Via Karnythia’s tumblr, I found this post that summarizes Chef Karl Wilder’s attempts to feed his family for two months on the allotment a family gets on food stamps. Wilder, who did this as part of an awareness campaign for the San Francisco Food Bank, documented his and his family’s experience on his blog.
Now before I go on to the meat of this post, I’ll point out a couple of things–he found it very difficult to feed his family on the amount equivalent to a food stamp allotment, found the foods that fit into the budget boring, and while he lost weight, found that his actual physical health had gotten worse. As in: higher levels of cholesterol, body fat, blood sugar, and triglycerides.
So–like the Dollar a Day food challenges that seemed to be all the rage a few years ago, this may be a revelation for some. (And I’m not dissing those projects–they did raise awareness and I think most of the people who did them grew to understand how freaking difficult it can be.) For many people, however, this is not news. The idea that food stamp recipients spend that money on steaks and lobster (though ironically, I’ve seen steak go for far less than ground beef these days) or that they could eat well if they only tried hard is a load of bunk. I do not think people realize just how inane, smug, and ridiculous their “You could just” chirpy advice sounds to people who are poor (whether or not they are working), juggling the issues we all deal with (child care, medical care of lack thereof, housing), and trying to eat well. Not to mention the fact that many people have the grocery gap to contend with. Also neglected in these lectures is the inconvenient fact that when you are poor, you don’t have the resources to take care of problems that other people do–one small thing can snowball and create much bigger problems for you if you cannot take care of it. Things tend to be more difficult, more expensive, and less easily accessible when you don’t have resources, and it affects everything. It isn’t just about food, but it can and does affect what foods you can access and how much time you have to get them and prepare them.
One of the things I’ve heard in response to projects like this is that poor people can just grow some vegetables and that will supplement their diets nicely. Well, I’ve got two garden plots (and access to my parent’s garden) and I’ve got some news for you–unless you’re an experienced gardener, actually have a viable space to use for gardening, are in decent physical shape and have the time, it’s a no-go. And for a lot of people who don’t have sunny yards (or even sunny balconies) it’s a non starter.
But let’s just go with the gardening lecture. Great. As I said, I have two garden plots (long story)–one’s doing okay, and the other is a disaster. You cannot just throw seeds into the ground and harvest bushels of fresh vegetables. It takes work. And even with all of the work in the world, you may have a crappy crop, or small rodents that get in through the fence to eat your plants (I am getting chicken wire for the lower part of my fence next year, damned rabbits), or blight, or bad weather, or just the consequences of general inexperience. It takes time to become a good gardener. As an immediate panacea, it’s not particularly effective, and as a long-term solution, it isn’t for everyone. (Not everyone likes to garden or can physically do it.)
But wait! You can just cook large pots of chili and lentil stew and freeze it and save it for later. Except you need storage for that. Many people who are on public assistance are also marginally housed; a deep freeze isn’t an option in those situations (and most people don’t have $250 to buy a deep freeze with, anyway). But wait! You can just can things! (Except you need to get a pressure canner if you do anything that isn’t a pickle, jelly, jam, or tomato, which can be expensive if you don’t know someone with one. You need the jars, lids, and bands. And you need to be comfortable doing it.)
But wait! You can just–
How about this? How about we shut up about about “you can just” do X, Y, and Z? How about we just shut up an accept the fact that most people who aren’t on public assistance don’t know how to do these things (a large portion of my friends think it’s amusing and a little weird that I’ve become some sort of suburban homesteader; I’m an anomaly). That most people who aren’t on public assistance can’t just do a lot of these things right off the bat and we don’t make these suggestions to them when they complain the cable bill is getting too expensive or they can’t go on vacation. And that if we don’t offer this sort of chirpy advice to people who aren’t on public assistance, maybe we can shut up when it comes to people who use food stamps.
Can we just accept that fact that being poor, and being on public assistance, means you aren’t eating well right now? That the steak and lobster buying food stamp recipient is a straw person? That people on public assistance are not living high on the hog? And that it’s a crying shame that the assistance people get is not enough?
You know, call me a communist, but I would love it if people on public assistance could afford to buy the occasional skirt steak, salmon, pork tenderloin or package of dried mushrooms along with their regular food purchases if they wanted to. I think people should be able to feed themselves and their kids consistently throughout the month. I have a problem with the idea that we seem to require poor people to eat gruel and wear rags. If my tax dollars are going to help people, goddammit, I want them to be able to get enough help to eat well. It beats the hell out of what my tax dollars usually go to.