It can be difficult to write about events like tonight’s screening of Food Stamped at the Pratt’s Central Library Branch. Typically, we write posts about things we like, explain why we like them, and why you, the internet-reading public should check them out for yourself.
The problem is, we don’t like Food Stamped. Which is to say, we don’t dislike it either. We’ve got some very mixed feelings about these sorts of things.
A bit of background: the Food Stamp Challenge is an idea that was conceived by food policy advocates in the mid 2000’s, and has been promoted by food banks and nonprofit organizations ever since. Participants budget the equivalent of a food-assistance program payout (about $31 a week), and attempt to plan and eat meals on that budget for 7 days. The Challenge is mainly aimed at legislators, and first made national headlines when Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm took the challenge while in office. Through the years the idea has also been picked up by reporters, bloggers, students, and a host of others. Celebrity chef Mario Batali recently garnered quite a bit of press when he and his family took the Challenge for a week.
So far so good.
The Food Stamp Challenge ought to be a great way to raise awareness of hunger and provoke thought about our food distribution system. The first problem is this: Awareness, as a concept, is fucking worthless. Is it supposed to come as a surprise that eating on $3 a day sucks? It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t take a genius to know that that’s hard to do. You don’t need to get sick to know that cancer is terrible, and you don’t really need to eat beans for a week to understand that cutting your food budget to nothing will cause you to eat poorly.
We’re all for understanding and compassion, but one major problem with the Food Stamp Challenge is that it’s seldom taken on by those whose minds it can change. It’s wonderful that people like Chris Van Hollen and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz have tried it, but they’re not the plutocrats trying to grind the impoverished under their boot heels. Don’t expect Mitt Romney’s picture perfect family to try this any time soon.
As publicity stunts go, the Challenge is a pretty good one. The problem is that it’s not anything more than a publicity stunt. Eating on a budget might give someone a good idea of what it’s like to eat in poverty, but it can’t give you any idea at all of what it’s like to actually live in poverty.
Take the filmmakers cum subjects of tonight’s film, for example. Here we have a married couple of artist/intellectuals that typify to the point of cartoonishness the Berkeley Nouveau Bourgeoisie. We’re sure they’re good people. Hell, we’d probably get along famously with them and we are glad that they chose this topic for their film and etc etc. But are they heavily degreed swells who enjoy a lot of privilege and keep their lips firmly pressed around the teat of Corporate America? You betcha!
Families like the Potashes and the Batalis have some very specialized skills, connections and resources on which to draw. They want not to eat on a food stamp budget, but to eat well on that budget. The thing is this: Shira and Yoav Potash are a nice young couple very much in love. They look cute feeding each other tomatoes in the shopping cart, don’t they? You could almost picture yourself going over to their house for a pleasant dinner. They’ve done us all a disservice by turning the camera on themselves. If they had really wanted to raise awareness, they’d have let someone who actually cooks on a food stamp budget be the star of their little cooking show.
Stories of the Food Stamp Challenge variety, like this one from Baltimore City Paper, usually follow a predictable path: the subject does quite a bit of hand wringing about giving up organic produce and specialty desserts, gets hungry and frustrated for a few days, begins to take meal planning seriously, and with the help of a farmers’ market or CSA figures out how to make serviceable meals before they finish the week just barely under budget.
Every piece of journalism we’ve ever seen on this topic has mentioned farmers’ markets and/or CSA’s. That’s great if you’re a chef or writer or nutritionist with a lot of trunk space in your car, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that many SNAP recipients live in food deserts. For good food to reach people below the poverty line, it needs to be accessible to them, and that means being available more often than Saturday or Sunday morning and only accessible by bus. People eat chicken boxes because chicken boxes are there when they’re hungry. We must also take into account that not everyone can cook as well as Mario Batali. Cooking well is just one of many life skills that people in poverty often lack.
When Tracie McMillan went on food stamps for real, she may not have had the cash at hand to buy whatever groceries she’d like, but she still had endless advantages over people living in actual poverty.
McMillan is one of an increasing number of (ahem) entitled assholes who don’t land their dream job after college and choose to take food stamps and glorify squalor in the name of personal ideals and professional ambition. In this article from Gourmet last week, she talks freely about how she knew no one was going to pay enough for her book to be published and she went ahead and spent 80 hours a week writing it anyway. We hate to break it to you, Princess Tracie, but there are lots of people who want to be writers. You know what they do? They get a fucking job and work on their books in the evenings. McMillan may just be too good for that though. She knows how badly low wage work sucks, because slumming it as a Wal Mart employee happened to be the topic of her book.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people in this country for whom a job at Wal Mart or Applebees isn’t some see-how-the-other-half-lives fodder for a book deal… it’s something they aspire to. So many SNAP recipients not only lack the skills to write a book or make a film or even cook a healthy meal, they also lack the skills to actually land a job at Wal Mart, assuming one were available. McMillan’s own bio is quite the exercise in white guilt, admitting privilege and then quickly glossing over it to focus on the hardscrabble life of a freelancer with phrases like “cobbled together” and “wrangled a job.”
Unfortunately for all of us, McMillan is hardly alone. A May 2012 NPR feature details a rising number of people with advanced degrees who in general spend the first half of their lives in Academia and then are shocked to find they can’t meet their own earnings expectations. One of the PhD’s interviewed in that piece admitted making up to $32,000 a year and taking food stamps. Fuck him. We live in the real world, and made significantly less than that last year, and are unemployed 6 months a year. Yet we own a home and live comfortably and are not missing any meals. Something that all these commencement speakers who make the rounds at graduation time ought to be hammering home is this: If your degree doesn’t pay, go do something that does.
The other interviewee in that story participated from Baltimore, which lest we forget is becoming something of a mecca for this newer, hipper breed of Welfare Queen. Our city is a virtual perfect storm of systematic poverty, academic entrenchment, low-rent hipster playground and bastion of urbanistic idealism. As someone who grew up working class and remains working class, the idea of taking food stamps to throw a dinner party and using what money you saved to spend on a 12 pack of Boh is revolting and disgusting.
‘Welfare Queen’ is a terrible term. Leaving aside all of its racist implications, (and whoooo-boy! is it EVER racist) it’s a term that’s meant to explicitly shame those most in need. We truly believe that food is a human right, and that one of the most basic and important functions of any government- from a tiny tribal council to our federal bureaucracy is to see that its people do not starve. This requires Policy.
The overwhelming majority of Americans are thoroughly clueless about what Policy is or how it works. That’s understandable, inasmuch as dealing in policy specifics is the stuff of committee hearings and law libraries and is some of the most bone-dry work in Washington. At its very core though, Policy is about our most basic values. Are we going to drug test welfare recipients because we believe using drugs means you deserve to starve, or are we going to stop fingerprinting people on food stamps because we realize that it’s dehumanizing and absurd and that just because someone is hungry doesn’t mean that they should suffer indignity? Can you imagine if our corporate tax policy involved fingerprinting shareholders before dividends could be paid?
People who hold degrees from Hopkins and MICA and other schools are clearly smart enough to understand Policy. They comprehend that who qualifies for food stamps is an income-based formula. Federal policy such as it is is an actuarial numbers game, and doesn’t consider who your parents are or what your degree is or what your prospects are or whether your income translates to actual need. They just understand that federal law entitles them to benefits and that the benefit of their everyone-gets-a-trophy-we’re-not-keeping-score-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up childhoods entitles them to never feel ashamed of taking food stamps.
For those who actually live on food stamps, there is humility. For kids claiming free or reduced school lunches or mothers who have overrun a monthly allotment, they’d prefer to remain unseen. For people like McMillan, who was hipped to food stamps by her bartender, or Batali (though he does a lot of substantial charity work in addition to the challenge), who can literally eat any food he wants in the world in any quantity, there’s a gross narcissistic element of appearing on camera or in print to draw attention to what amounts to little more than America’s latest fad diet.
We’re glad the Potashes made their film, and we’re glad that the Pratt is going to screen it. Whatever you may think of them, or Batali, or anyone else mentioned here, or even of this blog, you should see the film tonight. Whatever you may think, you’re going to be thinking. And after all, that’s the point.
Food Stamped screens at the Enoch Pratt Library’s Central Branch in the Wheeler Auditorium at 6 pm with a discussion to follow. 400 Cathedral Street, Downtown.