharing dosages of his mother’s cholesterol medication. Now Blanca herself was too sick to work, receiving disability payments at age 40 and testing her blood-sugar level twice each day to guard against the stroke doctors warned was forthcoming as a result of her diet.
She drove toward the doctor’s office on the two-lane highways of South Texas, the flat horizon of brown dirt interrupted by palm trees and an occasional view of the steel fence that divides the United States from Mexico. Blanca’s parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1950’s to pick strawberries and cherries, and they often repeated the aphorism about the border fence. “On one side you’re skinny. On the other you’re fat,” they said. Now millions more had crossed through the fence, both legally and illegally, making Hidalgo County one of the fastest growing places in America.
“El Futuro” is what some residents had begun calling the area, and here the future was unfolding in the cycle of cascading extremes:
Hidalgo County has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation … which has led almost 40 percent of the residents to enroll in the food-stamp program … which means a widespread reliance on cheap, processed foods … which results in rates of diabetes and obesity that double the national average … and which fuels the country’s highest per-capita spending on health care.
This is what El Futuro looks like in the Rio Grande Valley: The country’s hungriest region is also its most overweight, with 38.5 percent of the people obese. For one of the first times anywhere in the United States children in South Texas have a projected life span that is a few years shorter than that of their parents.
It is a crisis at the heart of the Washington debate over food stamps, which now help support nearly 1 in 7 Americans. Has the massive growth of a government feeding program solved a problem, or created one? Is it enough for the government to help people buy food or should it go further by also telling them hat to eat?
Blanca walked her children into the doctor’s office in the sprawling town of McAllen and they took turns stepping onto the scale: 110 pounds. Seventy-eight. Fifty-five. ”Not perfect, but not so bad,” the doctor said. Then a nurse handed him the children’s blood work – a series of alarming numbers that lately read more like averages in this part of Texas. Clarissa needed to watch her sugar, he said. Antono needed to increase the dosageof his cholesterol medication.
“Can I still eat hot Cheetos?” Antonio asked. “Just one bag a day?”
“Not anymore,” the doctor said.
“One a week?”
The doctor set down his chart and turned to face Blanca. He had 17 more appointments on his schedule for the day – 17 more conversations like this one. The waiting room was filled with the children of Hidalgo County, 40 percent of them experiencing severe hunger at least once each month and 32 percent of them obese. His challenge was the same one that preoccupied so many in the Rio Grande Valley: How could families who had so little find ways to consume less?
“Either you address this now or it will be too late.” He told Banca. “I can give you medicine, but that’s not the permanent solution.