It is interesting that young and unemployed (two words that are now virtually synonymous) and highly educated folks are using food stamps to buy high quality food – and taking a lot of heat for it. I can understand the visceral reaction that people have, but I also think it is fascinatingly difficult to try and figure out what we think poor people should eat – we criticize them freely for buying junk, and then we criticize them for buying high quality food. Where is the space that the poor are free to choose in?
Controversy about how they use food stamps marks an interesting shift from the classic critique that the program subsidizes diets laden with soda pop and junk food. But from that perspective, food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget.
And while they might be questioned for viewing premium ingredients as a necessity, it could also be argued that they’re eating the best and most conscious way they know how. They are often cooking at home. They are using fresh ingredients. This is, after all, a generation steeped in Michael Pollan books, bountiful farmer’s markets and a fetish for all things sustainable and handcrafted. Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?
At Magida’s brick row house in Baltimore, she and Mak minced garlic while observing that one of the upsides of unemployment was having plenty of time to cook elaborate meals, and that among their friends, they had let go of any bad feelings about how their food was procured.
“It’s not a thing people feel ashamed of, at least not around here,” said Mak. “It feels like a necessity right now.”
Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.
“At first, I thought, ‘Why should I be on food stamps?'” said Magida, digging into her dinner. “Here I am, this educated person who went to art school, and there are a lot of people who need them more. But then I realized, I need them, too.”
This reminds me of a story I recently heard on NPR about the way food aid to refugees had to shift in order to handle the Iraqi middle class that was driven into sudden poverty by the American invasion – the author being interviewed (and I honestly can’t remember who it was) observed that for middle class Iraqis, the traditional “refugees need to line up for hours in the street to collect their bag of rice” model didn’t work, that people would honestly choose to starve to death rather than endure the public humiliation of being treated like beggars.
We have a new class of poor people who haven’t either been or expected to be really poor – overwhelmingly the young are unemployed, getting by by pooling resources and living in close quarters. When everyone is under or unemployed, but you’ve been raised with middle class assumptions, certainly, your assumptions need to change. But it is also true that the assumptions of those providing aid change too.
It is frustrating for someone who can’t afford good food or hasn’t the time to buy or make it to pay taxes to subsidize someone who by virtue of management strategies, youth and unemployment has more options. But it is also the case that food stamps have operated for decades as a subsidy on poor quality industrial food. It is hard to rage against the industrial food machine in a nation where 1 out of every 9 households uses food stamps and not realize that the shift to buying better quality food with food stamps matters a gerat deal both to what kind of food system we have and also to how we view the poor.