My twitter feed exploded this week with links to Salon's article titled Hipsters on Food Stamps. The article is just sexy enough to be the topic that we are all talking about: hip 30-somethings using their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (ATM-like cards that serve as the currency for food assistance programs) to purchase rabbit, organic salmon, mint chutney and soy alternatives. The article quotes several individuals who purchase their food from Whole Foods and organic/healthful grocery chains like Rainbow Grocery. As is usual with such debates, we are inundated with slanted opinions and half-truths.
The outraged complain that these hipsters are "wasting taxpayer money" and subsidizing their lifestyle on the public dime by taking advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. (SNAP is the new term for the old food stamp program.)
Jessica Grose, on Slate's Double X Blog, summarizes the frustration of food choices nicely:
The above discussion comes on the heels of a hateful op-ed this month. In it, author Ruben Navarrette, Jr., a nationally syndicated columnist, railed against a bill in the legislature that would require California farmers markets to accept EBT cards, complaining that increased acceptance of SNAP is bad because it removes the stigma of such assistance, and that "we're compounding that mistake by continually making it easier and more comfortable to become a permanent ward of the state."
"even if these hipsters were using their own money to buy their organic food they'd be slammed. Or if they were buying the stereotypical foods purchased with food stamps—which is to say, heavily processed—they'd be criticized for contributing to the so-called "obesity crisis." Eating is now a major moral issue in America, and whatever choice you make is wrong."
I bring both issues up in the same post, not because the authors had the same intentions with their writing, but because I can easily see SNAP detractors using both flawed articles as an argument against federal food assistance or expanding its reach to farmers markets.
A brief digression: a few years ago, I attended a panel on which the late Diane Goodman spoke. She encouraged the sustainable food advocates among us to choose our words carefully as we fight the battle for good, healthy food, and to question broad strokes arguments, while being wary of parroting arguments that were not rock solid. We've all seen debates go this route, and it's not specific to the sustainable food industry.
So before we all go out slamming the "hipsters who use food stamps" whenever the SNAP program is mentioned, let's remember the real facts about SNAP:
* It is underutilized. Only 2/3 of eligible citizens are taking advantage of the program, which means that approximately 15 million people who could use the program are not. (NYT)
* Despite one-off stories about hipsters using the SNAP program, the big picture is very different. This terrific interactive map at The New York Times gives us a much truer sense of SNAP usage. For instance, there is high usage in the South, and 1 in 4 of the program participants are children.
* Most food advocates are working extremely hard to make sure that those on SNAP are using their benefits for fresh, whole food. Any movement toward that end should be encouraged. The national obesity and diabetes epidemic is making it clear that we need to encourage good, healthy eating however we can.
* Those who complain that artisanal, local foods are a waste of taxpayer money when purchased with SNAP need to remember that food subsidies (paid for through taxpayer money) make cheap food cheap. Worrying about tax dollars that are paying for the influx of high-fructose corn syrup into our families' lives is probably a more suitable use of frustration. Encouraging SNAP users to eat processed foods (e.g., ramen) over whole, organic foods is just moving your tax dollars from paying for the whole foods to paying for the subsidies to big farmers, or paying for the health care costs of unhealthy individuals.
A post on Eater said it well:
"Deride it as welfare if you must, and complain about entitlement, but also remember that people who receive benefits and purchase organic fruits and vegetables are essentially helping subsidize small producers who see little of the money from the massive Farm Bill (which mostly goes to industrial grain, dairy and livestock production)."