For years, I've been trying to make the statement that you can eat healthy on a limited income. More recently, I've also wanted to make the statement that you can support your local foodshed even if your food budget matches that provided by state assistance - or even is provided by state assistance.
Combine these two issues - eating healthy food, and supporting local farmers - with families on government assistance, and the results can be incendiary. See, for example, the recent rash of articles about hipsters on food stamps. Such statements are generally made about young single adults, who represent a minority of food stamp recipients, but the argument has certainly opened up a debate about what poor people "should" be eating.
Food stamps are government-subsidized, the counter-argument goes, so they shouldn't be used for high-end food products like wild-caught fish or raw artisan cheese; they shouldn't be used for organic food or at farmer's markets, which are the assumed province of the rich. But surplus foods like those cinder blocks of fluorescent orange cheese, remembered fondly(?) by families on WIC, are also subsidized by the government in the form of corporate welfare. Corn syrup, white bread, and other non-nutritive foodstuffs are funded by subsidies while family farmers are ground under the heel of irresponsible corporations.
Under this system, money is funneled between the very companies that are wantonly contaminating our food supply, destroying the land, raising animals inhumanely, and enslaving immigrant workers, while furthering the extinction of the small family farmer. And despite all those cut corners, people still bitch about the high price of food, and consider it a personal offense that they should be asked to pay more, while possibly eating less, to encourage the development of a sustainable food system.
There is so much that goes unspoken or misunderstood in these arguments. For example, a favorable feedback loop occurs when state funds are used to feed people in poverty with food grown by small farmers, who are often quite destitute themselves, within that state. This is one reason why it's so important that farmer's markets open up to the food stamp system, something that's occurring with greater frequency. (At the Salt Lake City farmer's market, I was surprised by the number of farmers who pulled me aside to confess that they, too, used food stamps, and therefore appreciated the opportunity to serve low-income families.)
It seems like families in poverty can't win no matter what they do. On the one hand, they bear the brunt of accusations of bad eating habits while the battle against obesity rages. Low-income people are the target audience for the Dollar Menu, 2-liters of soda for a dollar, five-buck pizza, and other junk foods, and by consuming such foods they are presumed responsible for everything from higher insurance premiums to greater costs on airplane flights.
At the same time, the wealthy claim that poor people don't deserve to eat well, and shouldn't be using government funds to do so. They don't deserve organic food that supports the health of the landbase for future generations. They don't deserve to know their local farmers, or the pleasure and frugality of a home-cooked meal, and vegetables and fresh fruit are a luxury. Instead, they deserve ramen, white bread with surplus hydrogenated peanut butter, and chemical-laden blocks of cheese. That's what they get for being poor - the lazy, entitled bastards that they are - if they should get anything at all.
I am skeptical of the value of buying imported sparkling water in glass bottles with food stamps. But neither do I think that the poor should be expected to subsist on MSG, sugar, and trans fat as unspoken punishment for being poor. Everyone should be able to obtain real food, grown by farmers who can afford to keep their land, produced by workers who are paid a fair wage, distributed by community-centered organizations that provide jobs. Our current food system is entirely dependent on worker oppression, environmental degradation, animal abuse, and corporate conglomeration, and it will collapse if we continue on this path. There can be no doubt.
There can be no doubt, too, that most of the same people making impassioned pleas for improved food production are entirely removed from the circumstances of poverty. If they weren't, they wouldn't claim that it's reasonable to "save money" on grass-fed beef by buying half of a cow, twice a year, at a thousand bucks a pop. They wouldn't refer to a $900/month food budget as "affordable." They would recognize that most people have no corners left to cut, no extraneous expenses to drop, no luxuries to skip, and no money to save. They would come up with real solutions, not fanciful diversions, that could be applied to almost everybody.
We need such solutions, because our food system cannot carry on this way indefinitely. And with the economy such as it is, we're in it for the long haul as far as the deficit in real wages is concerned. We are all of us, wealthy and poor and all the gradients in between, in this together, and I want to be a part, however small, of creating those solutions.
So I've decided to take on the Hunger Challenge as presented by the San Francisco Food Bank.
This year's challenge is already over, but I'm going to try it anyway. I'm going to do it for a month, and maybe beyond, instead of a week. If I believe that a person can subsist on a limited income while eating whole foods and supporting local agriculture - if I believe we must - I need to put my money where my mouth is in a most literal way.
So for the month of October I will try to feed my family with the average food stamp allowance for a family of four in California: $4 per person, per day, for a balance of $480 a month for our family of four*.
Do you think I can do it?
Do you think the effort is worthwhile?
*After further research I decided to decrease our allotment to $3.25 per person, per day, for a balance of $400 a month for our family of four.