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Omnivore Food Blog By Suzanne Podhaizer

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May 23, 2007

Food Stamp Diet...one more post

This is my response to a letter to the editor we ran in last week's paper. My goal in writing this response is not necessarily to change any particular person's mind about the project. However, it is very important to me that folks understand my intentions, whether or not they agree with my approach. Passages in bold are from the letter.

"Suzanne Podhaizer's experiment in buying organic/local/natural foods with the money allotted to food-stamp recipients seems patronizing, disingenuous and naive..."

Naive I can understand. At the end of the week, I found I'd been unable to meet my caloric needs on the diet I came up with. I was also exhausted and hungry. This would have been doubly true if I had a teenage son who eats like my teenage brother, and so on. People who get food assistance are in such varied situations that no project could ever capture all of the complexities. I tried to do my best to raise some questions. This is the reason I framed it as a project and not a prescription.

Disingenuous, no. There was nothing insincere or hypocritical about my intentions. I blithely recommend local and organic foods as solutions to numerous social ills (petroleum usage, illnesses caused by the spraying of pesticides, cruelty to animals on factory farms), but I've never tried to purchase said foods on such a small budget. The natural/local/organic "food stamp diet" was conceived of as an experiment -- to see if I could make the choices I deem so important if my circumstances were different. There are folks on food stamps that attempt to keep kosher, buy halal foods or practice vegetarianism or veganism. Can they meet their caloric needs while still meeting their moral obligations? If not, what needs to change? Also, the prices of many processed foods don't reflect their true cost (to human health, to the environment) in part because of government subsidies and economies of scale. If those are the calorie-dense foods that prevent people from being hungry on the budget provided to them by the government, we have massive systemic problems. Should folks on food stamps have the option of buying fresh, pesticide-free produce and animals that weren't raised in squalid conditions? If so, what needs to happen to make that possible? Getting an EBT card reader at Farmers' Market might be a good start, more subsidized CSA shares throughout the state would be another, a greater number of free cooking classes would be a third.

Patronizing. I didn't intend it that way. If I'd tried to purchase duck or truffle oil, I believe that would have been patronizing. This wasn't about choosing fancy food, it was about choosing food that is nutritious and doesn't have such a high cost to other humans or the environment. I was eating couscous, beans and brown rice, foods that are staples in much of the world. Since I can't accurately emulate anybody else's situation, I lived as I would try to if my financial situation changed. I certainly found a bunch of ways in which I would need to compromise. 

"Moreover, City Market, where she shopped, is exclusively and prohibitively pricey for many in Burlington."

As I mentioned in a response to another blog comment, I lived in Burlington for many years without a vehicle, so I know what it's like to only be able to shop at City Market or coordinate taking a bus to another grocery store. I generally walked home carrying my groceries, which necessitated almost daily trips to the store. As I also mentioned in that previous comment, for at least two and maybe three of those years, I would have qualified for Food Stamps, but I didn't know it at the time. I'm not sure if we're running it this week, but City Market sent us a chart that provides the prices of staple foods at City Market versus other grocery stores. Many are comparable. Not all are. If it doesn't end up in the paper, I'll put it up on the blog.

"She omits spices from her total cost, which is absurd. Pound for pound, they are among the most expensive grocery items..."

Throughout the week, I used approximately 10-20 cents worth of spices. The only ones I used were cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper. Although spices are expensive per pound, a very small amount is needed to have an impact. I ate a pound of cabbage in one week. It would likely take me a decade to use a pound of spices. Had I done this project for a month, I would have been able to save on a few items, such as cheese, potatoes and carrots, by buying larger packages for less money. The leftover amount would have been enough to buy a month's worth of spices. Doing this for a week created additional limitations, but because of professional obligations, I knew I couldn't participate for a month without dining at restaurants.

"Many poor people also lack the leisure and culinary expertise of Podhaizer. The expectation that people under economic duress will adapt recipes from the Joy of Cooking is improbable, if not ludicrous."

The letter's author has no information about how much I work or what my financial obligations are like. Thus, commenting on my leisure level seems inappropriate. I do agree that I know a lot about cooking. That was one reason I limited myself primarily to recipes found in a book that hundreds of thousands of American families own (it has been in print continuously since 1936, and more than 18 million copies have been sold, says Wikipedia), that is in almost every public library, and which has simple, easy to follow recipes for staples and casseroles. Over the course of the week, adapting recipes meant things like making oatmeal with water instead of milk, so I wouldn't run out of milk. I didn't do anything fancy. I didn't use any fancy equipment. There are also programs in our area such as Healthy City and Cooking for Life, which are geared towards providing education and resources to folks who would like to learn about cooking and nutrition. The more programs like this our community can foster, the better.

"When I think of my working mother coming home exhausted, dealing with kids, the house, bills, etc., and then presumably whipping up a loaf of oatmeal bread...I don't know whether to laugh or cry."

Without getting too deeply into my family situation, I will say that I have two siblings, and my mom consistently works more hours than anybody else I've ever met, seven days a week. She has also prepared dinners from scratch ever since I can remember. She bakes bread, makes pizza dough, soaks and picks through dried beans, etc. There were times in my life when she earned the sole income for our family and still did this. That doesn't mean everybody can, but it's what I grew up with and how I learned to do things. I confirmed with her that during certain periods, she was feeding us on less than the "food stamp diet" allocated amount for a family of our size. Sometimes people bake and forage because they have the leisure to do so and they find it fun. Sometimes they do it out of necessity. My mom is lucky in that she happens to find baking pleasurable, too.

I wanted this project to be a learning experience for me and a thought-provoking read for others.

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Comments

Walter Jeffries

Healthy eating can be done on a minimal budget. Our family of five eats well on about $50 to $80 per week depending on the season. That's about $10 to $13 per person per week or an average of about 62 cents per person per meal. We've been doing this for a long time (20 years?). The $50 to $80 figure is current, we used to spend less but the price of basic foods has gone up over the years.

The biggest fraction of our food budget is for dairy, mostly milk. Gotta get a cow. We do raise much of our food and that is a very viable option, a choice people can make. It is how we thrive on a very tight budget. Ironically, the skills we have learned along the way over the years we are now turning into income as we are able to grow food for other people as well. As a benefit, this means most of our food is also local, organic and naturally grown.

We also forage wild mint, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, thimbleberries and other good foods. There is a lot you can harvest from the fields and woods. Similarly, the woods provide out firewood for heating and a goodly portion of our cooking. Most Vermonters are rural and have these opportunities. Urban folk have a harder time with this. Yes, it takes time, but pick which you want to spend, time or money. Personally I would rather be outdoors foraging and gardening. A hidden benefit is that you don't get taxed on the 'income' you use to raise your own food instead of buying it. It also costs less gasoline and associated vehicle costs.

What we don't do is buy hardly any preprepared foods, soda, chips, cookies, etc. Those things cost a lot of money and don't provide much food value in return. We also cook from scratch and we teach our children to cook from a young age in the process of helping us - that passes on the frugal ways.

One of the problems that I see is how people give into impulse buys, to that little extra purchase, to mass marketing of junk. People do need to understand the differences between what they want and what they need. My young daughter 'wants' ice cream. She needs oatmeal, rice, meat, fruit and veggies.

There is another thing we do which helps - we shop very infrequently. That saves gas and time. We rarely go in town. Going in town is expensive and means spending money for the transport if nothing else. The gas, oil and wear and tear on a vehicle are big expenses. By shopping infrequently we save that money freeing it up to buy food instead of supporting Saudi princes in luxury. Not driving much also makes our vehicle last longer - it's a 1993 minivan. It may not be beautiful but don't laugh 'cuz it's paid for.

You can eat well and even thrive an a very limited food budget. We do it by staying with the basics, cooking from scratch and raising as much of our own food as we can. This is a viable option and can even be done in an urban environment to a very large degree.

Suzanne

Walter, thanks very much for your post. I admire your food ethics and hope that my husband and I will be able to purchase some land at some point in the future and raise our own food in a similar fashion.

Victoria

I am surprised by the author's obvious anger with this experiment. I think that all people, regardless of their financial situation, should have the option to eat healthy, nutritious, environmentally safe foods, (especially considering that obesity will soon pass smoking as the #1 preventable cause of death among Americans). I don't believe this kind of experiment was undertaken to admonish those on food stamps, or critique them for not being City Market's top customers. No one is questioning their values. I think the primary objective was to see if people on food stamps had the OPTION to eat healthy, organic, unprocessed foods. The answer is obviously no. That says something to me about the limitations of our current system. Obesity and diabetes are even more of a problem among low-income Americans, where low quality, processed and fast foods are often the only choices available.
I don't believe Suzanne was trying to patronize anyone, but rather was trying to expose a flaw in the current system.

Amber

Someone here commented about how they only spend 50-80/week and still eat well with the addition of raising their own food and looking for wild fruits and such. While I agree that it is possible to eat healthier when you can provide some self-sustainability and cut-out the junk food, not everyone has the ability to raise their own cattle, or has a forest in their backyard where they can find wild fruits and such. I, myself, live in a trailer park and can't even have a garden, much less my own cow! It's not always simply a "choice" to do those things.

I'm on a food stamp budget, and I have to search for sales, clip coupons, ect. just to have enough food - period. The things I can suggest for eating healthier on this type of budget is to buy foods in bulk when possible, buy fresh fruits and veggies in season and freeze any extras for later use, watch for sales, and use coupons. Hope this helps someone out there...

Catherine

I really want to thank you for this post. While being on food stamps and trying to eat healthy can be tough, there are ways around it.

In response to Amber's comments about not being able to forage. There are still places to forage in the city. Many cities have co-op and community gardens. I've traded my strawberries for other things in the garden on many occasions.

As a big picture, I think everyone can live on a budget like Walter has. It just takes planning, time, and dedication.

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