Eating Well on Food Stamps Holds a Lens Up to Our Own Attitudes About Poverty

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.


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My wife recently applied for food stamps and was informed that our household receives too much income to qualify, even tho her sole income is a measly disability check each month and our son & I are both miserably underemployed. When Carter was prez we could eat like kings on food stamps and still have sufficient left over to buy food for friends in exchange for cash. But food stamps back then became sort of a trap, in that they motivated us to neglect our garden. Why put so much effort into growing food when we could just collect food stamps? The garden really went downhill once we started receiving food stamps.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

It's amazing just how inexpensive really high quality food is in the U.S.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thank you for this. I'm a college graduate who recently got on food stamps. I'm one of those young people who has been trying and trying to find employment, but just hasn't had any luck. I'm also one of those people who was raised in the middle class and was told that by going to college, I'd stay in the middle class. Now, I'm poor, but at least I'm no longer losing money every month simply trying to survive.

And I do have to wonder, if I'm not supposed to buy junk and I'm not supposed to buy quality food, what the fuck am I supposed to buy? Oh, wait, I'm not supposed to buy anything. I'm supposed to starve because I'm apparently a lazy drain on society, despite applying for jobs every day and even going in for interviews.

until i left the country a few months ago, i was a highly educated person who was unemployed despite everything i did to find work. i never completed a food stamp application because in NYC, all applicants are fingerprinted. so being poor in NYC means we obviously are criminals who have not yet been caught.

Someone who can extract DNA from birds, specify if not synthesize the primers, amplify the material with the PCR, run it out on a gel, understand & manipulate the software for reconstructing phylogenies... being treated like a criminal for wanting to eat. If this doesn't exemplify the underlying systemic sickness of usan society, I don't know what does.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

You had to be fingerprinted? Damn. Here in Minnesota I just had to give them proof of what money and assets I have. Also, a $7000 cut off limit for savings and assets strikes me as too low of a cut off. Especially considering it took from November to March to get the damn thing done. If I wasn't living with other people who are willing to keep me from starving, I doubt I'd be able to make it.

If people on food stamps are savvy enough about what they buy that they can eke out some special goodies that are real food rather than processed, I am not offended by that. I am pretty sure that they are not living in the lap of luxury, and it's possible to have a few quality foods or other items on a very tight budget if you're careful. The real issue is that our society has always had this malevolent Calvinist streak that says if you are poor you do not deserve to have anything of good quality at all.

I was under the (obviously wrong) impression that food stamps in the US were barely sufficent to feed someone - if they are in enough for a family to live on good quality organic food then good for them! I would rather see the poor eat well than eat junk. here in Australia we dont have food stamps but unemployment benefit (the dole) and the main thing people seem to squeal about is people on the dole smoking, drinking and gambling - i havent yet seen any coverage of people on the dole spending their money on *gasp* good food.

I guess the issue for the working poor who arent eligible for food stamps is they cannot see how they can afford to fit organic food into their budget - and yet someone on government assistance can. I know I cannot afford organic chicken - free-range is the best I can do - and I would wonder how someone on benefits CAN afford it. But if they can - they should be abl to without critiscm

I believe this also highlights the way that "poor" loses its meaning as the middle class shrinks. Even 25 years ago (as I remember from my early adulthood,) it was generally true that college graduates could eke out a basic living, put a roof over their heads, and so on. People living below the poverty level, again generally, were often people who suffered other obstacles such as lack of education or understanding of how to get one.

Our support systems are set up to assume that people educated about organic foods and people needing long-term help from food stamps are a different group of people. Most of us also assume that people who don't require or qualify for support can afford to choose luxuries like organic food if they prioritize this. Neither of those things is true anymore.

People with formerly (lower) middle-class jobs are now "the working poor." The ranks of the truly poor - including people with next to no income at all - increasingly includes highly educated people.

By Barbara Saunders (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

As dollars become harder and harder to earn/find food stamps will become the de- facto US circulating currency. Hopefully, the Department of Agriculture will assert a policy of widespread issue - that is, allow fractional leverage from small reserves.

I expect this to take place over the next couple of years, even if Republicans win control of (part) of Congress. Without foodstamps/currency there is likely to be insurrection.

They mentioned Trader Joe's, which is pretty reasonable as far as grocery stores go--my granny who lived through the 1930s Depression used to shop there when she was well enough.

Asian grocery stores were my favorite way of economizing in grad school: a student in one of my classes was Thai, and we'd take turns studying at each other's houses, with the rule that whomever's house it was, had to cook dinner. She was astonished at what USAians would pay for the Thai equivalent of spaghetti-n-meatballs; the $30/meal restaurants served was little more than regular sauce over veggies out of cans, with rice on the side. She taught me which cans made which curries and soups and showed me how to make some fresh pasta salads Thai-style. Spouse and I used to make Panaeng Curried shrimp and Tom Ka seafood soup for $2/serving, plenty left over for the next day or to be packed into Tupperwares for lunches. Good stuff.

Other foodie stuff I ate when I was poor, that happens to be cheap: polenta, tamales, venison, sourdough bread and that German "health bread" that is like five pounds of cement sliced thin, organic blackberries (they grew wild around our house), homegrown veggies, pesto, gazpacho, Indian-style curried veggies, mussels in white wine sauce ($4/bag in season, one bag makes 3-4 servings with noodles), homemade pizza on focaccia bread, risotto. Of course we had our share of pancakes, noodles and potatoes too, and fried zucchini sticks and salads featuring, um, foraged ingredients.

I'm glad the younguns are learning to survive on less money. It will make them more resilient to change than their parents.

Recently on food stamps for myself and my daughter, I found that the amount is enough to cover "good food" - meaning homecooked food. If I dip into the processed "bad food" aisle too often - I run out at the end of the month. For the 2 weeks that I didn't have a kitchen to cook in - the $367 for two would not have lasted the end of the month - and we had to eat cold, because the hot deli is deemed "restaurant food" and is off-limits.
You also can't buy non-food items on food stamps, so no toilet paper or soap or gas for the car. (I'm lucky to be getting some cash from the father.) Coming from a middle class family where "being on assistance" was just not done, being able to accept this help has been a tremendous load off my worries, and is alowing me to get back on track.

You're not supposed to use food stamps unless you HAVE to! Look at some of these comments! "Under Carter we ate like kings and made money buying other groceries" WTF!! That is taxpayer dollars going to your pocket! This is why I hate liberals. They all want handouts and complain that "the system" isn't doing enough for them AKA OTHER PEOPLE. It's ok if you can't find a job and need help, but jeez, be smart about it and don't buy luxury items!!

So its okay to let some people "endure the public humiliation of being treated like beggars" but not others?

Food is a pretty powerful motivator, I honestly don't think many people would let their kids starve just to stay out of a food line.

ET, are you asking me or the writer who made the claim? I certainly wouldn't say it was ok - I would say that the way refugees are treated in most parts of the world is truly terrible - if the Iraqi middle class refugees are improving people's perceptions of refugees and making the process less humiliating by insisting on being treated with more dignity, isn't that a good thing?

Ryan, you can need food stamps and still use them carefully enough to eat well. And as others have pointed out, if all you have is food stamps as income, it is almost impossible to buy toilet paper, asprin and other basics without trading some of them for cash. I'm willing to bet Darwin's Dog's version of "eat like kings" wasn't all that shocking.


Fuck you, Ryan. Seriously, fuck you. I'm only on food stamps because I have been unable to find work. Here I am with a college degree in biochemistry and I can't find a god damn job. Unless you think it's a wonderful idea to kill off the educated segment of our population, fuck off. Actually, if you think that, fuck off anyway.

@ Ryan: You're darn right The System (AKA my fellow citizens such as yourself) aren't doing enough for me. Here's my list of demands:

1. Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act and enforce it with gusto and, for preference, public hangings of CEOs. They get paid enough to take that risk. Pay for it by televising the process of bounty hunters and assassins chasing down executives on the lam. Us consumers need real competition to bring down prices. Or something.

2. Use random product testing of final food items purchased by the consumer as grounds for USDA-enforceable recalls. Current food safety is too focused on the process, which should in reality be easily malleable according to the best results, not according to who has the fanciest building. Consumers should be able to submit purchased samples to a national testing lab and get results if they think they've et a bad hotdog, not wait for 500 people to get poisoned and wait months for the USDA and the FDA to dicker over whose job it is, resulting only in a nice letter to the company that says, "We received a report or something, could you pretty please look into it? All our love, the FDA."

3. Try to learn how to create an actual job. It should not cost hundreds of thousands of $$ to create a job that only pays $40-50k. Here's a hint: I live in Taxachusetts, and we are coming out of the Great Recession faster than anyone--and we were never as deeply into it. Tax relief has bugger-all to do with creating jobs. This may be a bit tricky, but here's how it works: Jobs are created when you have a product, that is an actual piece of stuff, that people want to pay for. Generally that means you have to have a smart person invent it for you, or perhaps just build an example of one. The reason we have so many jobs here probably has something to do with the fact that we've got many many universities constantly churning out smart people full of ideas. Maybe we could do something about that.

I realize of course that large questions of governance cannot be solved by just anyone. So on a daily basis, I'd like my fellow citizens to aspire to treat women and people of color like sentient creatures with rights, practice using logic to solve daily problems, and check before forwarding another fucking email.

It is a beautiful spring day here in central Texas, and I'm in a good mood. So this is going to be a happy comment on a tough topic.

Interesting comments by everyone. I agree with parts of almost all of them. Here's the way I look at giving help: if you decide you're going to help someone, it's good to give the help graciously. A personal example: my husband (who does not drive) asks me to go and buy something for him at the store. I don't really want to go to the store, but I agree to do it anyway. I can either do it sullenly, and make comments like "Gee, I really wanted to plant some lettuce in the garden today, but I wasted all that time driving to the store for you," to make him feel guilty for imposing on me. Or I can do it cheerfully and try to enjoy the experience of going to the store. The latter is far nicer all the way around -- for me, my husband, and the people I encounter on the street and in the store.

I'm not going to comment directly on the issue of food stamps; it's obvious that people get emotional about it, and all I have at this point are opinions. I'm not sure I have any good answers, except I'm close to 100% sure that if someone has to rely on food stamps, it's a lot better to buy good food than to buy crap.

But here's something I think anyone would have a hard time complaining about:

Turning the Food Desert of Detroit into organic gardens! What a great idea!

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Lora, I am intrigued by your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

By anonymous coward (not verified) on 27 Mar 2010 #permalink

In Utah those applying for food stamps are required to take a class in nutrition to help them make nutritious meals. And here is a family doing it on their own and getting the stink eye for it?

Aren't some states even allowing a food stamp dollar to go twice as far when used at a farmer's market? Which also helps the local economy. Wouldn't it be great if they were then able to purchase enough produce to freeze, dehydrate or can some for the winter?

A family of our size would receive significantly more in foodstamps than I spend out of pocket for groceries.

But even on our very limited budget we eat very well. Then again I've been blessed to learn skills that allow my grocery dollar to stretch.

I'm certainly not going to complain that people are eating well on food stamps. Especially a family with children.

I can take a chicken and turn it into the makings of two meals for a family of 8 on far less than I could feed them on junk food.

I've read on other boards of families who receive more in food stamps than they can use a month. So they have taken the extra and used it to purchase long term storage foods such as oil, flour, rice, beans, sugar, canned goods etc., to start a food storage with to help keep them out of the situation they find themselves in now in the future.

Can you buy garden seeds/seedlings with food stamps?

Response @ Tammy and Parker:

In IL where I live: I know you can buy garden seeds with your food card. The food stamp program is ultimately run by the USDA. Seeds to grow your own veggies are an allowed expense on the card (In IL). Don't take my word for it, go to the UT food stamp website to confirm this. Sorry if I cannot keep the acronyms straight.

Or....go to the grocery checkout with a couple of seed packets and you will know real fast if this is a legit expense in your state. If not, budget about $5 seed money every week and grow some tomatoes,chilies, or what is suitable to your climate and palate.

Best wishes and thoughts to you :)

I have volunteered for many years at a local food pantry and people often say they are glad to hear that, BUT...

...why do poor people pay for cell phones instead of food? Good cars instead of food? Good clothes instead of food? "X" instead of food?

They don't realize that their underlying question is really this: what gives poor people the right to look like the rest of us, instead of conveniently identifying themselves as poor?

Constance - you are right, and I think people forget that "looking and acting poor" is also a major barrier to getting out of poverty. Getting a good job requires good, clean clothes. It may require a cell phone. People who come across as visibly impoverished often are turned down for jobs because of class markers - so it is even more insidious than that - we want to hate people for having the markers of the middle class, but the loss of those markers can keep you poor forever.



Thanks for your response. We actually don't receive food stamps.

I was wondering because Reed and I are having kind of a gardening class this spring where the 'students' are actually going to help us plant in our garden.

Think if you give them a tomato they eat for a day.......if you teach them how to garden they eat sauce for the year, kinda deal. :)

I'm going to be sharing seeds with a few who don't have the extra cash to purchase them. Which then made me wonder if by chance they could be purchased with food stamps...or what the chances were of the local LDS storehouses to offer seeds along with food.

A dollar's worth of seeds even in an old bucket on your back porch would go so much further than a dollar's worth of veggies at the local big box store.

My personal opinion is that if a person has the time they should be learning to eat better for less. And if you can afford to, why not use your food stamps to subsidizes local and organic food? When a person gets food stamps they get a set amount every month. If they spend it all on high priced food (processed or not) they will be hungry at the end of the month. But, if that person buys bulk staples (flour, sugar, cornmeal, rice, beans, etc.)and learns to make most of their meals from scratch, they could easily afford to buy high quality (maybe even organic) food. You really can save tons of money cooking from scratch. I just did the #s on what it costs me to make a loaf of bread. My bread is a basic sourdough which uses flour, sugar, salt, and homegrown yeast. The cost per loaf using store bought white flour including the cost to bake it is .36 cents a loaf. If I bake it in the solar oven and use my homegrown wheat (last year I grew enough in my garden to make 2 loaves a week for a year) it costs about .02 cents a loaf for the sugar and salt. When your feeling useless and depressed, eating good food that you took part in making/growing can help make you feel productive and alive again. When you share it with friends your building the "community" we are all going to need in the future.

I also have a question. This is both an actual question that I would be interested in knowing the official answer to, but also a question intended to make people look beyond the "labels".

What makes a person poor?

Is it solely income? Is it based on what they have left after paying all the bills? Is it having a nice house and a fancy car? Or having your house and car paid off? Is it net worth? Is it using government "safety nets" (unemployment, social security, disability, food stamps)? How a person dresses?

Personally, my family of four lived on less than ten thousand dollars last year. We could have lived on less, but we would have missed our trips to the China Buffet:). Our house and car are *very* humble(aka trashy;)), but they are paid off and provide for us very well. We have no debt. We don't get any help (government or other) because we don't need it. Sometimes we look like the dirty crap flinging monkeys (I put that in just for you Sharon) that we are, and sometimes we pretty ourselves up and "play the game". One way or the other we confuse the heck out of people. I think we are putting way to much time and energy into trying to make people wear their appropriate labels and follow the rules that go along with them. We have much bigger problems than a few people using government money to buy (gasp) organic chicken.

Yup, I am poor and probably about to get poorer by next school year when my husband loses his job. But I am rich in compassion, knowledge, self-sufficiency and love for my family. I feel sorry for those poor in spirit who suffer from a dirth of compassion for the many many folks who have swallowed their pride so that they could feed their families during these truly hard times. I only hope that if they should find themselves in this situation that they are not confronted with such ignorance.

I think what the article vaguely touches on but doesn't address is the difference between the working poor and the "hipster kids" without jobs. If you're a working single parent on food stamps, you don't have *time* to whip up all kinds of fancy stuff. You can still eat healthily but it's not going to be gourmet, most likely.

I also question whether the people in the story really eat like that every day. It doesn't seem realistic, at least as far as them eating organic salmon and chicken... organic/local meat is very expensive here and if you're on a budget you have to be sparing with it. Maybe it's cheaper in other places but I don't see people eating it with abandon while on food stamps, which is what the story makes it sound like.

the critique about what food ppl buy with their food stamps comes from them buying food with their food stamps. The whole concept is offensive to those critiquing it, so they use any excuse to rail against it.

The USA and poverty and how the government should deal with it is a strange combination.

Wow, I'm a mother of two and yes I use food stamps. I can't say that those around me shop wisely for food or healthy choices for their children. Some use Food stamps and others have pretty good incomes and their children still eat poorly. I try to make new meals all the time and include my children in making healthy choices. Yes I'm in a poverty area but Just because I'm in this place don't mean I have to settle for it and eat or live unhealthy. I want my children to be happy with life and know that they control their own life and that's what matters. I thank the tax payers for helping my family but at times People judge before they know others struggles. If eating Healthy is just a bad thing for the poor Why do they think its for the rich and not the poor? Should we just eat processed foods and die faster?