Found Chinook Salmon by Portland Mike via Flickr. Are meals put together with food stamp money 'found art' too?
So evidently Salon.com ran an article about “Hipsters on Food Stamps“, subtitled “They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?”
Now, the whole reason I have this blog is that I write weekly mini-cookbooks that help people save money on groceries and have fun with their food.
When my wife got food stamps, we used them to supplement our food budget. She got $200, which was $60 more than I budgeted for myself when I was single, but still a totally reasonable amount – if you are planning your meals out carefully. We did, and we were able to keep buying organic, healthy ingredients and making exciting meals out of them. And while we have access to a lot of good food in the Bay Area, the cost of living is not exactly cheap.
It seems that meal planning is not exactly a well-known concept. The article’s tone was simply curious, despite the defensive subtitle, but responses fell into three basic categories: “Buying healthy food is good,” “Buying expensive stuff on food stamps is unwise,” and “[They should] die and clear the field for the rest of us.”
(Yes, that one was a direct quote.)
The usual negative response is less homicidal and more inclined to say that if you can afford to buy organic food with the same allotment that others use for bread or Mountain Dew, you don’t deserve food stamps. As a meal planner, a former recipient, and a firm advocate for both organic food and just plain loving what you eat, let me rant for a minute about why this is wrong.
By day, I work for the employment development dept – the folks who brought you unemployment insurance – and I can tell you for sure that if the government wanted to put in some rules about what you had to buy to deserve food stamps, they would.
Come to think of it, they do: food stamps are already set up so you can only buy food products and food plants with them. If you throw soap or diapers or chamomile plants in your cart too, the cashier gives them back and tells you you have to pay for them separately. Because the computer says so when you pay for them with the EBT card.
It would be no problem at all for them to make the card reject organic free-range salmon, or caviar, or twelve-packs of Mountain Dew. They could say, “Food stamps are strictly for basic pantry staples,” or “produce and protein,” or “farmer’s markets,” or “prepackaged crap that we get lobbyist kickbacks for encouraging you to buy,” or just about anything – but they don’t.
Why? Because like unemployment, that money is there for people in a certain financial situation. Where I am, those rules are mainly that you can only be making 135% of poverty or below, which is extremely low: 135% is around $14k a year for one person.
They don’t require that you be good at handling money, or using it as frugally as you would if it were cash. It’s more for a lot of people than they would spend on food if they had cash. That’s a good thing. Shame and frugality and fear tell us that if we’re poor we should live on beans and rice; it is GOOD that at some point the government steps in and says, “Look, at least have the OPPORTUNITY to have your nutritional needs met so you have the vitamins and fuel you need to function.” (As an amateur nutritionist, I will tell you straight out, beans and rice do not a balanced diet make no matter how many times you read Diet for A Small Planet.)
Salmon Nigiri by Adactio via Flickr
And yeah, for a lot of people, if they were able to handle money or work or the search for either one better, they would not be on unemployment or food stamps. This is not blame or shame. It is GOOD that people who were never taught that stuff growing up have a chance to learn it when they hit bottom instead of being tossed out as hopeless.
I have seen many, many people come in to our career center who send out all-lowercase resumes full of misspellings to jobs they don’t qualify for, or tell me flat-out that they’re not looking for work, or REEK of pot or booze. I’ve known many people on food stamps who had no idea how to handle money, whether that meant they were using their food stamps for food they didn’t need, or that wasn’t enough for them, or that they didn’t read the paperwork and do what they needed to do to stay on food stamps (unemployment too, all day long).
If buying organic food is a bad financial decision of the kind that can eventually land you on food stamps – which I don’t think it is – then it’s a good thing that people have a structured, limited amount of grocery money to learn that from in a very tight financial situation.
If it’s not, then criticism of it seems to me to come from the exact same puritannical, self-denying, fear-based shame-ridden crap that, I also know from much experience, is what lands people in these positions to begin with.