The “Food Stamp Diet” has become a popular way to raise awareness of the pitifully low level of support that food stamps provide to put food on the table. The idea is to spend a week buying only as much food as someone would get in food stamps, about $30 for the week. Overall, this strikes me as a good way of raising awareness of hunger in America, and understanding the difficulty of affording nutritious food with such a paltry grocery budget. The problem is when it collides with food snobbery, and separates the Food Stamp Diet participant from the poor people that they are trying to understand.
Chris Larsen’s piece about spending a week on the Food Stamp Diet is a great example of this problem. His attempt to maintain a healthy diet is genuinely interesting, especially as his plans start to break down towards the end of the week. He is very proud of avoiding processed foods, candy, and chips, but ends up settling into a monotonous and mostly flavorless rut of eggs, beans, and pasta.
The problem is that we never actually meet any poor people living this for real. Without meeting those people and hearing how they put food on the table every week, it seems like a bit of a hollow exercise.
We only meet one person in the Larsen piece who might be poor: a young grocery store employee. Here’s that vignette:
One of the major grocery chains did not carry quinoa, and the helpful pubescent manager asked if it were some sort of power drink. I said it was like couscous. A blank stare. He led me to the rice section. And when we could not find any quinoa, he noted that the store stocked a lot of items that others thought would sell — “like this stuff,” he said, pointing to a box of falafel mix. I won’t even try to entertain you with his pronunciation of this “exotic” food.
Maybe that’s just a dumb teenager from a wealthy family making some extra spending money (which would show a laudable work ethic). But this might also be someone working a low wage job to help their family put food on the table. We don’t know. All we know is that he thinks quinoa is Powerade, stares blankly at couscous, and mispronounces falafel. Maybe I’m imagining a dog-whistle where there isn’t one, but I think we’re making fun of the kid.
For some actual insight, we turn to the US Department of Agriculture, which studied how people make ends meet with food stamps by interviewing 90 such families. The study finds that these families want to choose healthy options, but are constrained by a combination of cost and satisfying the tastes of children. That means making sure there is meat in the house, buying non-perishables in bulk, and choosing a variety of juices and sodas. The families interviewed tended to buy fresh fruit, but went for canned or frozen vegetables unless fresh vegetables were on special.
The Food Stamp Diet is a fine exercise to raise awareness of hunger and poverty. But there’s still no better way to understand poverty than talking to an actual poor person.